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  • Writer's pictureKristyn Burtt

'Mary Poppins Returns' Finds Its Movement Magic Through Storytelling

Updated: Jul 25, 2020

Mary Poppins Returns is one of the most highly anticipated films of 2018 and with this film comes a great responsibility to the 1964 original film starring Julie Andrews. Choreographer and producer John DeLuca felt that pressure from the get-go with director and choreographer Rob Marshall.

There were so many expectations placed on them as creators, but they managed to honor the timeless tradition in the movement created by Dee Dee Wood and Marc Breaux. DeLuca shared with Dance Dish recently that their approach was from a storyteller's point of view — it informed all of their choices as choreographers.

"We didn't want to compare ourselves to Dee Dee and Marc. We wanted to just tell a story. That was the most important thing. All of our choreography comes from the story," DeLuca explained. "As much as we love dance, we didn't want to load it with dance so that we were able to flex our muscles. The songs had to be so integral to the plot. We wanted it to be a seamless thread all the way through."

They had two months of rehearsal to get Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda and the rest of the cast up to speed. Even though Blunt and Miranda have movement training, they aren't classically trained dancers. For DeLuca and Marshall, that wasn't an obstacle.

"Rob and I never hire someone because they are a singer or a dancer. It's the essence of a character that is most important to us in every endeavor. Emily and Lin were perfect for the parts," he shared. "They were exactly what we wanted and so physically, we work from them and what they can do and then, we challenge them. They are not dancers, per se, so that's why the two months of rehearsal were so helpful because we taught it to them and our choreographic team drilled it into them while we were filming. They were 100% ready when Rob called, 'Action!' "

The most demanding number in the film is "Trip the Light Fantastic," which is an epic and challenging piece to stage. It involved not only dancers but athletes, who took the movement to an even greater level. Blunt and Miranda stepped up to the demands that were asked of them.

"The first thing I think about is their line. They understood it. They would just pop into these positions and I would think, whoa! I was really blown away by Lin and Emily," DeLuca said. "We had 22 dancers, 13 bikers and six Parkour athletes in 'Trip the Light Fantastic,' you expect to be thrilled by their technique and line – but Lin and Emily, somewhere, they connected to those lines, too. That was the most exciting thing."

The other special moment is a cameo by Dick Van Dyke, who played Bert in the 1964 film. His cameo has a special dance moment that will not only hit audiences with a bit of nostalgia, but will also elicit a few tears because the scene is so joyful.

"With Dick, he has that soul of a child that lives within him and he's game for anything. Rob and I had this idea of him going up to the desk, but we knew he wasn't getting any younger, so we had three alternate plans," he revealed. "He lit up when we told him to go up to the table. We never used the other options in our arsenal. We even had Lin and Emily on either side of the desk to hold onto him so he would feel supported. He just bounded up to the top — it was just thrilling. He's a delight."

Mary Poppins Returns is a special experience for movie audiences, but DeLuca wasn't sure they had something so wonderful while they were filming the movie. It was a challenging set from start to finish.

"Every day was so difficult. We were so concentrated on our schedule because the children's working hours in London are hard. We had Joel Dawson, who played Georgie, for only three hours a day. It was such a daunting project, too. We all love and revere the 1964 film so much. We wanted to honor it, but we also wanted to make a little footprint forward to give a reason to bring Mary Poppins back."

DeLuca finally saw that Mary Poppins' magic in post-production. It was a moment he will never forget.

"I finally started to have a feeling in our editing room. I would just start weeping and I've never had that happen before. I cried every time we worked on it. It just got me and I started to think, we might have something here. We just wanted to make the first one proud."


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