Richard Sherman

Songwriter (National Medal of Arts recipient)
Richard Sherman

Photo courtesy of Richard Sherman

Transcript of an audio interview with Richard Sherman


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Richard Sherman: We say atrocious. That sounds very British. It's not like a nanny would say atrocious. And then you'd be smart, so you'd be precocious. And there-- that's a good word. And then we said "Well, why not 'docious' to stick at the end of it." And super colossal, we started with and that -- everybody and his uncle would say "super colossal" which say something just mad, you know, califragilistic. It sounds like it's important. And so we put the whole thing together and there you got it, "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."

<Music cue, "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious">

Jo Reed: Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists, to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed. Richard Sherman is half of the tireless songwriting team, the Sherman Brothers, and he's a walking, talking American songbook. With his brother, Robert, he's turned out hundreds of memorable songs, for stage, screen, and even theme parks. "A Spoonful of Sugar," "It's a Small World After All," and the one you just heard, "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," are just three examples of why the Sherman Brothers were presented with a National Medal of Arts in 2008. The Sherman Brothers have won two Academy Awards, both of them for Mary Poppins, one for Best Song, "Chim Chim Mer-ee," and the other for Best Musical Score. And when I sat down to talk with Richard Sherman, that's where I began, with Mary Poppins and Walt Disney.

Well, Richard Sherman, Mary Poppins was one of the most popular musical films ever made. Talk to me about it.

Richard Sherman: Well, it certainly was the beginning of an enormous streak of wonderful, good fortune. But the great Walt Disney selected my brother, Bob, and I to create the songs and help with the idea, the storyline of how to create this film based on a classic book by Pamela Travers. And as you most likely know, the books themselves do not have a storyline, so we had to invent a storyline, and that was a big jump, you know, to do book musicals for Bob and me 'cause we had started out in the music business as popular songwriters. So it was a Herculean jump for us, I mean that initial opportunity.

Jo Reed: Mary Poppins was your show.

Richard Sherman: It was our first major book musical, yes. And this is a long time ago, you know. <chuckles> It's forty, forty-five years, I guess.

Jo Reed: And you won not just one, but two Academy Awards for it.

Richard Sherman: Yes, we did. We were very lucky that day. <laughs> We- we got the Best Song, with "Chim Chim Cher-ee," about the chimney sweep, the lucky chimney sweep, and then we got another one for the score, which is a combination of all the songs, as used in the in the film. So we got two of 'em, each. <laughs>

Jo Reed: Do you have a favorite song from that musical?

Richard Sherman: You know, it's hard to say - favorite. Walt Disney's favorite was "Feed the Birds." Many times he'd ask me to play that for him so I think that's very, very near and dear to me because when we first played it for him, he realized that we were trying to say what the whole story was all about, that it doesn't take much to give love. That's what "Feed the Birds" is all about. It's not about the price of a bag of bread crumbs, and it doesn't take much-- tuppence is two pennies, nothing-- to do a kind deed, to show love. And that was the theme of that whole movie, Mary Poppins. And he read that. That was the day he gave us the opportunity to become his staff songwriters because up until then we were doing songs piecemeal for his productions, and at this particular time, he said "How would you fellas like to come and work for me?" And we said "Oh, yes, we would." And that was really the beginning of our major output.

Jo Reed: Can you talk a little bit about the difference between - as you say, you were popular songwriters - and then suddenly writing songs and music for a film.

Richard Sherman: A good song is a very, very special thing and great songwriting is a great art. But there's a huge difference, and a gigantic jump between writing for the popular market and writing for a story, because with a story you have a timeframe, you have characters, you have situations, you have all these things, a wealth of jewels to come to work with. And so it was a great blessing to be able to do a book musical as opposed to try to dream up another song to try and sell to the market, to get some singer to want to sing it or something. It was a very, very giant, giant jump for my brother and myself, and it all came about because of the fact that the great Walt Disney -- and I say that with such homage to him -- recognized something in Bob and myself. We were trying to write stories within our little songs. We weren't just trying to say the obvious but try to say a little bit more and he recognized that. We were writing songs for a little girl named Annette Funicello and she was like the most popular one. She was a doll and I loved her. I still do. And she sang a song of ours called "Tall Paul, He's My All." Big rocker. And it became a big hit. And to our joy what happened was that the record company, the people with the record company said "Can you do some more songs for Annette?" "Sure we can. You bet your life." Nobody asked us to "Will you write something?" We were trying to beg them to record our songs, but this particular lucky accident took place and she recorded our "Tall Paul." It became a big number-one song, and then we wrote a number of big hits for her.

And unbeknownst to us, Walt Disney was listening to everything we were writing. And so one day, he said "Bring those two young fellas that are writing those songs for Annette, bring those brothers in. I want to meet them and give them an assignment." And that's how it all started. He started assigning us pictures and storylines and - I mean, not storylines - but just stories to write a title song for, or a situation song. And then one day, after five or six acceptances, he handed us this book. He didn't say "Write me a song." He said "Read this book and tell me what you think," and we knew that's the writing on the wall. That was it. And sure enough, it was the stories of Mary Poppins by Pamela Travers.

Jo Reed: Had you read them yourself?

Richard Sherman: Never heard of Mary Poppins before. Funny thing happened. He said "You know what a nanny is?" and we said "Oh, yeah. It's a goat." <laughs> We thought "Well, he wants us to write a story about a goat," and he says "Oh, no, no. English nursemaid takes care of children." "Oh, yeah. Oh, sure we know what a nanny is." He says "Well, read this book and tell me what you think."

We'd never read the books before and they were enchanting stories, little individual stories that the dynamite character was Mary Poppins. She was just wonderful. And we felt we can't just come in and say to Mr. Disney, "We think it's enchanting and there's a great main character here." We said "He's asking us what do we think. We think it needs a storyline." And so we had to sort of drum up a storyline and that's what we did. We came up with not the storyline that everybody knows and loves now, but the one that gave us the opportunity to link six chapters together that we thought would make a very good story. After we finished telling our version of what we thought could happen and why Mary Poppins flew in and she did a good job, and then she flew out again, he said "Let me see your book." And we showed him our book and I was terrified because Bob and I had marked it up and underlined the chapters and all that, and dog-eared the pages. He took out his book and he showed it to us. He had underlined the same six chapters we had that showed like the basic storyline. And that's the day he said "Come and work for me." <laughs>

Jo Reed: Mary Poppins also dealt on the periphery of magic. There was magic that happened in the books, and certainly in the film. But I think what you and your brother did with the lyrics and music is that you had to contain that kind of magic by creating words like "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."

Richard Sherman: Well, it was expected of her. Mary Poppins was doing the unexpected at all times. She slid up banisters. She didn't just, you know, walk down the stairs or something. She'd slide down the stairs, too, but she slid up the banister. And when she put the children to sleep, we created a little lullaby called "Stay Awake," you know, just the opposite of everything that you'd expect in a lullaby and that puts the children to sleep. And so when we came up with this idea of doing a word, a gift that she could give the children, we decided we want to come up with some real crazy, obnoxious word like Bob and I used to make up when we were kids. In summer camp, we used to idle our time away with cobble-flobble-slobble-ation and things that meant nothing but everybody said "Oh, they're bright. They know the--" And so we wanted to come up with something that made you feel smart and everybody knew antidisestablishmentarianism is the biggest word in the dictionary, at that time. And so-- <chuckles>

Jo Reed: You kind of took over that.

Richard Sherman: Yeah, we took over that. But then, basically, what we did-- let's see, we wanted obnoxious but we didn't want to do that. We said "Yes, it's not British enough." We say atrocious. That sounds very British. It's not like a nanny would say atrocious. And then you'd be smart, so you'd be precocious. And there -- that's a good word. And then we said "Well, why not 'docious' to stick at the end of it." And super colossal, we started with and that-- everybody and his uncle would say "super colossal", say something just mad, you know, califragilistic. It sounds like it's important. And

so we put the whole thing together and there you got it, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
Jo Reed: You were also handed quite a cast.

Richard Sherman: Oh, what a cast. What a cast. What happened then was we had the excitement and the thrill of finding the right people. And in the business of motion pictures, it's so expensive. You always want to have that insurance policy, that major star that pulls in the cast in, with an unknown story because nobody knew Mary Poppins. And so, initially, we were thinking -- not we, but Walt Disney and the powers that be at the studio were thinking about getting a major player, an Angela Lansbury, Audrey Hepburn. One night, I was sitting at my tube and that fish tank, and I was watching The Ed Sullivan Show, and a young beautiful girl named Julie Andrews came out with Richard Burton and sang a song from Camelot called "What Do the Simple Folk Do?" And she knocked me down. I said "Oh, my God. That's Mary Poppins. That is Mary Poppins." I called my brother while she was singing and he said "Are you watching The Ed Sullivan Show?" and I said "Yes, I am." He says "I'm looking at Mary Poppins." I said "So am I." We couldn't wait 'til the next day. We walked in and there was Don Degrate coming down the hall. He said "Did you see Ed Sullivan last night?" Well, the three of us marched down to Walt's office. We wanted to announce that we'd seen the perfect person, and Walt's secretary, Tommie Wilkher name was, she said "Don't tell Walt you seen it. Let me suggest that he go -- he's going next week to New York - to go to Camelot, and let him discover it, because if you tell him, he's not going to buy it so fast. But if he discovers her himself ..." Sure enough, seven days later, he was there in New York. He saw Camelot. He invited Julie Andrews to become Mary Poppins, and that's how it all started. And it was Walt's idea to get Dick Van Dyke, who was superb, a dream piece of character casting, and he was wonderful as Burt. And what dancing and performing and acting he did. And singing.

Jo Reed: When you wrote those songs -- here it was, your first show -- were you writing for the characters? Did you have the stars in mind as well?

Richard Sherman: Well, you know, it's a funny thing, but your question is very well couched. Did we think about the stars? No. We thought only about the characters. We were trying to write a crisp, bright, strange lady with a bit of mystique in her, and that's all we were trying to capture. The casting came much later, but all the songs, the script were written.

There was one song, I remember, that we wrote specifically for Julie. She loved everything she'd heard, but confided in Walt that there was one song - we had written a ballad for a certain spot in the show, which was "Her Philosophy." She didn't like it. She felt it wasn't crisp enough, it wasn't bright enough for the Mary Poppins character. She wanted something that really epitomized her personality, and she would express the way she feels about life to the children in her own way.

And so Bob and I said "We'll come up with a slogan, a little catch phrase," and that's not an easy thing to come up with, like "stitch in time saves nine," "an apple a day keeps the doctor away," that type of thing. And so we were digging and we were digging, and one day, Bob's son came home from school. He was a little boy then. And Bob said "Jeff, what did you do today?" and Jeff said "Well, we had the polio vaccine today." He said "Did it hurt?" "Oh, no, no, no. They put it on a cube of sugar and they put it in a little plastic spoon and you took it in your mouth, and it was candy. It was delicious." My brother came in the next day with this glassy-eyed expression. He says "I think I got the title. I think I've got the title."

<Music cue, "A Spoonful of Sugar">

Richard Sherman: "Wow!" I said. "Yeah, yeah. Great." You know, and bang, we started going with that. Now, that was the trigger for that song and Julie loved that one.

Jo Reed: How did you and your brother become songwriting partners?

Richard Sherman: That goes back a long way. Our father was a great songwriter and he wrote songs in the '20s and the '30s that became very, very famous. And he was the one that teamed us up. He said "Together, you guys I think could maybe make something of yourselves" because Bob wanted to write novels and books and plays and things and I wanted to write classic musicals and all that type of thing. But Dad teamed us up one day and said "If you wrote together, I think you might scratch the surface somehow." And he challenged us really. He says "I bet you couldn't do it." He was like throwing the gauntlet down and we went for it.

Jo Reed: What was it like growing up in a musical family?

Richard Sherman: You know, you take it for granted. My mom was an actress and she also played fabulous piano. And my dad was playing the piano all the time. I used to sit under the piano and watch him. I'd watch his foot on the pedal and I'd wonder why he was doing that - when I was a little boy, listening to him write songs with his partners and everything. It was very kind of like exciting. The conversation was always about the theater and about music and about records. And I think I take a little humble bow once in awhile because I worked very hard at the gift, but the gift was given, God or the genes or however you want to put it together that gives you that. But Bob and I worked very, very hard all these years to create good stuff with the talent we were given.

Jo Reed: What do you think makes a good song?

Richard Sherman: Story, idea, concept, originality, freshness, the unexpected, the lack of being trite. Many times you hear a song, you know the next line before you've heard it, and you've never heard it before. And memorability. A hook. You could call it a hook, something that you catch and you can't let go of it. It's just part and parcel of your life and you look for those hooks. There's little things that you- - I can't explain exactly how you do it, because that's -- I don't know. People write books on how to do these things. I think it's gotta be an instinct. To me, it's gotta be instinct.

Jo Reed: When you and your brother sit down to write a song together -- can you just give me an idea of how that works?

Richard Sherman: It's exactly what you and I are doing. We talk to each other. We converse. We- we throw ideas back and forth. And being brothers, <laughs> we occasionally become insulting. I'd say "Don't insult me with that one" you know, or something like that , ut it's all done in jest. But I don't know. "That stinks." You know, we would say something like that. And then once in awhile, a line comes out, or a thought, or what about, if. And bang, we-- then we both-- there's that ahhh moment when nobody says anything, you know. And then "Yeah." And then we go from there. And I'm jumping over the piano. I play the piano, so I start playing and saying "How about if we do so and such?" and he'll say "No, do so and so" and we go back and forth. But it's a constant give and take. We do give and take, both lyrically and musically to each other.

Jo Reed: You were at Disney, or with Disney, during sort of the golden age of Disney.

Richard Sherman: Absolutely, those wonderful golden years. He had-- he had fought all his battles. He'd won all those battles. He'd- he'd sa- saved the studio with- with Snow White. And then he'd survive the war by doing war pictures and things like that, and he came back and he had Cinderella and he had these wonderful pictures. And then he wanted to get into live action. And about that time is when Bob and I came onto the-- onto the lot and became the staff songwriters. And my God, we wrote a lot of songs for him. We wrote every day, you know, and it was-- Poppins was this major, major opus, but we were doing all kinds of things, picture after picture. And the television shows, we did the Wonderful World of Color theme song, and for the parks, we did "It's a Small World After All," and many other pic-- songs for his projects.

Jo Reed: I do want to talk about those projects. How did "It's a Small World After All" come to be?

Richard Sherman: Oh, that was lucky. You know, sometimes -- a serendipity -- lucky accidents play a great part in your life, and in this particular case, yes, because I think it's the most popular song Bob and I have ever written, I'm told it's the most-- like an earworm, nobody can get rid of it, and they either want to kiss us or kill us for having written that. <laughs> Usually, kill. But basically "It's a Small World After All" was kind of a Band-Aid, if I might use that expression, for a project. They were doing this wonderful salute to the children of the world for UNICEF back at the World's Fair, '64 World's Fair, and they had this pavilion called "UNICEF Salutes the Children of the World." And in it, they were going to have these audio animatronics dolls, all magnificently gowned, and you know, costumed, singing the national anthems of the various countries as you went by in your little boats. And that's a great idea on paper, but in actual point of fact it was a terrible mess. It was a cacophony because every song was washing into the next song. I remember vividly, Bob and I were called down to a soundstage and we were listening to these children, beautiful choirs, singing different songs, and the first couple of songs were rather definable, and all of a sudden it became a complete mess. It was just a cacophony. And Walt said "Okay, kill it. Kill it." So they turned off all the sound. He said "I want you guys to write me a- a little song that sort of covers the entire subject. But make it simple so that we can translate it into any language -- repetition, that type of thing. You got it?" And we said "Yeah. Walt, are we stuck with UNICEF Salutes the Children of the World? That's a mouthful." He said "No, no, no, but it's about the small kids of the world. It's there, the hope for the future so that's the theme of the thing. Can you do something like that?" I think we can maybe come up with something. And so we came up with "It's a Small World After All." Let's not blow each other up. We didn't say that line, but that's the idea. The "after all" is the major statement. It's a small world, after all. Good Lord, let's learn to love and respect each other, and these innocent little children singing it has a meaning, and it does. If you listen to it closely it has a very great meaning.

<Music cue: "It's a Small World After All">

Jo Reed: You've written popular songs, and then you've written songs with books.

Richard Sherman: Yeah, the book musical.

Jo Reed: The book musical, and songs for events, like the World's Fair. You've written for Disney World for Epcot Center. And you've written for the theater.

Richard Sherman: That, too. <laughs>

Jo Reed: Are there particular challenges that each pose?

Richard Sherman: You know, that's a good question but it's so difficult to answer because every song has to have a reason. Bob and I always start with 'why?' because you just don't drivel away notes and words. Like so many times, you hear notes and words, and they come in and go out of your ear and you'll never remember them. Something memorable, whether it's for a project or whether it's for a pop tune or a little record, it's got to have something of substance in it. And we always dig for that substance. There's no difference to us, whether we're writing for a little stuffed teddy bear or a beautiful diva to sing it on a stage -- it's the same thing. We approach everything from the idea of that the finest possible quality for that particular subject.

Jo Reed: Working at the Disney studios, being a talent there, being able to be a creator there, it was supposed to have been a really, really wonderful time, where people just got to ignite each other with ideas, that there was a real back-and-forth among the people who worked there. Is that true?

Richard Sherman: That is absolutely and I think one of the most amazing things, particularly in the years when Walt was, let's say, the pro-generator of the whole thing. He was the spark plug, he would be in on these meetings, the creative meetings and he loved having joint meetings where teams got together. He believed in teamwork. And, of course, it's a beautiful way of working. The only ego in the room would be Walt and he never was an egomaniac, but nobody else could be egocentric. You'd have to be part of the team, and he liked that kind of team players. People that couldn't' play like that didn't last long at the studio. But he had 35-year men and 40-year men and 24-year men, who were there for all these years. It was a golden age. It was a really golden age. It never was that again. It never, ever was that again. When Walt died, the studio wasn't the same after that.
Jo Reed: Did it change very quickly?

Richard Sherman: Oh, dramatically. Yes. And then it came back with the advent of the new management, back about 20 years ago, and then a rebirth came into Disney, when they started really thinking about not the bottom line, but how good the projects could be. And there's a big, big difference.
Jo Reed: What songwriters do you like? Who do you listen to?

Richard Sherman: I adore great songwriters, well, starting with Gilbert and Sullivan, because I adore them. But then I adored the beautiful, clean simplicity of Irving Berlin, who said it all on the head of a pin. He was a remarkable composer. And then there was Cole Porter, the most sophisticated, fabulous, fabulous man with words and inventive music. And Rodgers and Hammerstein, the pure statements they made, the pure Americana of it all. There were so many people that I owe a bow of gratitude for because they inspired me. I never wanted to try to write like them or anything, but I tried to write maybe as good. <laughs> I tried to.

Jo Reed: You know, I always find it interesting, because I think without question, America's unique contribution to the world of art has to be music. It has to be jazz and it has to be the American songbook, the American musical, where you and your brother clearly lodged well. Why do you think that's where so many people found expression, that it's so unique?

Richard Sherman: There's so many flavors that go into it. You know, let's not forget the wonderful negro spirituals that came over from Africa in the beginning, the work songs that they sang, that was the inspiration for all of it, I mean the American style. Then blending the European, the Jerome Kern, who came over with these wonderful melodies, melodic lines and great harmonies using that, and then blending it in with the negro feeling. So you got Showboat, one of the classic song scores in the history of music, is Showboat. And I mean, and that was Europe and the negro spiritual blending together. Gershwin takingthe sounds of jazz and making it into majesty, I mean, he was just a genius. It's a combination of all these things coming together. Irish, the wonderful, warm Irish ballads.

Jo Reed: Is there any one song perhaps, or one project, that you feel perhaps closest to?

Richard Sherman: We started talking about Mary Poppins and I'd have to say this. All my hopes and dreams and everything, from the time I was in college, were built on wanting to write a great musical. I really did, very much. And I just loved all the people I mentioned before and how much I loved seeing their work, and I wanted to do something like that. And then the opportunity came along, 10 years into my career, as a pop tune writer. This genius, Walt Disney, comes into our lives and hands us a book and says "What do you think?" And I say "Mr. Disney, this is what I've been dreaming of all my life." And so, yes, we had the opportunity of a lifetime there, and yes, it was that picture that made it all possible, so all the things that followed’Ķ

Jo Reed: You are part of the most successful songwriting team in American history.

Richard Sherman: Oh, no, I never -- I wouldn't say that.

Jo Reed: Honestly. It's in my notes. It's true.

Richard Sherman: "It's in my notes." <laughs> It's true, it's in my notes.

Jo Reed: It's in my notes, it's true.

Richard Sherman: Well, we've been around a long time.

Jo Reed: Your songs speak to so many people. That's undeniable. Why? What do you think it is?

Richard Sherman: You know, our dad, years and years ago, when we were beginning, he sat us down and he talked to us and he says "The three S's that I want you fellas to burn into your brain -- and remember this for everything you ever write -- keep it simple, singable, and sincere." And as he was about to leave -- he said "And original." And then he walked out. I think if anything, we don't try to make it so complicated that somebody says "Aren't I clever? Look what I did? Look how I rhymed this?" It has to just be there like it's always like a friend. That's why I love Berlin, because he made it so simple to understand and yet he said so much with a few words. He was a brilliant, brilliant songwriter. But then, on top of that, you have "singable," and how many times have you come out of a show and you've had a good time in the show, but you can't sing a tune? You can't remember a thing. And after you buy the album, you still can't sing it. I mean, it's just - they've forgotten what melodic lines are, so that's singable. And sincere. So many times, people are just writing to be clever and to be smart and to be sharp and "How can I make this sound so kooky, and how can I use this filthy word and get away with it?" I mean, this kind of stuff. But to me sincerity comes from the heart, and you gotta mean it, and you gotta care about the characters you're signing about. Even if they're the bad guys, you gotta make 'em sincere bad guys, I mean, really go with it. So simple, singable, sincere. Originality is something that comes from, I think, experience. You know what's been done and say "How can I put a little twist on it to make it mine?" And that's the other thing. These are things that are easily fluffed off but those are really the tools, the rules.

Jo Reed: Is there anything you'd like to add on this auspicious occasion?

Richard Sherman: I would like to add that I am deeply, deeply moved that the committee of people that put these wonderful medals out decided to present Bob and me with a medal. I certainly never, ever dreamed something like this would ever happen, and it's very exciting to be in Washington, DC and looking forward to being at the White House and receive this award. It's a very special thing to me.

Jo Reed: And it's so well deserved. Thank you so much for your time, Richard. I really appreciate it.

<Music cue: "Take Five">

Jo Reed: That was Richard Sherman. He's half of the songwriting team, the Sherman Brothers. Richard and Robert Sherman were presented with a National Medal of Arts in 2008. You've been listening to ArtWorks, produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out more about the NEA, go to That's ARTS dot GOV.

Artworks theme music is Paul Desmond's Take Five performed by the Dave Brubeck Quartet and used courtesy of Desmond Music and Derry Music Company.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Other credits:

Throughout the program, you heard a few classic Sherman Brothers songs, including:

"Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" and "A Spoonful of Sugar" from the Mary Poppins soundtrack (2004), and It's a Small World After All from the album It's a Small World and Other Disney Favorite), written by Richard and Robert Sherman, published by permission of Wonderland Music Company (BMI), all used courtesy of Disney Music Group Soundtracks / Walt Disney Records.

A world without Mary Poppins? No way. The two-time Oscar winner lets us in on how great show tunes get written. [29:58]