Although a Great Man of the Theatre recently died, someone I worked with many times, who had something to do with producing such fondly-remembered musicals as Anna Karenina and The Zulu and the Zayda, I’m more moved to say a few words about a Great Man of the Cinema, whose kids I went to school with, Robert B. Sherman, who wrote so many of the songs I cherished in my childhood.
When I was 8, a trip to Disneyland literally haunted my dreams. As a boy, I had recurring dreams of wandering around Tomorrowland, seeing parts the public isn’t supposed to see. Of course, a major part of my emotional connection to the place was the music you hear on different rides. My favorite was There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow from the Carousel of Progress. Of course the song most people can’t get out of their heads is It’s a Small World After All, although the first ride to sync colorful robots with music was In the Tiki-Tiki-Tiki-Tiki-Tiki Room.
All of these were written by Robert Sherman in collaboration with his brother, Richard. Unlike the talented siblings I wrote about in my last post, Herbert and Dorothy Fields, Richard M. And Robert B. didn’t enjoy each other’s company. Yet, like unhappy allies Gilbert and Sullivan, who hated each other, success as a team forced them to stay together.
In the early days of rock, when songs could be cute, the Sherman Brothers churned out some of the cutest hits, like You’re Sixteen, You’re Beautiful, and You’re Mine. They soon caught the attention of Walt Disney, became his favored composing team, and got assigned to his favorite project, Mary Poppins.
Some years earlier, the young Stephen Sondheim had tried his hand at adapting Mary Poppins into a musical. (There. I got the obligatory Sondheim reference out of the way.) Walt Disney was determined to get his musical film right. So, the Sherman Brothers brought in song after song, only to be sent back to the drawing board, time and time again, by Disney himself, declaring that the lion’s share of their efforts simply weren’t good enough
Some of us, putting ourselves in the Sherman Brothers’ shoes, imagine we’d hate being told to try and try again by a powerful boss. Yet this process led to one of the greatest original film scores in movie history. And the other Sherman-scored musicals weren’t nearly as good or successful. This would seem proof of the process’ effectiveness.
None of us, I assume, has anyone truly like Walt Disney in our lives. But why should that matter? I did my best work shaping a show in collaboration with a director who demanded nothing but the highest quality. Don’t have someone like that? Well, what about you? You’re pretty handy. You take your calls. And you can hold your feet to the fire. Accepting only the best of yourself is what defines a great artist.
And usually, someone else is handy: your collaborator. Make sure he’s tough on you, and return the favor by being exceedingly tough on him. This is my main reason for loathing Lloyd Webber. Song after song, his tunes are saddled by astonishingly stupid lyrics. Some say I should excuse Sir Andrew because he’s the composer, not the lyricist. The hell I will! What makes Lloyd Webber a poor songwriter, more than anything, is his willingness to accept dumb doggerel from lyricists. That he didn’t ask for better of Tim Rice than “I wanna be a part of B.A. Buenos Aires, Big Apple” makes him a hack of the lowest order.
Now that I’ve gotten the obligatory ALW- bashing out of the way…where was I? Oh yes, Disney and The Boys (as the Sherman brothers tended to be known back then). Once Walt liked a number, he really liked a number. He had a piano in his office and often called The Boys into his office to play him Feed the Birds yet again. Disney died not long after Mary Poppins was released, and one imagines he thought of Feed the Birds, with its advocacy of altruism, as his legacy. But that would be a case of an executive getting credit for an underling’s creative work. Better to think of it as Bob Sherman’s legacy, a beautiful sentiment, eloquently expressed.