The London Sky. Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. Topsy’s Turning Townhouse. Cherry Tree Lane.
There was no shortage of iconic locales to depict in the original movie musical Mary Poppins Returns.
Production designer John Myhre created the visual worlds for Rob Marshall’s first foray into movie musical, the Academy Award-winning Best Picture Chicago. (It also marked Myhre’s first Oscar for his art direction.) The duo reunited for Nine, starring Antonio Banderas and again for the non-musical film adaptation of the hit novel Memoirs of a Geisha—which earned Myhre a second Oscar.
The visual mastermind linked up with Marshall again for their biggest undertaking yet with Mary Poppins. “Musicals are the most exciting to work on,” says Myhre. “It’s pure creativity [and Rob] is a director that really understands how design can move the story forward.” Indeed, the visionary hauled Disney animators out of retirement just to make the 2D animation sequences work just as magically as they did in the 1964 original. But outside of the animated world, Marshall needed to create the London of The Great Slump as well as the whimsy of Mary Poppins. Myhre delivered in spades.
Combining sets of entire city blocks built from scratch and on-location shoots at Buckingham Palace and more, Mhyre transformed present-day London to that of the 1930s.
Just as a scenic designer in theatre creates the physical world for the story, so too does a production designer on a film set—on a magnified scale. that includes “the architecture, the props, the scale, and color,” Myhre explains. He shares his sketches—exclusively with Playbill—and the secrets behind five iconic sets in Mary Poppins Returns. Off we go!
1. The Streets of London
“The opening of the film introduces Jack, played by Lin-Manuel Miranda, extinguishing a gas lamp on the River Thames Embankment. Morning is breaking and Big Ben just appears out of the fog. We created 100 feet of the stone embankment including three gas lamps. We built it in a stage so we could control the fog, lighting, and the reveal of Big Ben, and then the river, Big Ben, and Parliament were created through visual effects.
“We wanted our 1930s London to feel real and gritty, to visually represent the hard times. The city was going through during their financial ‘Slump.’ It was decided early on to embrace the city of London and to shoot on some of its real streets. This created several challenges: The first was to turn London of 2016 into our London of 1934. We spent months working with city officials creating plans to shut down intersections, businesses and re-route traffic. Contemporary traffic lights had to be removed, modern road marking covered, present day store fronts where returned to their 1930s simplicity. Set pieces where built into and onto existing architecture to tailor them to our story. Period vehicles added the finishing touch.
“The next challenge was matching our set builds in the studio to the real locations. Streets we built on stage had to match exactly the worn patched cobble stone streets of London. The curbs had to be broken, our created buildings needed to have the correct weight and history to seamlessly match into real London. The opening number is a love letter to London. We cut back and forth from studio sets—some extended through visual effects—to real London Landmarks like Tower Bridge and St. Paul.”
2. Cherry Tree Lane — At the Start
“In our version of Cherry Tree Lane, we wanted the houses to feel more humble and real. We brought down the scale of the buildings and left some of the brick exposed. We loved the musicality of the curved serpentine street and being across from the park remained an important visual. The street was created in the largest stage at Shepperton Studios in London. We built five houses including Admiral Boom's and the Banks’ house at 17 Cherry Tree Lane. We created the cobble stone road and the park entrance and fence across the street. We started in the sparse winter look and then had two weeks to transform the set into spring. ”
3. Cherry Tree Lane — Spring Has Sprung
“Over 900,000 cherry blossoms where individually attached to to our trees. The 30-foot tall cherry trees are made of real cherry tree branches and sculpted trunks of metal, wood and plaster. And the city beyond was created through visual effects.”
4. Trip a Little Light Fantastic
“For the Trip A Little Light Fantastic sequence, we needed a secret place that the lamplighters could inhabit. Many London-y ideas came up like an abandoned tube station. We landed on the idea of an abandoned park because of its magical quality and versatility for the choreography.
“The dance is performed by the lamplighting leeries, so Rob wanted to incorporate their world of bicycles, ladders, lamp lighting sticks and lamp posts into the number. A long rehearsal period led to the exact placement and creation of over 40 lamp posts. These working gas lamp posts were designed for the specific needs of the sequence. The heights, levels of platforms, and even revolving rings on each post was tailored to the performers. The broken glass greenhouse that anchors the set was inspired by Kew Gardens—very London.”
5. The Finale Fair
“The Spring Fair for the finale is the merging of our two design worlds: the real world of London and Mary Poppins’ magical Nowhere To Go But Up world. The explosion of lovely pink and white cherry blossoms carries through into the design of the fair. We even painted the Ferris wheel pink!”