Classical Spotlight
5:56 pm
Thu September 22, 2011

A Jolly Holiday with Disney Songwriter Richard Sherman

An interview with Disney songwriter Richard Sherman.
"Mary Poppins" songwriter Richard Sherman (above right) with new "Poppins" songwriters Anthony Drewe and George Stiles (seated).
In the late 1930s, still fresh off the success of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” Walt Disney came across a story by the English writer P.L. Travers about a magical nanny that visits the Banks family — young Jane, Michael, and baby twins John and Barbara. Disney became fascinated with the stories, and felt they’d make an ideal setting for a motion picture. He pursued Travers for some 20 years until she finally relented and allowed Disney to adapt her books.

 Travers, however, was decidedly anti-showbiz, according to songwriter and composer Richard Sherman. “If you read the books that Ms. Travers wrote, you’d find a brilliant character and a lot of wonderful adventures… but they didn’t have any way to hold an audience in their seats for two and a half hours,” he remembers.

 Sherman and his brother Robert were hired by Disney to write songs for "Mary Poppins." Those songs wound up shaping the story, about how Mary Poppins teaches life lessons to the Banks family, who are in a generally discordant state. In a famous scene near the beginning of the film, Mr. Banks is so distracted he doesn’t even realize his children have gone missing.

 The most important song of the film, to both the Shermans and to Walt Disney himself, was “Feed the Birds.” In the original Travers story, there wasn’t much said about the bird woman who sits at the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, but according to Sherman, “It doesn’t cost very much to buy bread crumbs to feed birds, but that’s not what [the song] is about,” he says. The message is that “it doesn’t take much to give love, to give kindness.” Mr. Banks learns to see his two little treasures, Jane and Michael, in a new light, and the film ends with Mary Poppins leaving the Banks a happy family unit.

 Sherman and his brother Robert each won two Oscars for their work on “Mary Poppins,” for Best Original Song (“Chim Chim Cher-ee”) and Best Original Score.

 Their work found new life in 2004 when “Mary Poppins” premiered in London’s West End to rave reviews. Written by Julian Fellowes, and supplemented with additional songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, Sherman says the stage play “goes a lot deeper” into the characters than the film, revealing the reason why Mr. Banks is so uptight (he had a nasty nanny as a child), and broadening the role of Mrs. Banks. There are some new adventures with Mary Poppins, but basically, “the backbone of the story is still the same,” and the classic songs you remember from the film are included in the stage musical. The production arrives at the Majestic Theatre on September 29, and runs through October 9.

 WORKING FOR DISNEY

 Shortly after presenting their “Mary Poppins” song proposals to Walt Disney in the early 1960s, Richard and Robert Sherman were hired as staff writers at Disney. There, they wrote over 150 songs for Disney films, TV programs, and theme parks. Richard Sherman says they were often working on five or six projects at the same time.

 If a song didn’t work for one movie, it might make it into another, with modifications. Such was the case for “The Land of Sand,” a song with a hypnotic, slippery melody that was originally written for “Mary Poppins.” When the sequence it was written for was shelved, the Shermans filed the song away, resurrecting it for “The Jungle Book” as “Trust In Me,” sung by Sterling Holloway as the vicious snake, Kaa.

 As indelibly linked as Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, Sterling Holloway, or Angela Lansbury are to these songs, Sherman says he and his brother hardly ever wrote for an actor or voice. It was all about character and story, according to Sherman. That method even helped the brothers when they were asked to write a song for a theme park attraction featuring talking birds and Polynesian masks. Walt brought the Shermans down to see a mock up of the attraction, and Richard Sherman says the first thing out of their mouths after the demonstration was “Walt, what the hell is this?” Disney’s reply was, “You’re gonna write a song that’s going to explain it!” The result was “The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room,” the first song specifically written for a theme park.

 Surprisingly, Richard and his brother Robert were not close outside of work. “Bob and I never had any angry animosity,” he explains. “It’s just that we went our separate ways for lots of personal reasons. But [the work] was sacrosanct….our dad put us together, and said, ‘together, you’ll be strong.’”

 Today, Richard Sherman still writes songs for the movies. He even wrote a kind of winking self-parody of a Sherman Brothers song for the film “Iron Man 2” called “Make Way for Tomorrow, Today.” He also performs Disney classics for fundraisers and other special events, and a compact disc of his solo piano compositions, “Forgotten Dreams,” was released in 2010. A compilation of the Sherman brothers' best work for Disney, "The Sherman Brothers Songbook," is also available on CD. Though he’s happy now, Richard Sherman says he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of another Disney collaboration with his brother Robert, “if it came up.” Let’s see, there’s got to be some word to describe how special that would be…. a big word, if only I could think of it….. oh, it’ll come to me. 

 Performance Information:Mary Poppins the MusicalSeptember 29-October 9Venue: Majestic Theatre, 224 E. Houston St., San Antonio, TX Phone: (210) 226-3333Tickets: $28 and up

Mary Poppins on Broadway: "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious"

Richard and Robert Sherman wrote over 150 songs for Disney films, TV programs, and theme parks, as well as music for non-Disney projects, such as "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." Below is a sample of some of their work.

Johnny Burnette -- "You're Sixteen"

"It's a Small World"