Thursday, June 13, 2024

‘Mary Poppins’ Songwriter Dies at 95

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Richard M. Sherman, the Oscar-winning songwriter who partnered with his late brother to craft tunes for such Disney classics as Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Jungle Book, died Saturday (May 25) at 95.

Sherman, who also co-wrote “It’s a Small World (After All)” — considered to be among the most performed songs ever — as well as “You’re Sixteen,” a 1960 hit for Johnny Burnette which Ringo Starr took to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1974, died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of age-related illness, Disney announced.

Members of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and recipients of the National Medal of Honor, Richard and his older brother, Robert Sherman, wrote an estimated 1,000 songs and music for 50 movies, and they were reportedly responsible for more movie musical songs than anyone in history.

For their work on Mary Poppins (1964), the Sherman brothers made two victorious trips to the Academy Awards stage at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, accepting the trophies for best original score and best song (“Chim Chim Cher-ee”).

The pair, who were hired by Walt Disney himself and worked directly with the Hollywood legend for almost a decade, also were nominated for the songs “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” from the 1968 United Artists film; “The Age of Not Believing” from Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971); “The Slipper and the Rose Waltz (He Danced With Me/She Danced With Me)” from The Slipper and the Rose: The Story of Cinderella (1976) and “When You’re Loved” from The Magic of Lassie (1978). They received three other nominations for their scores.

Their movie work also included The Parent Trap (1961) — which featured “Let’s Get Together,” their inventive “duet” performed by Hayley Mills — The Sword in the Stone (1963), Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree (1966), The AristoCats (1970), Snoopy, Come Home (1972), Charlotte’s Web (1973), Tom Sawyer (1973) and The Tigger Movie (2000).

In 1961, Richard and Robert separately watched British actress Julie Andrews perform two songs from her Broadway musical Camelot on The Ed Sullivan Show and knew immediately she would be ideal for the lead in Mary Poppins. In a savvy move, they had Disney’s secretary purchase tickets to Camelot for the studio head and his wife, and he saw the same thing in Andrews that they did.

Mary Poppins may have been inspired by the characters in the books written by P.L. Travers, but it was the brothers and their songs — also including the 34-letter-long “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Sister Suffragette” and the lullaby “Feed the Birds,” which was Walt’s favorite song — that shaped the film’s narrative.

“You don’t get songs like ‘Spoonful of Sugar’ without a genuine love of life, which Richard passed on to everyone lucky enough to be around him,” director and Pixar chief creative officer Pete Docter said in a statement. “Even in his 90s, he had more energy and enthusiasm than anyone, and I always left renewed by Richard’s infectious joy for life.”

In a 2011 interview with THR’s Scott Feinberg, Richard described how “the boys” — that’s what Disney affectionately called them — came to work on Mary Poppins.

“One day, he had just accepted one of our songs — I think for a Zorro episode or something — and he said, ‘You know what a nanny is?’ And we said, ‘Yeah, it’s a goat.’ We thought he was going to do a picture about a nanny goat that sang or something. So he says, ‘No, no, no, in an English nursery!’ ‘Oh, yeah, sure, in an English nursery there’s a nanny, that’s right.’

“So he says, ‘Well, I have a book. I want you to read this and tell me what you think.’ He did not say, ‘I have this book, I want you to write me a title song for it,’ or, ‘I have a situation I want you to write for this character to sing.’ He just said, ‘Read the book and tell me what you think.’ ”

In other words, Disney was searching for a plot.

In a 2013 interview, Richard described the brothers’ first meeting with Travers. “Her opening line to us was, ‘I don’t even know why I’m meeting you gentlemen, because in fact we’re not going to have music in this film and, in fact, we’re not going to have any prancing and dancing.’ We were completely dashed.”

Of course, Walt and the boys would change her mind, and in a memorable backstage photo taken at the 1965 Oscars, the trophy-bearing brothers are seen planting a kiss on the cheeks of Andrews, who is holding her own statuette, for best actress.

Disney also asked the Shermans to come up with a catchy, overarching tune for his “UNICEF Salutes the Children of the World” walk-through attraction at the 1964 World’s Fair. Before the brothers got involved, it featured the unpleasant cacophony of various national anthems sung by audio-animatronic dolls.

“But Walt, are we stuck with this title, ‘Salute the Children of the World?’ ‘UNICEF?’ It’s a mouthful,” Richard told Feinberg. “He said, ‘Yeah. Well, it’s the small children of the world who are the hope of the future — that’s what we’re trying to say.’ He kept saying, ‘Small children are the hope of the world,’ and we said, ‘Yeah, small … world. That’s it! And let’s not blow each other up!’

“Now, how do we say that? Let’s, after all, use our heads. ‘After all … small … after all.’ That rhymes. ‘Small world, after all.’ And that was the way we came up with the expression.”

Disney loved their take so much, he named the attraction after it, and “It’s a Small World After All” now plays at theme parks all around the world, thousands of times a day. Richard described the song as a “prayer for peace” and said it’s the one tune by the brothers that makes people want to “either kiss or kill them.”

Despite their overwhelming success, the siblings did not always get along, as was documented in The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story (2009), produced and directed by their sons Gregory V. Sherman and Jeffrey C. Sherman.

“Bob was into his orbit; I was into mine,” Richard said. “I wouldn’t say it was anything but that his interests were different. I’ve always been kind of an extrovert; he’s always been an introvert. … Basically, one of the chemical things that worked with us was the fact that we both had a stereopticon look at things, so we could blend our thinking together, and success came that way.”

Robert died in March 2012 at age 86. B.J. Novak played him, and Jason Schwartzman portrayed Richard, in the Disney film Saving Mr. Banks (2013), about the making of Mary Poppins.

Richard Sherman was born in Manhattan on June 12, 1928, 30 months after his brother. Their mother was a Broadway actress and their father was Tin Pan Alley composer Al Sherman, whose song “Potatoes Are Cheaper, Tomatoes Are Cheaper, Now’s the Time to Fall in Love” was a favorite of Eddie Cantor’s. His tunes also were recorded by the likes of Maurice Chevalier, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee and Cyndi Lauper.

The family moved west in the mid-1930s, and Richard attended Beverly Hills High School. He and his brother attended Bard College in New York (his major was music, while Roberts’ was English literature and painting), and Richard wrote what is now the school’s official song.

Challenged by their father — “You guys, I bet you couldn’t even write a song that some kid would give up his lunch money to buy on a record!” — the boys began writing, and their first song, “Gold Can Buy You Anything But Love,” was recorded in 1951 by the singing cowboy Gene Autry.

In 1958, they celebrated their first top 10 hit with “Tall Paul,” covered by Mouseketeer Annette Funicello. They wrote a number of hits for the teenager they called “our lucky star,” and Mr. Disney took notice. He gave the brothers various assignments, then offered them jobs as staff songwriters in the moments after telling them he loved their ideas for Mary Poppins.

They were named Disney Legends in 1990.

Most recently, Sherman wrote a song with composer Fabrizio Mancinelli for Andreas Deja’s 2023 animated short, Mushka. “Mushka’s Lullabye” was performed by soprano Holly Sedillos.

Survivors include his wife of 66 years, Elizabeth; his children, Gregory, Victoria and Lynda; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Asked by Feinberg what were the best lyrics he ever came up with, Sherman touched on those he wrote for “A Man Has Dreams” from Mary Poppins.

“When it comes to writing what a man really feels — every man, every man — he dreams of doing something wonderful, of walking with the giants in his particular world,” he said. “An insurance guy wants to be the top man in the insurance business. I dreamed of being a top man in the music business, so it came out of my head.”

“I said, ‘A man has dreams of walking with giants.’ I wanted to be with Gershwin. Who knows if I got there? I wanted to carve my niche in the edifice of time, so what I was saying — I was talking about myself, really.”

This article originally appeared on The Hollywood Reporter.



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