PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Mary Poppins Songwriter Richard M. Sherman

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17 Feb 2013

Richard Sherman
Richard Sherman

While the Broadway run of Mary Poppins is playing its final weeks, Playbill catches up with Richard M. Sherman, the surviving member of the Sherman Brothers songwriting duo, who crafted classic songs for the original movie. We also get an update about the new stage musical The Jungle Book.


Richard M. Sherman may describe himself as "the last man standing," but he certainly isn't standing still.

The Oscar-winning co-composer of the timeless songs for the Disney film classic "Mary Poppins" is the only still-living member of the film's top creative team, which included his brother, Robert B. Sherman (who died in 2012), and Walt Disney (who died in 1966) himself. The Shermans lived to see the film adapted as a hit Broadway musical, and, as of March 3, Richard will see the show close after 2,619 performances. But that end is the beginning of new projects, including a Disney-backed stage adaptation of another of his films, "The Jungle Book."

Sherman, 84, and his brother/partner learned their gift for wordplay from their father, songwriter Al Sherman. He encouraged the Sherman boys to make up their own words, which led to the likes of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" and "Chim-Chim-Cheree.."

As house composer for Disney for eight years during the 1960s, the Sherman brothers composed songs for Winnie-the-Pooh shorts, and feature films including "The Happiest Millionaire," "The Aristocats," "The Sword in the Stone" and the aforementioned "Jungle Book," plus the anthem "It's a Small World After All." Outside of Disney their compositions include the film "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" (also later adapted as a London and Broadway musical) and the Top 40 hit "You're Sixteen (You're Beautiful, And You're Mine)"

When they told you that Mary Poppins was closing, were you surprised?
Richard Sherman: One of the greatest prides of my life is the fact that we had Mary Poppins triumph on Broadway. That's a very wonderful thing — over 2,600 performances. It was a great, wonderful, shared experience. But, at the same time, it's very, very sad. It's a great achievement for a songwriter to have a show that plays on Broadway at all, and to have it play that long, and have so many people enjoy it and love it and talk about it. The only other redeeming thing is the fact that there are companies all over the world now playing Mary Poppins, and that makes me feel very good. We just came back from Mexico City, where an incredible all-Mexican cast, in Spanish, is doing the same show — same sets, same costumes, same everything — and it's just an incredible experience. So, it's alive and well and running in the world, but unfortunately it's saying goodbye to Broadway.


Current Mary Poppins star Steffanie Leigh.
photo by Joan Marcus

A lot of people who are now parents grew up with the film. In many cases the movie was their first exposure to a Broadway-style musical. I think a lot of times, when they go to see Broadway shows, they're kind of looking for the feeling they got watching "Mary Poppins" when they were kids.
RS: Wow. Well, that's a nice feeling. But let's face it, my brother Bob and I worked with one of the greatest storytellers in the world: Walt Disney. He knew how to tell a story for a family, and he knew how to create situations and feelings that were transcontinental — they went anywhere, they went everywhere, and they're universal. And, I think that was one of the wonderful, lucky breaks that Bob and I had — that we were given the assignment to work on "Poppins" in the very first place, and we were given free rein to use our own imaginations as to how to tell the story. If you read the original P.L. Travers books of "Mary Poppins," you'll see that there is no storyline whatsoever. It's strictly a bunch of wonderful experiences that this magical nanny has with the children of the Banks family. There was once a play called Six Characters in Search of an Author and "Mary Poppins" was really like So Many Characters in Search of a Story. You look at it — no story! We took six chapters that we thought were really juicy and visual and exciting — you know, jumping into the picture, things like that — and we actually made up a storyline to connect them.

The storyline of the musical, the one involving how Mary Poppins heals a dysfunctional family, that was originally created for the movie by my brother, Bob, and I and Don DaGradi. Walt Disney supervised DaGradi, Bob and myself in creating that storyline. We did it because we knew you can't keep people glued in their seats for two hours or more without a story. You're going to be pulling for somebody and worrying for somebody — it has to be there — so we had this father who is kind of distant and not connecting with his family, and we had the mother who is busy doing other things, so that Mary Poppins is needed. She comes, and she gives life lessons to the entire family, and that's what the magic of the whole thing is all about. Then, when she finishes her life lessons, she flies away. And, finally we said, "We have this storyline," and we told [Walt Disney] the storyline, and he loved it.

We also changed the time period of the story. The original stores were set in the Depression of the 1930s. But in the '30s there's no color, and who in America would believe that a middle-class family would have a live-in maid, a cook, a nanny and a handyman? Come on! That's impossible. So we said, "Let's turn it back to the turn of the century, a period with a whole different color. And, we used Music Hall-style music, that wonderful jaunty, cockney music. Walt dug everything we came up with.

I'll tell you a little incident that happened the first time we played him "Feed the Birds—tuppence a bag." That one little song is what "Mary Poppins" is all about. It says that it doesn't take much to give love. It doesn't cost you a nickel to be kind and loving. When we played it for Walt Disney, he said, "That's your whole story in a nutshell, isn't it?" And, we said, "That's right, Walt!" And, he said, "How'd you guys like to work for me?" And he put us on salary that day.

Didn't he say that was his favorite song?
RS: Yes. After meetings, he'd say, "Stay, Dick," and then he'd say, "Hey, play it!" And, I would sing and play "Feed the Birds" for him. He loved it because he was feeding the birds all his life. He was giving kindness to people. He was giving them joy. He was giving them "Mary Poppins"! He knew he had something wonderful there, and he wanted to give it to the world, and I'm very proud to have been part of it.


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