Francine Wolfisz gets chapter and verse on the Sherman brothers, who penned some of Disney’s most-loved songs
From Dick Van Dyke’s dance across the rooftops with Chim Chim Cher-ee to the eternally-catchy Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and the unforgettable Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the Sherman Brothers were behind some of the most memorable film scores in Hollywood history.
Robert (known as Bob) and Richard Sherman enjoyed global success with their prolific output, which includes the Oscar-winning film score for Mary Poppins, as well as The Jungle Book, Charlotte’s Web and The Aristocats. Anyone who has visited a Disney theme park around the world might also be familiar with perhaps their best-known song, It’s A Small World (After All), which they penned in 1964.
Their uplifting music is set to be celebrated in a cabaret show starting next week, which will also feature the songs of their father, Tin Pan Alley songwriter Al Sherman, as well as Bob’s son, Robbie, who wrote the musical Bumblescratch.
A Spoonful of Sherman, arriving at St James Studio, London, will take the audience through the story of three generations of the musically-talented family, as well as serve as a “happy memorial” to Bob, who died in 2012 aged 86.
Robbie, who moved from Los Angeles to London with his father 12 years ago, tells me the musical prowess of his family can be traced back to before even his grandfather.
“My great-grandfather Samuel was the concert master and conductor of the court for Emperor Franz Josef in Prague.
“But even before then, we know his father Otto was a clarinet player, so it literally goes all the way back as far as we know.
“The name Sherman is normally associated with one who worked as a tailor, but I always half-joke it’s not really to do with cutting shears, but rather shirim! [Hebrew for ‘songs’]”.
Aside from imbuing his sons with a love of music, Al and his wife Rosa, who emigrated from Russia, were a huge influence on Bob and Richard deciding to work together professionally.
The 45-year-old songwriter tells me: “Although they were very different personalities, my father and uncle were each other’s best friend growing up. They had this connection as brothers and it was tremendously important to my grandparents that they work together.”
Al’s “loving compulsion” to bring two brothers together even worked magic on another famous pair of siblings: George and Ira Gershwin. Robbie recalls: “No one wanted Ira to write, because they felt that one songwriter in the family was enough, but it was my grandfather Al who eventually persuaded George that they should work together.”
As a pair, the Gershwins wrote more than a dozen Broadway shows, featuring songs such as I Got Rhythm, Embraceable You and Someone To Watch Over Me. But Al’s own sons equally fared well in the world of show-business, particularly after they were hired as staff songwriters for Walt Disney Studios in the early 1960s.
Over the course of their career, the brothers picked up two Academy Awards and nine nominations, two Grammy Awards and 23 gold and platinum albums, among many other plaudits.
I ask Robbie what it was like growing up in Beverly Hills around the flourishing career of his father and uncle. “It was a little bit like being born at the top of a mountain in the sense that when I was born in the late 1960s, my father was at the zenith of his career.
“The other advantage was the type of music he was writing was exactly the kind that children love listening to. So for me, he was the only songwriter I knew.
“The house was always filled with music and my father was surrounded by all these great songwriters. “My earliest memory was that one day I, too, would become a songwriter – and that was before I could even play the piano. It was the obvious next thing for me.”
While he says it’s hard to pick an all-time favourite song, he admits being “partial to a few songs from Snoopy, Come Home” and also singles out the lyrics from the Mary Poppins track, Feed The Birds.
“I love the message of this song,” explains Robbie. “There’s a very Jewish concept within this song. What other religion would talk about the merits of giving for the giver?
“Their songs were never preachy, but the message was always subtle and that is why I particularly like this song.
“I was not raised Orthodox but, in our family, Judaism was very much a part of who we are – and it was reflected in their work.”
Looking back over their career, Robbie tells me that despite their incredible success “awards didn’t matter that much” to his father, with one exception.
He says: “From a career point of view, winning an Oscar did matter. It’s the most elite and that elevated his stature in the business immeasurably. From then on, they were always referred to as “the Oscar-winning Sherman brothers” – an incredible achievement for the sons of immigrants.”
- A Spoonful of Sherman arrives at St James Studio, London, from 15 to 22 April. Robert J Sherman will not be appearing on Tuesday, 15 April or Friday,18 April. For tickets: 0844 264 2140 or visit www.stjamestheatre.co.uk
- Robbie Sherman has edited Moose: Chapters From My Life, the autobiography of Robert B Sherman, published by AuthorHouseUK and available on Amazon.