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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Narelle Yeo, Associate Professor in Voice, Opera and Stagecraft, Director Music Theatre, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, University of Sydney

Walt Disney songwriter Richard M. Sherman, who has died aged 95, wrote some of Hollywood’s greatest film musical songs and brightened the days of children, parents and school teachers around the world.

Working with his brother Robert, who died in 2012 aged 86, Richard created chirpy, toe-tapping and often poignant songs in Hollywood films such as Mary Poppins (1964), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), The Jungle Book (1967) and Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971).

The Sherman brothers were responsible for the scores of more motion pictures than any other songwriting team.

Over the past 70 years, millions of children have learned to sing the catchy word-puzzle Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious in Mary Poppins, or It’s a Small World, originally written for Disneyland. According to Time magazine, It’s a Small World may be the most publicly performed song in history.

A musical family

Born in New York to Russian Jewish immigrants, the Sherman brothers were exposed to music early, as their father Al Sherman was a gifted songwriter who wrote for Tin Pan Alley. Their mother Rosa was a Vaudeville singer.

Moving to Beverly Hills as a family in 1937, Richard went to Beverly Hills High School and learned piano, flute and piccolo.

He graduated with classmate André Previn, who coincidentally was nominated for an Oscar for best musical score adaptation for My Fair Lady in 1965, the same year the Sherman Brothers were nominated for best original music score for Mary Poppins. They both won.

Richard was known as an inspirational and upbeat entertainer. Recordings of him at the piano show an ability to entertain as well as write.

The Sherman brothers’ relationship was rocky. They also faced the wrath and exacting standards of Australian-born PL Travers in writing the score for Mary Poppins.

Richard wrote more of the music and sat at the piano, but there were porous boundaries between lyricist and composer. Most of their repertoire was created while directly working for Walt Disney, but they were released from contract to allow them to compose for other films, including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, one of many of their movie musicals which serve as allegories for the American Dream, American exceptionalism and progress.

American optimism

Many Sherman scores, for both Disney and others, hold a firm place in the canon, including Winnie the Pooh (1977), The Parent Trap (1961), The Aristocrats (1970), The Magic of Lassie (1978) and more.

Their sound world is as accessible to children as adults, with recognisable strophic structures and expert rhyming, making their songs instantly memorable. Their music and lyrics are optimistic, tonal, within a singable range for most amateurs, and use perfectly balanced hooks.

Their quirky aphorisms avoid the tendency to become sickly sweet. Because of the clever turn of phrase of many of their lyrics, singers such as Tony Bennett and even Christopher Walken have recorded them.

The Shermans and Alan Menken are melodic genii, principally responsible for the “Disney sound” of the middle period between the 1960s and 2010s. Together they created a sound world that represented peak American optimism, from a period when gorgeous melodic arcs were highly valued neo-romantic ideals.

The Shermans were also eclectic in their prolific composing of more than 200 works, using diverse influences from Tin Pan Alley, jazz, Dixieland, barbershop, blues, tango, parlour songs and even operetta.

Walt Disney’s favourite Sherman song was Feed the Birds from Mary Poppins. Sherman told a story of being called to Disney’s place on a Friday afternoon to sing the song around the piano.

The Sherman sound, from the invented superlative Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, to the simple and affecting tale of a bird woman, to the aspirational beauty of magical Hushabye Mountain, create an imagined world of beauty and possibility.

In this way, the Shermans were the perfect match for Disney’s image of aspirational America, musicalising stories of infectious optimism and creative zeal that defined the mid-century United States.

In 2015, talking to movie publication Collider, Richard summed up their holistic compositional approach, one that can inspire the next generation of musical composers:

Walt Disney was a story man, and he knew that we were thinking story. That’s why he dug us so much […] We always thought about the story. That was more important than any words and any music. That’s all it’s about.

The Conversation

Narelle Yeo does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. From Mary Poppins to Winnie the Pooh, Richard Sherman wrote the soundtrack of life for generations of children –