It’s not fair that it sometimes takes a death to rouse us from our collective unconsciousness and pay respect to someone who deserves it. Before the news cycle started spinning today, many may have not known or forgotten the name of Robert B. Sherman, the New York City-born songwriter who, with younger brother Richard, wrote countless songs for film, television and other entertainment.But we know their songs.
Had the Sherman brothers retired after their song score for Walt Disney’s classic Mary Poppins (1964) won a pair of Oscars, they’d deserve a place in 20th century music history. They did not, of course – in a career that lasted half a century, the Shermans wrote prolifically for Disney films, including The Parent Trap (1961), The Jungle Book (1967), The Aristocats (1970) and The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh (1977); several major children’s film soundtracks including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and Tom Sawyer (1973), and a host of unforgettable tunes still heard throughout the attractions at Disney parks worldwide, from the uplifting “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” in the Carousel of Progress to the impossible-to-forget “It’s a Small World.” That’s not even counting their compositions for traditional pop artists including Annette Funicello, The Beach Boys, Johnny Burnette, Ringo Starr and Michael Jackson.
What made those Sherman songs so indelible? The brothers would tell interviewers the secret, passed down from their father Al, one of Tin Pan Alley’s most beloved songwriters: a good song was simple, singable and sincere. Even tongue twisters like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” from Mary Poppins or Ludwig von Drake’s “Spectrum Song” exemplified those traits, with bouncy melodies and good cheer to spare.
Beyond Disney scholars and hardcore fans, though, the Sherman name did not elicit murmurs of approval. Even today, with dozens of Audio-Animatronic figures singing “It’s a Small World” in almost every modern language even as you read this sentence, the Sherman Brothers were somewhat mysterious. Robert was proof positive of this; look at a picture of the duo from any era and you’ll notice an unusual disparity – Bob’s piercing, sunken eyes and slightly furrowed countenance are a stunning counterpoint to Dick’s kinetic, make ‘em laugh showbiz grin.
The motives behind this weren’t touched upon until recently, in The Walt Disney Company’s stunning 2009 documentary The Boys, named for the familial nickname Walt bestowed upon them. Herein we learn an almost uncomfortable amount about the brothers, particularly Robert. Before making his way into songwriting, the elder Sherman served a tour of duty in Europe during World War II, which ended with a German bullet piercing through his knee and giving him a pronounced limp for the rest of his life. While Sherman’s service is the obvious precursor to the Anglophilia that colored their work – Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang don’t sound too different from music hall fare of the Edwardian period – it’s likely also the place from which that hint of melancholy that colored their many ballads came. Poppins‘ heartrending “Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag)” can move the surliest of characters to tears, and even their most heartfelt, can-do tunes – take “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” or “One Little Spark” from EPCOT’s Journey Into Imagination – seem aware of the impending antiquity of their dreams of innovation. But they play on anyway, just like Uncle Sam or Uncle Walt would want it to be.
The Boys also shines a light on a stunning truth that neither of the brothers were ever close, collaborating intimately on songs but keeping their own family time largely separate. When Disney died in 1966, sending the company into turmoil and driving the Shermans closer to the sidelines, the gulf deepened. Bob ultimately retreated to his second home of London, where he pursued his muse with acrylic painting and fiction writing. But the collaboration never ceased; the Shermans oversaw theatrical adaptations of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Mary Poppins on both sides of the Atlantic and were working on an animated film of their own in recent years.
While it’s indeed not fair that The Sherman Brothers had to earn another round of critical praise at the cost of one of them passing away, those songs – now and always simple, singable and sincere – are still the stuff that dreams – and dreams coming true – are made of.