PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Mary Poppins Songwriter Richard M. Sherman

By Robert Viagas
17 Feb 2013

Ellen Marlow, Philip Bosco, Henry Hodges, Raul Esparza and Erin Dilly in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on Broadway.
Photo by Joan Marcus

I was very sorry to hear when your brother passed away last year. How would you describe the particular magic that he brought to "Mary Poppins"? Is there something specifically that you can point to? I know that the two of you do both music and lyrics, right?
RS: The most important part of any song is the idea — the idea behind it. Why do it? Everybody's written "I love you…I need you…I want you…I lost you." These things have been written a thousand times, but why don't you find some new way of saying something? Something that nobody has said it this way, and so Bob and I would always kill ourselves to come up with saying something different than anyone would say it, so we didn't say, "Have a happy attitude, and a tough job is easy," we said, "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down"! Bob and I always dug, dug, dug, dug, dug for ideas, and then the lyrics — we'd both worked on lyrics. I'd sit at the piano. I'm more of a musician than Bob, so I would play, and he'd say, "Uh-uh! Change it!" We both sort of jammed our brains together and worked like that. It was unique — we worked together all the time. And, we'd come in with separate ideas, and then we'd define which ones were the good ones and which ones were ordinary, and we'd throw out the ordinary and keep the good ones. And, that's the way we did it.

Your dad was a songwriter, too. Did you learn that from your dad?
RS: Oh, yeah… Our dad was the one who taught us the three rules of writing a good pop song — simple, singable and sincere. And, I tell you, we always tried to make our songs singable. Broadway is lacking melody today, and I'm not talking about anybody in particular. I'm just saying, I like to write singable songs that the people could hum on the way out. Jerry Herman did that, and Irving Berlin did that, and Rodgers and Hammerstein did that, and Rodgers and Hart did that, and Cole Porter did that, and those are my heroes.

Some of the obituaries said that you and your brother had been working right up until his death. Are there plans to complete or produce any of those projects?
RS: There's a [musical] called Summer Magic [based on the Disney film of the same name] and another called MerryGoRound [sic] — a musical — which we wrote, waiting in the wings. Like all writers, we were always working on things and tightening them. But getting money today is a great challenge. And, so much money has to be gotten! [Laughs.] It's really incredible, and that's not my area, so the people involved are working like heck to do it. I know that we're trying to rekindle a wonderful [musical] that Bob and I loved, which is called Busker Alley.

The Tommy Tune show that closed in Florida during its pre-Broadway tryout when Tune broke his foot?
RS: Yes. And we had the St. James Theatre all ready to go. After that we did a version with Jim Dale for one night. It proved to be beautiful, and Jim Dale loved the show and wanted to do it, but we never raised the money. The people just couldn't put it all together. I always believed in that show, but we've been very unlucky with it. Our wonderful writer, AJ Carothers, passed away, and then my brother passed away. I'm the last guy standing on that one too. But I love these projects, and someday I hope to get them done.

Now that you're on your own, are you writing as a single now or are you looking for a new collaborator?
RS: No, I'm writing as a single because I write words and music. I've done a number of things now on my own, and I enjoy doing that. It's not a big jump for me to do that. I've done a lot of things now on my own — I've added new lyrics and things. Yeah, it's not like I'm sort of groping. [Laughs.] I'm still happy.