March 18, 2019

Marc Shaiman on the Verge of EGOT Thanks to ‘Mary Poppins Returns’

Marc Shaiman; Photo courtesy of Costa Communications.

Composer Marc Shaiman has Tony and Grammy awards for the Broadway musical “Hairspray” and its cast album. He earned an Emmy for his contribution to the 1992 Academy Awards show, but his five Oscar nominations have produced no wins. This year, he’ll have two chances to rectify that, as well as achieve the rare and coveted EGOT — Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony — status. Shaiman is a double nominee, for the original score of “Mary Poppins Returns” and its song “The Place Where Lost Things Go.”

When he heard his name announced among the nominees on Jan. 22, “the emotion was relief,” Shaiman told the Journal. “I was so honored and it was such a dream come true to get to work on this movie. The idea that it could lead me to an Oscar win after all these years of losses almost seems meant to be because it’s the most important [nomination] of all.” 

Two days later, reports surfaced that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had selected only two songs — “Shallow” from “A Star Is Born” and Kendrick Lamar and SZA’s “All the Stars” from “Black Panther” — to be performed on the Oscars telecast, to reduce its running time. Shaiman likened that to saying, “The nominees for best actress are Lady Gaga, Glenn Close and some other people. Tune in after the show to see who they are. It’s meshugge.” 

Ultimately, negative response and protest from Lady Gaga in solidarity with her fellow nominees resulted in a reversal of the decision, and all five songs will be performed.

Shaiman confided he’d had “some bad days” fretting about the proposed exclusion, but nothing could take away from his enthusiasm for “Mary Poppins Returns.” 

As an ardent fan of the 1964 original “Mary Poppins” movie musical, Shaiman said he would have been “miserable” if director Rob Marshall hadn’t asked him to write the music. “I don’t know how I could have lived in a world where [the film] existed and I hadn’t gotten to work on it,” he said. “I would have had to move to a desert island.”

But following up the Sherman brothers’ iconic “Mary Poppins” score was a daunting prospect. “Nothing ever will compare to their song score for that movie,” Shaiman said. “It’s lightning in a bottle. But I think we made a nice light of our own. Instead of being daunted, we decided to just write a love letter, a thank you note to them. We were lucky enough to get to sit a few times with Richard Sherman, and I got to ask him every question I ever dreamed of asking. He said that he loves what we’ve done. To hear that from him was the ultimate award.”

A scene from “Mary Poppins Returns.” Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

Shaiman said working with stars Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, along with director Marshall and the orchestra, was “a total joy.” Together with “Hairspray,” Shaiman said it tops the list of his proudest accomplishments of a 43-year career that has included scores for more than 50 movies and nearly as many TV shows, including musical arrangements for “Saturday Night Live,” Billy Crystal and Bette Midler.

“It was such a dream come true to get to work on [‘Mary Poppins Returns’]. The idea that it could lead me to an 

Oscar win after all these years of losses almost seems meant to be because it’s the most important [nomination] of all.” 

— Marc Shaiman

Shaiman’s musical ability emerged when he was in first grade, when he heard his older sister playing piano and then duplicated the piece by ear. He left school at 15 and was playing at a piano bar when the comedy revue rehearsing next door hired him to replace their pianist. The director was Scott Wittman, and they’ve been collaborating ever since, sharing songwriting credits on “Mary Poppins Returns.”

“It’s been quite a career,” Shaiman said. “I was sort of a child prodigy of show business. Falling into movie scoring was the perfect job for me, as was writing Broadway musicals. That’s what I really love to do, so I’m blessed to do it all.”

Shaiman, who grew up in Scotch Plains, N.J., describes himself as a “cultural Jew. I have all the traits of my faith, Lord knows. I’m a textbook example of the clichés of a Jewish person. Neurosis and guilt.” And although he has not been to synagogue much since becoming a bar mitzvah, he finds Jewish traditions beautiful.

“Friends invite me to seders now and then, but I’m not really practicing. I try to live by the golden rule, and to me, it’s good enough to do that,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that I don’t weep copiously when I see ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and make that connection to what I come from and who I am. It’s strong. It’s in the blood and it’s in the soul.”

Shaiman currently is writing a musical version of the film “Some Like It Hot” with Wittman, but he has considered the possibility of retirement. “I’d do jigsaw puzzles, play with my dog, get another dog, maybe teach,” he said. A trip to Israel, which he has never visited, is also on his to-do list.

“The absolute truth is after ‘Mary Poppins Returns,’ I feel like I don’t know that I could ever work on another movie that would be as meaningful to me or that would suit my specific style of music and writing and songwriting,” Shaiman said. “Nothing could ever compare to this opportunity. We wrote this movie and created it for the ultimate ‘Mary Poppins’ fans. It touches something in all of us. I am just so proud of it.”