Richard Sherman, Master Composer
Walt Disney Studios has recently released the new 40th Anniversary 2-disc DVD of Mary Poppins, one of the best children’s movies ever. Many great talents were involved in creation of the film, but most likely it would never have been made so splendidly without the involvement of brothers Richard and Robert Sherman, both of whom are musical composers. Richard Sherman is so excited about the new DVD that he recently agreed to an interview about the Mary Poppins movie, the new DVD and his art.
Sherman was born in 1928 in New York City to Rosa and Al Sherman. For years the family made frequent cross-country moves, then finally settling in Beverly Hills, California in 1937. Young Richard attended Beverly Hills High School and Bard College in upstate New York where he studied several instruments including the flute, piccolo and piano and majored in music.
The Sherman brothers were drawn to follow in their songwriting father's footsteps. Within two years of graduating, Richard and brother Robert began writing songs together. In 1958 they enjoyed their first hit with their song, "Tall Paul,” sung by Mouseketeer, Annette Funicello. The success of this song earned the attention of Walt Disney who eventually hired the brothers as staff songwriters for Walt Disney Studios.
While at Disney, the Sherman Brothers wrote what is perhaps their most well loved song: “It's A Small World (After All)” for the New York World's Fair in 1964. Since then, "Small World" has become the most translated and performed song on earth.
Richard and Robert won two Academy Awards in 1965 for Mary Poppins, which included the songs “Feed The Birds,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and the Oscar winner, “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” The brothers have subsequently earned nine Academy Award nominations, two Grammy Awards, four Grammy Award nominations and have 23 gold and platinum albums.
In 1973, the Shermans made history by becoming the only Americans ever to win First Prize at the Moscow Film Festival for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (for which they also authored the screenplay). They received their star on the Hollywood "Walk of Fame" in 1976. Their Tony nominated smash hit, Over Here! (1974) was the biggest grossing original Broadway musical of that year.
I asked Richard what happened after Walt Disney gave him and his brother the book “The Stories of Mary Poppins” by Pamela Travers.
“We poured ourselves into this book and found there were wonderful, delightful characters and incidents without a story,” said Sherman. “So we created a story with six of the chapters and put it back in time to 1910. “It was written in the 30s, which was a dull period, and we did have a musical and jaunty style of English musicals.”
What did that collaboration bring about? “Walt put us under contract immediately and put us together with the best people on his lot, and some wonderful choreographers. I mean it was his team. And he was just dreaming to do a great movie. And I think what I remember most is the smile on his face on the opening night -- so infectious and wonderful. I'd never seen him so happy because he knew he had done it. He sort of climbed at the top of his Everest.
Discussing the song “Feed the Birds,” Sherman said, “It was certainly Walt Disney’s favorite song. It just came fast. It was one of these inspirations that we just knew, ‘Hey, this is the story. This is what it’s all about.’ It doesn’t take much to do the kind loving thing, to be giving, and the father and mother learned that lesson from Mary Poppins.”
Did Sherman ever imagine when he was sitting down to do this with his brother 40 years ago that it would still have this kind of resonance 40 years later?
“You can’t imagine things like that. We were so busy as staff writers of the studio. We wrote so many things, and this was always on the back burner. Two and half years we were slaving away at this quietly before anybody even knew that we were going to do a picture called Mary Poppins.”
How hard is it to write a song? “Let’s put it this way -- we worked very hard, Bob and I, to try and come up with the right idea. And once we have the idea, it sort of the spark of the fire that starts the whole flame going. It’s a labor of love. It’s hard work, but still it’s like giving birth, it’s a very extremely painful thing but you forget the pain once the baby is there.”
Today’s films use synthesizers a lot, so I inquired what Sherman misses from the old days in making music in films. He replied, “I miss the grand scale, Irwin Kostal, real orchestras. In those days it didn’t cost so much to have the full orchestra and the real richness of what it sounds like. When you hear the soundtracks, they're timeless because they're full. I think synthesizers are all right on certain kinds of film, but it isn’t the real McCoy and you sense it. When you're going to do big glorious musicals, you don’t want to cheat the people. I do miss the great grand orchestra. And there were wonderful orchestrators and arrangers that worked, and I was blessed with a genius like Irwin Kostal who made the music sound so rich and full and he weaved and painted with his orchestra. He was wonderful.”
Sherman played the Kazoo in that great Mary Poppins penguin scene. While working with a blue screen, did he ever imagine the end result would look so grand?
“It’s amazing. The sodium vapor process was created by Obb Iwers, a brilliant animator who became a scientific whiz with cinematography and everything. It was a remarkable thing the first time they ever did that in its full glory. I remember Dick and I particularly were completely overwhelmed when we saw the final version of the supercalifragilistic and him conducting the band, which were all animals. Dick just was blown away. To this day, he still talks about how he felt when he first saw that, he couldn’t believe it.”
Walt Disney said in a commentary on the DVD, “We don’t make movies for children. We make films they can watch along with their parents.” Did he tell the Sherman brothers how he wanted the songs written or what to include or not to include?
“He never said anything like that to us. But we were on the same wavelength as Walt. I think that’s the reason why we succeeded with him. We never wrote down to kids. We never wrote kiddy songs. We tried to write intelligent stuff that the kids would understand on one level and the parents might get on several levels. So that if we said, ‘a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,’ we were not talking about medicine and spoonful of sugar. We were talking about having the right kind of an attitude that makes the tough job easy.”
“As far as the steering of the material, yes, we wrote lots for many of the stories that we were exploring and Walt would say, ‘We don’t need this.’ He would never come out and say, ‘Hey, that’s wonderful.’ But he’d say, ‘Yeah, this one will work.’ And that to anybody else is, ‘Hey, you did a great job here.’ Many times he’d say, ‘That’s not quite the way I feel about this thing because,’ and he’d give a reason and then we revise something and change it. He was very sure of what he felt would work, and he was the boss and the hands-on producer in every area not just in our songwriting. He was a master at story shaping and a brilliant conceiver of situations. I mean he was just fantastic that way.”
Julie Andrews is partially responsible for making this film work. How did she feel about the songs?
“She loved them all, she loved supercalifragilistic, and she loved the vaudeville stuff. As a little girl she was in vaudeville. Long before she was a star of musical comedy she was a vaudevillian with her family. I think that’s one of the things that sold her on doing the show is the fact that we had (Razzmatazz Rudy Tudy) quality in our score.”
Looking at today’s performers, is there anyone that could be Mary Poppins if it was casting today; or someone who could play the Dick Van Dyke role?
“I’ll tell you the truth, and I'm not saying this as a commercial plug. There are two people in London right now who are just about to open in the Mary Poppins play. Laura Michelle Kelly, who plays Mary Poppins, and a Gavin Lee, who plays Bert, are absolutely incredible, they're so good. The producers are Walt Disney’s -- Cameron Mackintosh and Tom Schumacher, and these two producers have put together the most incredible show, and it’s all based largely on the form that we did for Poppins in the film and a lot of beautiful new material and a new book, and it’s all quite wonderful.
“To think of a man with the ability to dance the way Dick did and act and perform and do all that material that he did, it’s very hard to find people like that. But Gavin Lee is incredible. And Laura Michelle Kelly, well, she has the voice of an angel and exactly the right attitude. She’s crisp and a no-nonsense person with a heart of gold.
“But working with Dick was great. We did two pictures together -- Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and both of them became major successes. I think we were very blessed to have a Dick Van Dyke in these films. Also, Julie, the same thing. She’s just a nice person and a regular gal. She’s kind, thoughtful, talented beyond words, very brave, you know, she had a lot of unhappiness with a bad operation, but she just carries on, she keeps her acting going and everything. She has one of the most glorious voices that ever opened up to sing.”
How many children and grandchildren do the Sherman brothers have -- and did they influence their perceptions on what to do with music?
“I have three children and five grandchildren and they're wonderful. They didn’t necessarily influence my writing because my writing came out of my life and my thinking. My brother has his thinking and his life, and he has a single grandchild. But basically, you're an island by yourself. I didn’t write thinking about my children. I was actually thinking how I wanted to tell this story. And I would transform my brain into the character that I'm writing for or the situation.
“Each writer is different. I didn’t observe anybody. I remembered when I was a little boy, my father used to make kites for us and we would go out and fly his kite. It was a real togetherness. Now we were writing Poppins. And at the end we wanted to have a finale, something wonderful that could overshadow for that little boy and that little girl everything that Mary Poppins ended up doing with them. If their father flew a kite with them, then that would be a great moment. And so, it came out of our gut, it came out of our life, and it didn’t come out of anybody else’s, it was ours. Mrs. Travers didn’t do it, we did it.”
Every now and then Sherman steps out of retirement to create more memorable music. In 2003 he penned the song "Winnie the Pooh" in the movie Piglet’s Big Movie. Fans of his music will find hours of audio commentary by Richard and Robert Sherman on the 40th Anniversary 2-disc DVD of Mary Poppins.
Click on the link below to read a full review of the DVD with comments from Richard Sherman: /od/dvdreviews/a/poppins122604.htm