If Marc Shaiman wins an Oscar on February 24, the long-time composer and lyricist will enter that rarefied ranks of showbiz status: He’ll have an EGOT. But he’s trying not to think about that part. “Oh, my God, the whole EGOT thing, I can’t even go there,” Shaiman said with a laugh during a recent interview.
With his sixth and seventh Oscar nominations under his belt for his work on Rob Marshall’s “Mary Poppins Returns” — a Best Song nomination for “The Place Where Lost Things Go,” shared with his long-time creative partner Scott Wittman, plus a solo nomination for Best Score — Shaiman could finally seal the deal. In 2003, he won both his first Grammy and first Tony for his and Wittman’s “Hairspray,” and he’s since been nominated again by both awards shows for other projects.
Shaiman’s path to EGOT glory started somewhat inauspiciously, thanks to a 1992 Emmy win for co-writing that year’s Academy Awards ceremony. He didn’t even think to attend the Emmys that year.
“I thought, ‘Well, we’re never going to win an award for writing an award show,'” he said. “Cut to, we win and I’m not there. I couldn’t believe it.” (He’s been nominated 11 times since then, and yes, he has attended.) Over the years, he’s adjusted to the experience of getting nominated and not making it to the stage. “I’ve sat through many, many a loss,” he said. “Grammys, Emmys, other Tonys, five Oscar losses. I certainly know what that feels like. And we’ll see what happens this time, but whatever happens, it’s been an absolutely glorious experience.”
Shaiman’s adoration of “Mary Poppins” and its music dates back to some of his earliest childhood memories. “I was four years old when that movie came out, so I had my little record player and I would play that record and listen endlessly,” he said. “That movie just is so part of my DNA. I was also not just loving it as a moviegoer, but as a songwriter, and as just as much as an orchestrator and arranger.”
The “Mary Poppins Returns” gig came with menacing expectations: How do you live up to something that you — and millions of other people — adore? “The pressure of knowing of who we will be compared to, what would we be compared to, was beyond belief,” Shaiman said. “I mean, how can you be compared to the incomparable? But our love for it overrode the fear, and the fact that we could basically write a thank you note and a love letter to the Sherman brothers and [music supervisor] Irwin Kostal and everyone else who made that first movie, that became the fire underneath us. It was a much easier way to set sail out on the sea of writing the songs and then scoring the movie.”
Shaiman cited “Can You Imagine That?,” a bouncy ditty in which Emily Blunt’s Poppins pokes fun at people who don’t believe in magic and imagination (all tongue-in-cheek, of course), as a major creative breakthrough. He and Wittman had been struggling to craft what would serve as Mary Poppins’ first on-screen song in over 50 years. “I’m sitting right at the piano where that happened,” he said, tinkling out a few bars on his home office piano, which sounded just as jaunty and upbeat over a phone connection as they do in the film.
The pair decided to also convert the song into score and perform it for Marshall, all the better to show off what they saw as the entry point into what they were trying to make. “It took on this melancholy grandeur that seemed apt for the movie we were making,” Shaiman said.
Despite the ambition of his last project, Shaiman has plenty of experience in the studio realm. Following his early start on “Saturday Night Live” (where he played the Sweeney Sisters’ silent pianist), Shaiman has scored a number of huge Hollywood movies. Not all of them were musicals: His diverse credits include “Misery,” “City Slickers,” “Down With Love,” and a slew of Rob Reiner features. Despite that resume, however, he characterized “Mary Poppins Returns” as a major career highlight.
“This is the kind of score I’ve wanted to write my whole life,” he said, noting that the recording took place at Abbey Road. “My brain truly exploded when I was recording the overture from ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ in the same studios where the Beatles recorded,” he said. “They brought me around on lunch hour and I played all the pianos, the letter B piano, the Lady Madonna, so there are bits and pieces of my brain still on all the walls at Abbey Road from that day. It just brought me such incredible joy.”
He is especially proud of the audience response to his Oscar-nominated song “The Place Where Lost Things Go,” a gentle melody about grief that he thinks speaks to the heart of the film. It’s the one he’s heard about the most, even on social media, which he tries to avoid.
“It has really touched people, giving them a way to focus on their own feelings of loss and grief,” he said. “You cannot imagine a more wonderful reaction and more of a reward than to read the things that we’ve been sent from total strangers from around the world. And so I have to actually thank social media for that phenomenon.”
The awards attention hasn’t hurt either: Shaiman’s two Oscar nods are joined by nominations from the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs, and a slew of other voting bodies. It’s a striking contrast to some of the other projects in his recent output. “I’ve been rather visible the last 20 years, but not working on movies that were of ‘Oscar caliber,'” Shaiman said. “To get nominated for Academy Awards for something that already is so meaningful and it is already such a great reward, just watching the movie and hearing it and watching the reaction of people, I just can’t believe it.”
“Mary Poppins Returns” is in theaters now.