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Richard M. Sherman—Mary Poppins, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story—4/24/09

/content/interviews/282/5.jpgBorn in 1928, Richard M. Sherman has co-written some of the most recognizable American songs. With his brother Robert B. Sherman, Richard did his best known work for Walt Disney. The Sherman Brothers penned all of the songs for Mary Poppins, and famously contributed tunes to The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Sword in the Stone, The Parent Trap, and "Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree" and "Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day," among others. The duo also wrote the world-renowned earworm "It's a Small World" and, outside of the Disney stable, the music and lyrics for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Slipper and the Rose. The Sherman Brothers also penned pop hits such as "You're Sixteen" and Broadway musicals such as Over Here. Richard's son Gregory V. Sherman—co-directing with Robert's son Jeffrey C. Sherman—made the film The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story about their fathers. Richard sat with piano-side with me in San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel to promote the film (about to premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival) and to discuss his career.

Groucho: First of all—not that you're counting—but do you know how many songs the Sherman Brothers have written?

Richard M. Sherman: Oh my God. Let's see now. The ones that are published—as opposed to the ones that are writtem, because that's a whole different number—I would say Bob and I together have well over five hundred—five, six hundred—published songs: recorded, published, in the works. But I'd say that there's another six hundred songs that we've written that are not published.

G: In the trunk.

RMS: They're in the trunk. They were rejected for one reason or another. From different projects, or by ourselves 'cause "Eah, we've done that already"—that type of thing. Yes, most writers have a shelf full of—a scriptwriter has a zillion projects he's written that nobody wants, or he couldn't get off the ground. Many writers of stories and poetry and everything have piles of material they're written that didn't quite see print. And there's nothing to be either proud of or anything. This one guy was telling me I have a thousand songs. I said, "Yeah,  but how many songs were successful?" And he says, "Well, you hadn't hit yet." So who knows? Quantity is not the major thing here; it's the quality.

G: Agreed. One of the most interesting moments in the film The Boys is when you describe when you first sort of heard your muse.

RMS: Hmmm.

G: Music came to you like a bolt out of the blue.

/content/interviews/282/1.jpgRMS: Yeah. Well, actually, I was always—I always loved music. I mean, love—from the time I was a little boy I just was absolutely nuts about music. And I remember as a little kid I was taken to see a performance of Show Boat. And when the orchestra played the very Overture, I started crying, I was so overwhelmed with happiness, you know? But it was tears of great emotion. This classic Jerome Kern music just was pouring over me. And from that moment on, I just fell in love with music. I just loved music. Pop songs. Show songs. Operetta. I loved Gilbert and Sullivan. I loved that stuff. But I never, ever even thought about writing anything. I just loved to listen to it. And I played in the band, and I played in the orchestra. I played flute and clarinet, things like that. Woodwinds. And it was always kind of like just lingering in the background. And it came to a head when I was about to start college. I graduated from high school, and you have to declare a major. It's one of the things they say: "What is your major?" (Laughs.) And of course, there I was terrified, because nothing really interested me. I remember I started at USC, and I put down Pre-Med, because I thought it was kind of cool to be a doctor, and you could dispatch pills to people. And one day, ojne of my friends said to me, "Did you ever see the medical dissection lab?" I said, "No." He said, "You gotta—go, go take a look at that." So I saw all these cadavers lying out there, and smelled them, as a matter of fact. And I think that was the end of my medical career. And I said, "Oh my God, what am I going to do?" And then I was going to go to a college, Bard College New York state. A fine, fine school, but they said, "You must declare your major." So that was to be my second semester in college. And I was very depressed 'cause I didn't know what I wanted to do. Even the thought of being a lawyer and reading all those law books, and being a banker or a doctor—I mean, the doctor was out, of course. I just couldn't think of anything that interested me. And I always, always loved music. That's the one thing, but my father and mother said, "There's no career there, because there's no job. What are you going to do with your time? I mean, nobody's going to hire you to do anything." I just was depressed, and I really didn't know what I could do with myself. And I was walking in the street, and it was raining. And I was young: I was seventeen years old. And as I was walking, I heard this music, thumping in my head. It's just throbbing and throbbing. And I didn't know what it was. I just thought I was hearing a radio from someplace. And there was no radio. And then I was looking for a window that was open. There was no window open where somebody's radio was going. I couldn't figure out what it was. And it was thumping in my head. And I went home. And I started picking it out on the piano. I played a little piano. And I was just sort of like enthralled with it, because it was sort of making sense! And all this emotion was coming out in the music, and through the fingers. And my father and mum came home from this party they had been at, and my dad said, "You're going to be a music major, kid." And that was it. That was it. I knew what I wanted to do. And then I fell in love with the songwriting idea, and setting words to music was a very exciting thing. And Dad is the one that teamed us up. He's the one that said, "Your brother wants to write, and you want to write. You're going to write together. And perhaps two half-wits will make a full-wit." You know? So basically, I mean, he really teamed us and gave us the ropes and taught us how to write a hook for a song, how to make it happen. But it all was born that day. My musical area came out one night when I discovered I could actually set my feelings and my abilities with this gift that I got. And I don't take a bow for a gift. A gift is—God gives you, or the synapse or the genes come together, and out you get the gift. What you do with the gift is something you can take a bow for. But I don't take any bows for my gifts. I just have 'em. I'm a musical kid. My father was musical, my father's father was musical.

G: And I'm curious, because your father was a Tin Pan Alley songwriter—

RMS: Yep.

G: Is there a song of yours that you think is most like one he might have written?

/content/interviews/282/2.jpgRMS: Oh my goodness. Let's see. Well, you know, many times there are elements in the song that—word, catch phrases, things like that—are stuff that he would do. He'd play with these wonderful phrases. Like he wrote a song called "What Do We Do on a Dew-Dew-Dewy Day?" A cute idea. Or "Ho Ho, Ha Ha, Me Too." With little word sounds and everything. And we were very conscious of that kind of thing. So our word-conscious songs—"Supercalifragilistic—", whatever—they feel good. And those little double-talk feelings and phrases came out. It's difficult to say anything that he would've done. Except for the fact that the elements of "Spoonful of Sugar" have a lot of his jocularity and warmth. And I can't explain 'cause we didn't write in the same style. We were writing for different things. He was writing for the pop-music market in the Roaring Twenties and the Swinging Thirties and everything. Bob and I were writing for books, book musicals. So it's a whole different kind of a thing.

G: Right. Story, story, story, story.

RMS: Story is the major, major contributor to everything we do.

G: You mentioned something I really wanted to ask you about that I think distinguishes your work. That wordplay—

RMS: Yeah.

G: The double-talk you mentioned. Breaking up and reforming words like spare parts.

RMS: Yes. "Fortuosity. Faith in good fortune." Yeah, and "Fundamental Friend Dependability" [from the 1972 Peanuts film musical Snoopy Come Home]. The flow of it all. Yeah, it's just—the English language is so great. That's another we learned from our dad. He was an immigrant. He came over in 1909 from the old country. He was Russian-born and lived in Czechoslovakia at that time; it was called Austria-Hungary. And he came over to America and heard the rhythms of Scott Joplin and all those wonderful ragtime composers. And it got to him. He just—that's what he wanted to do. And he became a great pop-tune writer. He was wonderful. And I guess maybe that was it. I just feel we had that urge to contribute to that work.

G: It's not every performer who can, you know—I mean, I don't even think I can say "Protocolig—"

RMS: "Protocoligorically Correct"! Well, see, then again it's the protocols. Protocol is a wonderful word, isn't it? And it sounds very, very haughty-totty. We were saying, "Well—" They're having this debate, in this—The Slipper and The Rose film—and they want to not have wars with the other countries, so they want to seat people with each other who don't want to hate each other. So they must be according to the protocols. "Protocoligorically correct./Good form must never suffer from neglect./The rules and regulations we protect/Must be treated circumspect./Else the kingdom will be wrecked./Must be protocoligorically correct." Or something like that, but we had a lot of "-ect" words going with it. It's wonderful.

G:  Oddly, that leads me to my next point. You know, the family motto: "Always together. Always one."

/content/interviews/282/3.jpgRMS: Yes. That was something my mom and dad used to say to us all the time. No matter all your differences and all your arguments, you're still always one. We're one family. And so that's one of the things—I think to protect that feeling, and that wonderful thing Bob and I had as a team, we wouldn't let other influences disrupt our work. And so we—I think the boys, my son and my nephew Jeff did definitely keep it out of it. We didn't launder any dirty laundry. We just said, "We had differences. We walked our different ways." And that's what we did. And I think they kept that very nicely in the film.

G: One of the things about a songwriting team—beyond the fact that you're brothers, and even before you started writing together, you'd spent so much time together—creative friction is a necessity.

RMS: Yeah.

G: But when there's a—say, a band—you can take a vote. But when you have two, there's no referees.

RMS: No.

G: Was that ever a problem?

/content/interviews/282/4.jpgRMS: Well, we were fortunate. We had three referees. We had, number one, our dad. Number two: Walt Disney. Number three: our manager for thirty years, Mike Conner, who was our wonderful, wonderful manager. Great guy. He was like a third Sherman Brother, always with us. Mike was great. And so between those, they kept us from killing each other.And so we'd always sort of come to them. But when it came to the writing, it wasn't arguments about the work. Because that I think we pretty much—we both recognized when one of us was right, or one had a better idea. And we just bowed to it, because the respect was always there. We never had—it's just that brothers are brothers. We're different people. I'm very much of an extroverted person. I love to perform and act out things and do stuff. And Bob will sit in a corner and read a poem. I mean, that's who he is. He's always been that way, so friction took place from things like that. And it was always much better to just keep it cool and be friendly—that's it. We were—we loved each other, but we just didn't get—

G: Yeah, sure. Not the same personality.

RMS: Exactly.

G: I'm curious about some of the projects that are still in development, like Incas the Ramerferinkas.

RMS: Well, you know, that's something that's been lurking around for a long time. A Ramerferinkas is a prehistoric bird. And it had a very peculiar thing: it flew through the sky in a zig-zag fashion because one wing went up; the other wing went down. It sort of gyroscoped through the air. It was a weird thing, and it caught our attention many years ago. And we developed something. It's still in the—

G: The hopper.

RMS: In the hopper, yeah. We have a lot of things in the hopper. We have three different musical things that we truly, truly love that someday—y'know, every writer has. And every pet has his favorite poems that have never been seen. We have musicals that we've done—that we've done with great love and hard work and everything else that have not seen the light of day. But we've been very lucky because we've had a lot of things that have been. And that's what we're happy about.

G: Merry Go Round is one, right?

RMS: Right.

G: Well, Busker Alley

RMS: Busker Alley.

G: Is maybe on its way to Broadway?

RMS: Hopefully, you know. But who knows?

G: This film might generate—

/content/interviews/282/6.jpgRMS: Yes. Oh yeah. We have several things that we've done. We did the story of Levi Strauss, called Levi! Exclamation point. (Pops lips a la Victor Borge.) Which is a fine, fine musical also, that—it's just been optioned many times. People have, y'know, done things with—and then nothing happened. It costs so much money to do a show today. And I think you'd be wasting a lot of print talking about the shows that didn't happen. I mean, it's just—things that didn't happen are so boring. I think everybody has these. I'm much happier about the fact that [Mary] Poppins is running all over the country, now all over the world. And [Chitty] Chitty Bang Bang is, and they're both successful as plays, now that they've had this new revival. Happily the people that have done these things are pleased because they're making a lot of money with them. And I'm happy for them.

G: I'd be remiss if I didn't ask about what must be your most famous song, "It's a Small World."

RMS: Uh, asking about it? Absolutely, I'll tell you about it.

G: (Laughs.)

RMS: "Small World" was born out of necessity. Let's call it the, uh—hrmm, what's the best word?

G: On assignment, at first?

/content/interviews/282/7.jpgRMS: We were the Band-Aid—(laughs) we were the Band-Aid for a very, very serious flaw in a very major project. Walt Disney had taken upon himself to create a salute to the children of the world, which was called "Unicef Salutes the Children of the World." It was actually a boat ride, with audio-animatronics dolls, all sort of costumed in the beautiful countries, singing national anthems of every country. As you go through the ride, you were to hear the national anthems. And it's, on paper, brilliant. In actuality, impossible! Not possible to do it. It was just a cacophony of jumble. And we knew nothing about this, at the time. But one day we got a call—Bob and I were the staff writers at the studio. This was in our maybe third year of working there. And we got this call: "Walt wants you to come down after lunch today, to Stage Two, at two o'clock." "Okay, we'll be there." We didn't have any idea what we were going to walk into. And we opened the doors to this vast, vast soundstage, and there was a mock-up of the Small World ride, with a serpentine channel going through, where you could walk through it, and these wonderful dolls. And it was all dark, because there were no lights on it or anything like that. And we didn't know what it was, but it said "Unicef Salutes the Children of the World." Of course, it was the Unicef Pavilion. We knew they were doing something for Unicef. And with that, we were there, and a couple of other people, and Walt came in. He's, "Okay, now let's roll it." And they started the music up, and the lights were coming on, and these beautiful little dolls were doing their thing, and we heard "God Save the Queen" or whatever they're singing, and La Marseillaise and, all of a sudden, nothing. It was just "Brrlunnng awigawung." You know, it was terrible. Total mess. And we walked part of the way in there, and I remember I stood by the Dutch dolls, and he's "Okay, kill the sound! Kill the sound!" So they turned off the sound, and this little Dutch doll's wooden shoes are clicking together. That's all I heard were the clicking and the sound of the motors of the different ani—(laughs) all of the magic was gone immediately. No music. And Walt said, "You're going to write me a simple little song that we can translate into about seventeen or eighteen different languages. And that's going to be what this is all about. But you have to give it to me yesterday. I need this thing, because we're opening in nine months, and we have to have the music ready. They're building the Pavilion. And we have all the teams lined up," the different choirs that were going to do it in German and French and Dutch and God knows what they're going to do. And he said, "I wanted a simple song that tells about the small children of the world, the saviors of the world. Because they're the people of the future, the grown-ups of the future. We have to learn to live together and respect each other. Can you out that down in a simple song?" Hmm. Yeah.

G: (Laughs.) No pressure.

RMS: And I need it yesterday. You know, that was one of those things. And he knew we were pretty fast at coming through. We didn't really like—we took a whack at one. We said, "We got a good catch phrase here." And "after all" kinda says, "Hey, let's not kill each other, y'know?" "It's a small world after all." "That's not a good enough song. It's too simple." So we put it aside. We wrote that at the first breath. We did—not all the verses, but just the concept of it. And how we could do a—not a cacophony but a counterpoint: two little themes that could fit together. And that would make a lot of sense to us, 'cause then it wouldn't be boring; you wouldn't hear the same thing all the time. And so, we didn't like it. So we wrote another one. And that was much more flowery and beautiful and said a little more poetic and had a few more chord changes, and it made it a little more interesting. And that was a little bit too flowery. So we wrote a third one that was like a march. And we wrote that one. And we didn't like that one at all. So we got a phone call about a week and a half later. Walt knew we were fast, but we were taking too long. He knew that. So the secretary said, "Walt wants to come down and hear what you've got." And he didn't even discuss whether we'd finished it or not. He knew we were—so we heard him coming down the hall, I remember, and I didn't know what to do. And Bob said, "Play the first one. What the hell. Just play the first one. Just leave it." So I put up "It's a Small World After All"; I play it for him. And he said, "Yeah, that'll work, that'll work." Okay, that was it. That was his comment. But he never would say, "Great! Terrific! Just what we need." He would say it to somebody else, but he wouldn't say it to you. He did that with his artists; he did it with his animators.

G: Keep you hungry.

/content/interviews/282/8.jpgRMS: Oh yeah, keep you on the edge of your chair all the time. But he felt we had it. So he said, "Come with me." So we got in his car, drove down to WDI, which was the—it's called the "Imagineering". Disney Imagineering today. At that time it was called Walter Elias Disney or something. It was a unit outside of the studio, about two miles away. So we got in his little Thunderbird, roared down there, and we played it for the Imagineers. And they were very excited. They said, "Great! And it's a counterpoint." The guy was singing, "It's a small world," and the other guy, "Da da dum da da da," and they're putting it together. "Hey, this is going to work fine." So then Walt was—never crack a smile. "So what, in French, you want it in Dutch, let's do a Japanese version." And he's starting to figure out ways to do this thing. And somebody—I think it was me—said, "Well, y'know, there's a mode change. It doesn't have—major—in Japan, it would be more of a minor." He says, "Oh, we'll put up sound baffles." I mean, we're talking about technical crap, but it was all part and parcel of this big meeting. And it was a very exciting meeting. And when it was through, we got back into Walt's car. And Bob and I had discussed this. He said, "Well, this is—I'm glad this assignment's over with. But if ever they make a record, why don't we just donate it to Unicef. So, we'll tell Walt." So we're in the car, and he's driving back, on the freeway, back to the studio. And we said, "You know, if ever this gets recorded or something, we donate the royalties to Unicef. He pulled the car off to the side, and stopped the car, and he says, "You're not going to give your royalties on this song away! It's going to put your kids through college!" And with that he drove on. He knew. He knew. He did know this was going to become a major, successful theme. And it's in every language now. I'm told it's the number-one earworm in the world. People can't get it out of their heads. And we—he's right! It is a fantastic thing. The one thing he did say, "You want to make a donation to Unicef, go ahead! Do that. But don't give away your birthright of your grandchildren." And he was very mad about it. Two years later—we never mentioned it again, and it became a huge hit at the fair, like the number-one hit at the fair—he was walking down the hall, and we were coming in the other direction, and he stopped me, right in the middle of a conversation with this other man, he said, "You know, we're putting this whole damn show at Disneyland. It's gonna be permanently at Disneyland. 'Cause the World's Fair was closing. And the man he was with was the head of the Bank of America, who were the sponsor of Small World for the first ten years. And so that's the way his mind worked. It was a steel trap. He said, "I'm with the guy that's gonna finance it, and these are the guys that wrote the song..."You see? I was smart, I knew." What he's saying is "I knew what I was walking about." Of course he always did. He had a tremendous streak of successful pieces. You know, he always was very way ahead of the people we were with. Nobody suspected they'd become so successful. But if you look at the list of songs of films that he created, they all had their market. He knew where to go with them. And we were fortunate to be on board with his magnum opus. Of course, Poppins was, whoo, you know. He fought like crazy for twenty years to get the rights to that piece. You know, Mrs. Travers, the lady who wrote the books, oo, she was something. Oo! We found out. But he was with her—

G: Unfortunately, I think I have to stop here, but it's been fantastic.

RMS: Oh, well, I hope I answered a few of your questions.

G: A few of the many, yeah...!

RMS: For whom are you writing this piece?

G: It's called GrouchoReviews. I'm a big Groucho Marx fan.

RMS: Oh, Groucho! "Say the magic woid, and collect a hundred dollars"...

G: Are you still working on the Great American Symphony?

RMS: (Laughs.) No.

G: I'd love to hear it.

RMS: Well, I tell you what, I do write a lot of instrumental stuff. I did six melodies for The Boys. They wanted some mood pieces. I did a lot. I contributed stuff to that, and I played it... 

G: Thank you sir.

RMS: You're very welcome, Peter...Thanks for the interview!

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