Jeff Smith 7 a.m., March 30
Interview: A Sweet Spoonful of Legendary Disney Composer Richard M. Sherman
Along with his late brother and songwriting partner, Robert B. Sherman, Richard M. Sherman (pictured) is responsible for providing Walt Disney Pictures with some of the biggest toe-tappers in the studio's history.
A Spoonful of Sugar, It's a Small World (After All), I Wanna' Be Like You...you name them, you've hummed them. Chances are you've probably joined in on a chorus or three on more than one occasion.
The 84-year-old tunesmith is out making the rounds to hype the BluRay release of The AristoCats, the last film Uncle Walt lived to green light. The supplementary material includes the mini-documentary, The Sherman Brothers: The Aristocats of Disney Songs as well as the deleted musical number, She Never Felt Alone.
Many of the songs the Sherman Bros. composed have been with us since birth. Tunes like Hayley Mills' infectious Let's Get Together from The Parent Trap have taken up permanent residence in my heart. I cannot remember the last time there was a grin slapped across my face throughout an entire interview. If the mere mention of Richard M. Sherman's name is enough to warrant a smile, just imagine what it's like speaking with the man.
Scott Marks: There is nothing quite like starting your day by speaking with Disney Family royalty.
Richard Sherman: Well thank you. That’s very sweet of you to say that.
SM: And may I offer my condolences on the recent passing of your brother.
RS: Thank you. I appreciate that.
SM: I ask one favor. Please, at no point during this interview will you hum or sing any part of the theme from It’s a Small World (After All). I’m begging you. It takes at least 72 hours for that ditty to work its way through my system and right now I’m on deadline and don’t have the time.
RS (Laughing): My brother apologizes and so do I.
SM: I read somewhere that "It's a Small World (After All)" has become the most translated and performed song on the planet? Is this true?
RS: It’s absolutely true because they sing it in all different languages and it’s played constantly somewhere because it’s everywhere in the Disney parks. It’s sort of an international song of love. If you take the words and listen to it, "Small World" is a prayer for peace. That’s all it is.
If you sing it slowly and gently it’s a dear, sweet song. Walt Disney decided this was going to be played in a happy uptempo. It actually disguises the fact that what we are saying is let’s not kill each other. Let’s learn to live together and respect each other, but without saying those words. I’m very much involved in things like trying to teach people how to live better and act better towards each other without laying it on with a trowel. I try to do it with a feather duster.
SM: It’s always been my contention that classic Disney functions best as a child’s primer on adult neuroses.
RS (Laughing): I think that’s a good way of putting it.
SM: I still have difficulty making it through the "Baby Mine" number in Dumbo. Were there any particular moments in Disney films that traumatized the Sherman Brothers in their youth?
RS: I don’t want to use the word traumatized. I’d say enchanted or enthralled. I have to speak for myself because Bob and I were very different. We felt very much the same about writing and working, but we came about it in different ways. I was the talkative one and Bob was the introvert. I was the Tigger and he was the Eeyore.
As far as I’m concerned Disney was always an enchantment. Long before I ever dreamed I’d work for Walt Disney I was enchanted by his work. I thought Snow White, Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi were an incredible part of my life. As a kid, I learned to really appreciate classical music listening to Fantasia. All these things were joyful to me. I also had the good fortune to work for a super genius of stories and that was Walt Disney.
SM: You were with the studio at a very crucial point in its history. Walt Disney died on December 15, 1966 and The AristoCats was the last animated feature to be approved by Disney himself. What was it like working at the studio during this difficult period of transition?
RS: Walt Disney did not see the final version of The AristoCats. He okayed the fact that we were going to do The AristoCats, but we hadn’t actually gotten that far. Bob and I were just digging in on writing a few of the songs.
Things were different at the studio; it was not quite the same. The story of The AristoCats is a delightful story and it was very well told, but the decisions were being made by other people and not by Walt Disney. A lot of the music that was written for the original telling of it were eliminated and new things were added. I fell it came out very well, but under Walt it might have been even more perfect.
SM: Let’s talk about the songs you and your brother wrote for The AristoCats. What information about story, character, and voice-artist are you initially supplied with in order to compose a song for a Disney feature?
RS: In our particular case we wrote for the character, not the person who was going to be singing it. We wanted a super French title song, that sounded like a period piece of French music telling the story of these aristocratic cats. We wanted to make sure that people understood what it was all about.
When we finished the song we were discussing who should sing it. We were thinking a group would do it or perhaps Robert Clary (Cpl. LeBeau on TV's Hogan’s Heroes) who was very popular French entertainer then. I remember someone in the room said it’s too bad Maurice Chevalier is retired. Wooly (Wolfgang) Reitherman, the director of the picture, said, ‘Sherman, you do that imitation of Chevalier, don’t you?’ “Oh, but of course,” I said growling my voice the way Chevalier did. Bob and I had already written for Chevalier (In Search of the Castaways) and my father had also written for Chevalier (Living in the Sunlight, Loving in the Moonlight). We were very fond of him. But he was very old at the time and in retirement.
Reitherman said if I recorded the song doing my Chevalier impersonation and sent it to him, that he would come out of retirement and do it. Sure enough, that’s what I did and Chevalier came out of retirement and he recorded it in French and English. It was wonderful and we were thrilled about it.
I saw Chevalier in Paris about 3 months after he recorded it. He was coming out a hotel as I was walking with my wife. I said, ‘Maurice! Oh, my God! I’m so glad to see you. I want to tell you that everyone at the studio is so thrilled about the vocal you did for The AristoCats.’ He said (impersonating Chevalier), “I did it as an homage to Walt.’ I said, ‘I want to apologize for that thick French phony accent I put on for the demo.” Chevalier looked me right in the face and said ‘Accent? I heard no accent.’ (Laughter all around.) And that’s a true story.
We didn’t write the song for Chevalier, but he did his thing with it and it became his own song. He came out of retirement to pay homage to Walt Disney. It was the last piece of performance the great Maurice Chevalier ever did.
SM: How does it feel for a composer to have one of his numbers cut from the final production, as was the case with She Never Felt Alone?
RS: We did a lot of songs for The AristoCats that were not used, but now they have these supplementary features on DVD. Every songwriter that ever wrote for a studio has things cut. It’s part of the game. It’s like every artist that ever did a sketch. All those sketches aren’t used. It’s not enjoyable, but it’s the dues you pay to be a writer and a professional. Sometimes really good songs are chopped and there is nothing you can do about it.
SM: What is your favorite non-Sherman Bros. composed Disney song?
RS: That’s a very good question and one that I've never been asked. It’s between one that you already mentioned, Baby Mine from Dumbo -- which is a glorious song -- and When You Wish Upon a Star from Pinocchio. Both those songs were inspirations for me when I was a youngster. They are both so beautiful and say so much.
SM: As one of the many children whose lives you added a soundtrack to, I cannot thank you enough.
RS: It has been and will continue to be my pleasure. Thank you.
More like this:
- Conference call with cinematic deity Hou Hsiao-Hsien — Nov. 11, 2015
- Penning Teller: An interview with the spectacular Miles Teller — Aug. 19, 2013
- For a good time, read this interview with Ari Graynor, Lauren Miller, and Katie Anne Naylon — Aug. 31, 2012
- Dig a Hole: Robert B. Sherman, Disney Songwriter — March 6, 2012
- Jeff Lipsky, Writer-Director of Twelve Thirty — June 16, 2011