It’s a Small World for Richard Sherman. After all his success has been “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” with his music playing in movies and theatres round the globe on four continents. His songs have been called “savvy, emotionally engaging, lavish and exhilarating” from “A Spoonful of Sugar” to Walt Disney’s favorite, “Feed the Birds.”
And now a grand new version of his Mary Poppins will be spotlighting on the Segerstrom stage in Costa Mesa from July 14 to August 7, with Steffanie Leigh in the title role and original Broadway company member Nicolas Dromard as Bert.
His honors, in collaboration with brother, Robert, include two Oscars (Mary Poppins), nine Oscar nominations, three Grammy’s, 24 Gold/Platinum albums, a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and recipient of the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed upon artists from the United States government.
The brothers were struggling songwriters when they were struck with a lucky coincidence. When Annette Funicello, one of Walt Disney’s most popular Mouseketeers, recorded one of their early songs, “Tall Paul,” Disney was smitten. He asked the brothers to write songs for his films and continued to give them more assignments: “Parent Trap” and “Let’s Get Together.”
“Then he handed us a book,” Richard related, “Mary Poppins. The rest is history. This was a chance of a lifetime. Mary Poppins turned my life around. We went from pop tunes to writing entire scores.”
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was a sensational hit for four years, and they created over 150 songs for Disney films, TV and theme parks. Making its debut at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, “It’s A Small World” is the world’s most translated and performed song.
The brothers collaborate on the lyrics and music, though Richard declares he is heavier on the music. He said, “We slave to get to the core of the song, which comes from the situation. We are story tellers. We don’t just write songs; we write character, time, period and place. That’s what Walt Disney liked about us. Walt was a great storyteller and wonderful human being.”
The Shermans’ Disney film credits also include The Jungle Book, The Parent Trap, Bedknobs & Broomsticks, Winnie the Pooh, The Aristocats, The Tigger Movie, The Aristocrats, The Slipper & the Rose, Charlotte’s Web and Beverly Hills Cop 3. In 2005 Poppins was nominated for nine Olivier Awards and Chitty went to Broadway, nominated for nine Tonys, and also began its nationwide UK tour.
“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious was a manufactured word for children, something for their imagination, like a souvenir, something they could take home with them. It means a combination,” he explained. “Atrocious, precocious, super color, horrible talk. It took us two weeks to write it, and we called it ‘Pearly Song.’ Walt insisted on making that huge word the title. And now it is included in the better dictionaries.”
He revels in relating his life’s eeriest experience. Ten years ago he performed at the celebration of Walt Disney’s 100th birthday on Main Street in Disneyland in front of the statue of Walt pointing to the future. “Over the years, each time Richard and I would meet with Walt,” he reminisced, “he would traditionally ask, ‘What are you working on?’ We would answer with his favorite, ‘Feed the Birds,’ and would play it for him.”
“At the celebration, I played a medley of songs for an audience of 2,000, winding up with ‘Feed the Birds.’ The sky was clear and cloudless. Then, out of the blue, a bird flew over and circled above me. I did not see it, but I could hear a huge gasp from the spectators. They burst out in applause, sure that Walt had come back. A video was taken of the event, and it shows the one bird circling.”
Mary Poppins has been described as a magical nanny who has a healing impact on the dysfunctional Banks family. The new story, with Walt Disney and Cameron Mackintosh as producers, is an adaptation of a combination of the movie and play. Author Julien Fellowes conceives her as rather vain and quite stern, coping with neglected, brattier kids. The nanny gives them a feeling of love as depicted in “Feed the Birds.” For the new play, British Olivier Award winners George Stiles and Anthony Drewe came aboard, adding seven new songs and fleshed out some of the Shermans’ nine.
“They are very talented,” Sherman added. “The additional songs, including ‘Practically Perfect,’ describing Mary, enhanced the story. We got along famously. The play is now in its sixth year on Broadway, even playing in Australia.”
Richard noted, “I love the new show. I am very proud that it teaches in a very graceful, most delightful way, a little life lesson about being together and giving love. It doesn’t take anything to do that, and it makes life much nicer. I think the whole world should learn how to give a spoonful of sugar.”
“P.L. Travers, the British author of the Mary Poppins stories, was very difficult to work with,” related Sherman. “She delayed the movie for over 20 years and then fought the play, not approving of anything we did. She wanted no Americans involved and only period songs rather than original music, though the adaptation of her work made her a very wealthy lady.”
Richard Morton Sherman was born in New York City to Russian-Jewish immigrants, Rosa and Al Sherman. The family settled down in Beverly Hills in 1937. Throughout Richard’s years at Beverly Hills High School, he became fascinated with music and studied several instruments including the flute, clarinet, piccolo and piano. At his 1946 graduation, Sherman and Andre Previn played a musical duet, with Previn on piano and Sherman on flute. Coincidentally, in 1965 both composers won Oscars in musical categories for different films.
At Bard College, New York State, Richard majored in music, writing numerous sonatas and “art songs,” with ambition to write the “Great American Symphony,” which, he quipped, eventually led him to write songs. Within two years of graduating Richard and Robert began writing songs together on a challenge from their father, a song writer of the ‘20s and ‘30s, known for “Potatoes Are Cheaper, Tomatoes Are Cheaper” and “You Got to be a Football Hero.” Richard stated that his father was his greatest influence, though he also cited Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Rogers and Hammerstein and Jerome Kern, with Showboat, in his estimation, “one of the greatest shows of all time.”
Following in their father’s footsteps, the brothers would eventually form a long-lasting song writing partnership. Robert, now retired, lives in London. Both are now referred to fondly as “Doctor Sherman,” honored last month by their alma mater with doctorate degrees. Richard has been married for 54 years to wife Elizabeth, and they are the parents of two children.
Richard continues working, collaborating with Magic Castle creator and songwriter Milt Larsen. When new lyrics written by Johnny Mercer were recently discovered, The Mercer Foundation in Savannah, Georgia, recruited them to enhance them into a song. Richard added a few lines and it became Savannah’s official song, “You’re in Savannah.” Larsen is also the craftsman of Sherman’s front door bell, which chimes “It’s a Small World.”
Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Performances Fridays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 1 and 6:30 p.m. There is a matinee performance on Thursday, July 14, at 2 p.m. The 2 p.m. performance on Saturday, July 23, will be sign-language interpreted. Tickets start at $22.50.