Thursday, March 8, 2012

It’s a Sherman World After All (or it used to be)

With “It’s a Small World After All” running through my head on a cerebral tape-loop, I’m thinking about the late Robert Sherman. Along with his look-alike younger brother Richard, he created hundreds of family-friendly tunes, many for Walt Disney. Sons of a Tin Pan Alley songwriter, the Sherman brothers had two essentials for success: talent and excellent timing. They hit their stride in an era that welcomed original movie musicals.

Starting out with Disney’s The Parent Trap (“Let’s get together, yeah yeah yeah”), they soon got the chance to set the adventures of P.L. Travers’ beloved English nanny to music. The result was Mary Poppins, a magical confection that charmed both the young and the young at heart. (How well I remember, as a high school senior, seeing it multiple times with my friends. On the brink of graduation into the real world, we were trying to hold onto our childhood as long as we possibly could.)

Mary Poppins earned the Shermans two Oscars: Best Song (for “Chim Chim Cher-ee”) and Best Musical Score. Their nominated 1968 song "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" may not have been a tune for the ages, but it definitely had broader appeal than the 2005 Oscar-winner, “It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” Visitors to Disneyland won’t soon forget their infectious soundtrack for the “Tiki Tiki Tiki Room” (even if they’d like to), and if you’re old enough you probably also recall their syrupy “Carousel of Progress” paean to modern technology: "There's a great big beautiful tomorrow/Shining at the end of every day.” They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

Today, of course, most movies don’t have song scores. Only Randy Newman, responsible for the musical moments in most Pixar films, seems even faintly comparable to the Shermans. And when’s the last time someone paid Newman to write a full-out screen musical? Lately the field for the original song Oscar has become so sparse that last year there were only two candidates on the ballot: “Real in Rio” and “Man or Muppet.” (The latter, which won, is an amusing spoof of the heartfelt movie ballads of old, but hardly something you come out of the theatre humming.) Nor is today’s Broadway any more hospitable to song-writers. Many of the Great White Way’s current musical hits are oldies, like How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and even a revival of Cole Porter’s 1934 Anything Goes. Others are stage versions of Hollywood musicals (including Mary Poppins) or re-purposed compilations of familiar pop tunes (Jersey Boys). If the Sherman brothers were starting out now, I don’t know where and how they’d catch on.

This concerns me because my son Jeffrey (who grew up loving Gilbert and Sullivan, Rogers and Hammerstein, and other great song-writing duos) is determined to enter the musical theatre field. At Manhattan’s prestigious BMI workshop for composers and lyricists, he became friendly with Robby Sherman, one of Robert’s sons. Through Robby he learned something of the Sherman brothers’ working method. As tensions rose between them, Robert relocated to London while Richard remained in Beverly Hills. But the partnership continued via long-distance phone and electronic media, proving once again that it’s a small world after all. (A 2009 documentary film, The Boys, gently explores their strained relationship.)

My son Jeff lacks Robby Sherman's family connections in the musical theatre field. He has talent (and an award from the New York Fringe Festival to prove it), but his timing is hardly the best. Nonetheless he and his collaborators have great expectations for a March 12 reading of their latest show, about rival paleontologists. Jeffrey, here’s hoping The Bone Wars proves to be supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.


  1. How did The Bone Wars reading go? And has there been further progress with it?

    I appreciate the Sherman Brothers Disney tunes - but I like the audience wink from their contribution to 1994's Beverly Hills Cop III, which revolves around a fictional Beverly Hills theme park called Wonderworld. The Shermans contributed "The Wonderworld Song" to the movie - and it is a wonder pastiche of the earlier Disney songs. Richard even cameos in the movie, as is the wont of director John Landis.

  2. Thanks for asking, Mr. Craig. The Bone Wars reading was a smash hit, I'm told -- but don't go booking your seats for the Tonys yet. And thanks for introducing me to the Sherman Brothers' "Wonderworld Song." Who knew?