Songwriting is an art that isn’t always given the appreciation it deserves. Creating a truly great song that can cement itself in people’s minds and become one of those ‘classic hits’ is not as simple as jotting down a few words to music, and it’s not something that everybody can do. I would say that I have a creative mind and I’ve always written, but I could never be a songwriter. The fact that I don’t have a musical bone in my body aside, my lyric-writing attempts as a teenager wouldn’t have even cut it with pop act The Cheeky Girls – and they had ‘The Ketchup Song’. There are some wonderful songwriters in musical theatre, including established teams like Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice and Rodgers & Hammerstein and new emerging talents like Chris Passey, Michael Bruce, Anderson & Petty and so many more. The songs they produce are the backbones of any musical, whether it be on stage or screen, so the loss of a truly exceptional writer is – as well as being a personal tragedy – always a loss for the industry.
The news yesterday of Robert B. Sherman’s death marks a huge loss for the world of musicals. The songwriter died in London on 5th March 2012 at the age of 86. He and his brother Richard Sherman were one of the most successful American songwriting teams of all time, penning not just one classic hit but a plethora of them. As the sons of Tin Pan Alley songwriter Al Sherman, they were born into the songwriting world; Robert quite literally as his hospital delivery bill was paid with a royalty cheque that also arrived that day for the song ‘Save Your Sorrow’. Time spent in England recuperating from an injury he incurred during fighting in World War II was later credited for his interest in the country, which became the centre of many of his works. One of the most famous of these is the timeless Mary Poppins. The Sherman Brothers joined the Walt Disney Studios in 1960 as staff songwriters and after penning the songs for The Parent Trap (1961), In Search of the Castaways (1962), Summer Magic (1963), The Sword in the Stone (1963) and Big Red (1963), they wrote the score for Mary Poppins (1964) which starred Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. The film is still popular with children today (my seven year old daughter loves it) and many of its musical numbers are well-known all over the world. The soundtrack of songs, which includes ‘A Spoonful of Sugar, ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’ and, of course, ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ earned the Sherman Brothers a shelf full of awards and cemented their status as a talented songwriting team. A Cameron Mackintosh/Disney stage musical of Mary Poppins which featured the Sherman Brothers’ song premiered on Broadway in 2006 and various national tour productions followed.
After the death of Walt Disney in 1966, the Sherman Brothers left the studio to become freelance writers, although they continued to work on Disney projects, such as The Jungle Book (1967), The Aristocats (1970), Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) and The Many Adventures of Winnie The Pooh (1977). Their other non-Disney film credits included Charlotte’s Web (1973), The Slipper and the Rose (1976) and, in what was their first assignment away from Disney, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). Starring Dick Van Dyke again, the film was a massive hit – as were its songs. More classic numbers, such as ‘Hushabye Mountain’ and the title track ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ earned the Sherman Brothers more award plaudits and in 2002, a stage musical made its debut at the London Palladium, for which they wrote several more original songs. It enjoyed a record-breaking run at the theatre and went on to play over on Broadway, as well as embarking on several tours.
2000 marked their first return to Disney in 28 years, with The Tigger Movie. Further notable achievements include: writing what is one of their most recognisable songs, the theme park anthem ‘It’s A Small World After All, the hit Broadway musical Over Here!, receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1976, being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005 and being awarded the National Medal of Arts at the White House in 2008 by then-President George W. Bush. In 2005, Robert also created the annual Robert B Sherman Scholarship through the BMI Foundation, with awardees being chosen for their excellence in musical comedy songwriting with an emphasis on lyrics. He was also (lesser) known for his artwork, particular his oil and acrylic paintings. An exhibition of his work was first shown at Thompson’s Gallery, London in 2002.
Robert B Sherman was undoubtedly one of the great songwriters of our time and his death will leave its mark on many a musical fan, who most likely grew up listening to his songs; I know I did. Childhood sweetheart Joyce Sasner, his wife of 48 years, died in 2001, but he leaves behind their four children – and one hell of a legacy.
By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)
Wednesday 7th March 2012