- The creation of music abundant in optimism and heart, written for kids of all ages.
sher man·ist (Noun), sher man·esque (Adjective)
Okay, so that’s not really in the dictionary. But then again, neither is “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “fortuosity,” “fantasmagorical” or “gratifaction.” But perhaps they should be. Have any other songwriters broadened the English language as much as Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman? The older of the Sherman Brothers, Robert, died yesterday morning at his home in London, aged 86, survived by younger brother Richard, 83. It’s both comforting and ironic that Sherman, writer of some of the most uniquely American songs ever, died in his beloved England, a land which he so frequently immortalized in song.
Though inextricably linked with Walt Disney, the Sherman Brothers carved out a niche of their own in virtually every medium possible. There were the Academy Award-winning triumphs in film, the Grammy-winning contributions to record, the teevee tunes entertaining generations of children, the showstoppers on the Broadway stage. But Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman’s greatest contribution to popular culture just might and be the song generally considered the most-performed song on earth: “It’s a Small World,” written for a World’s Fair attraction in 1964 and now permanently ensconced in California, Florida, Tokyo, Paris and Hong Kong. And simple though the song may be, its sentiment certainly isn’t. Bob and Dick, known to their employer Walt Disney as “The Boys,” first imagined the song as a mournful prayer for peace in a rapidly changing world. A change of tempo and an ingenious performance concept (imagine, the tune will be sung by children of various ethnicities in various languages!) allowed it to register on a level thought truly unimaginable to its writers. Those famous words were largely written by Bob Sherman, the wordsmith, while the infectious melody was primarily composed by Dick Sherman, the music man.
“It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears/It’s a world of hopes and a world of fears/There’s so much that we share/That it’s time we’re aware/It’s a small world, after all.” The Boys had the gift of communicating on a direct level with children and adults alike, but the lyric’s concision shouldn’t be confused for superficiality. The language is easy to swallow but the message runs deeper. Wherever we are, whoever we are, we have in common the gifts of hope and laughter. And we all endure life’s more frightening realities. So we should emphasize these similarities rather than dwell on our differences. The “after all” is gently admonishing. The theme of “It’s a Small World” extended to the brothers’ other work, as well.
Walt Disney’s favorite song is said to have been Mary Poppins’ “Feed the Birds.” Richard Sherman remembers Disney simply instructing him to “play it,” and he and Robert knew exactly what “it” was. Disney identified on a deep level with the song’s plea for decency and charity. It didn’t matter that the song was written to be sung by a nanny with mystical powers in London, circa 1910. Its message was evident, Richard imbuing Robert’s impassioned lyric with just the right hint of darkness in his ravishing melody. In life, Richard is known for his bright, smiling demeanor while Robert was possessed of a quiet, intense and stoic manner. “Feed the Birds” epitomizes their artful collaboration, brotherly rapport and chiaroscuro: Robert was able to unguardedly open his heart while Richard, this time, supplied the shading.
Chances are if you’re reading this, you will have your own favorite Sherman Brothers song. Maybe it’s from a Walt Disney movie or theme park. It might be from Over Here! or Busker Alley, the team’s two original stage musicals. It could even be from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Slipper and the Rose or Charlotte’s Web, some of the team’s non-Disney films. Perhaps it’s “You’re Sixteen, You’re Beautiful, You’re Mine,” a hit for Johnny Burnette and Ringo Starr. All of these songs have endured, generation to generation, despite the brickbats of cynics. No less an eminence than Irving Berlin once wrote, “There is an element of truth in any idea that lasts long enough to be called corny.” And Richard and Robert Sherman often espoused the truth as they saw it, with an abiding sincerity and heart-on-their-sleeve sensibility that allowed them to set aside even their personal differences. The acclaimed 2009 documentary film The Boys chronicled their painful periods of estrangement, but Richard recalled in typically-plain spoken fashion in 2005 that, even late in life, “something good happens when we sit together and work.” When they couldn’t make their personal lives mesh, they could still find harmony in song, believing in optimistic, some might say childlike, tenets like “Teamwork can make a dream work.”
Robert B. Sherman gave voice to an alley cat, a swinging ape, an avaricious rat and a silly old bear, to name just a few. But he ultimately gave voice to the inner child in all of us, assuring us that there is a great, big beautiful tomorrow out there, that our imaginations merely need one little spark to ignite, that magic journeys are possible in the most mundane of places. He did this without drawing attention to himself, staying far from the harsh light of celebrity. He’ll live on through his music and his philanthropic work, including a Robert B. Sherman scholarship awarded through a partnership with BMI to lyricists in the musical comedy tradition as well as through the still-active career of his brother Richard. But though there’s no doubt our world is smaller today for his loss, the cultural legacy left behind is towering.
The next time you’re on Disneyland’s Main Street, USA, stop by the Sherman Brothers’ window. It, directly and appropriately, reads “Two Brothers: Tunemakers.” “Tunemaker” isn’t in the dictionary, either. I’d like to think that, somewhere from on high, Robert B. Sherman is smiling.
For more on the life and legacy of Robert B. Sherman, don’t miss Mike’s own tribute over at Popdose.