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Remembering legendary Disney songwriter Richard Sherman

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S A SMALL WORLD")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #1: (Singing) It's a world of laughter, a world of tears.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It's a small world and a slightly less magical one with the death of Disney songwriter Richard Sherman.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S A SMALL WORLD")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #1: (Singing) It's a small world after all.

KELLY: He was one-half of a songwriting duo with his brother, Robert. They were prolific, responsible for that song, the hits from "Mary Poppins," many other Disney musical favorites. Richard Sherman died over the weekend. He was 95. And joining me now for a remembrance is a longtime colleague of Sherman's - Thomas Schumacher, chief creative officer of the Disney Theatrical Group. Tom, thanks for joining us.

THOMAS SCHUMACHER: I'm pleased to be able to talk about my dear friend, and thank you for asking me.

KELLY: Yeah. And I am sorry for the loss of your dear friend. I'm thinking you must have grown up, as many of us did, listening to Disney soundtracks. Would you just tell me, do you remember the first time you got to meet and work with Richard and Robert Sherman?

SCHUMACHER: Well, sure. You know, the funny thing is, is because I grew up in California and I was born in the '50s, the Disney parks were a big part of my life, you know? So as children, you know, we'd all heard "It's A Small World" and, you know, "The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room" (ph) and all these songs they wrote for the parks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE TIKI, TIKI, TIKI ROOM")

THE MELLOMEN: (Singing) In the tiki, tiki, tiki, tiki, tiki room, in...

SCHUMACHER: But, you know, I first encountered their music before I knew them, of course, through the parks, but also through the film "Mary Poppins" and its premiere engagement. Get this - 1964, Grauman's Chinese Theatre, everyone comes bouncing out of this joyful musical. My sisters are singing away. I'm 6 years old, and I'm singing "Feed The Birds"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEED THE BIRDS")

JULIE ANDREWS: (As Mary Poppins, singing) Come feed the little birds. Show them you care.

SCHUMACHER: ...The song filled with ennui, the touching, deeply moving, almost thematic song of "Mary Poppins." And - but even as a child, they got right to my heart with "Feed The Birds," you know?

KELLY: Yeah.

SCHUMACHER: And they're so well-known for these bouncy songs, but that one just ripped me apart as a kid.

KELLY: Yeah. Richard's older brother, Robert - Bob - died in 2012. I want you just to remind us what else - other highlights of their, I mean, pretty incredible catalog.

SCHUMACHER: Oh, my gosh. You know, when you think of the Sherman Brothers, obviously "Mary Poppins" comes to mind first because they did write those indelible songs from the film. But I think a lot of people know them from, you know, even non-Disney stuff like "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: (Singing) Chitty bang bang. Chitty chitty bang bang. Chitty bang bang. Chitty chitty bang bang.

SCHUMACHER: ...Which Richard always wanted credit for because he loves that. I mean, there's - it goes on and on and on - the "Jungle Book," songs like "I Want To Be Like You."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WAN'NA BE LIKE YOU (THE MONKEY SONG)")

LOUIS PRIMA: (As King Louie of the Apes, singing) Oh, oobee doo. I want to be like you.

SCHUMACHER: It goes on and on. Their work, some - I don't know - 2-, 300 songs for Disney, but it's over a thousand songs when you start taking in all the stuff they wrote for everybody.

KELLY: Wow. And they achieved success on all kinds of levels. They won an Oscar for "Chim Chim Cher-ee."

SCHUMACHER: Yeah.

KELLY: And then, of all things, hit the Billboard charts, the Billboard Hot 100, in 1965 for "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPERCALIFRAGILISTICEXPIALIDOCIOUS")

ANDREWS: (As Mary Poppins, singing) Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

SCHUMACHER: And also, "You're Sixteen," you're beautiful and you're mine.

KELLY: Oh, yeah. So good.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE SIXTEEN")

JOHNNY BURNETTE: (Singing) You're 16, you're beautiful and you're mine.

SCHUMACHER: They wrote so much music. And they were very different guys. They're brothers, but they're separated - what? - three and a half, almost four years apart in age. And they had very different youth. They grew up in Beverly Hills. Their dad, Al Sherman, was a popular songwriter himself. But Robert Sherman, Bob, you know, fought in World War II and went through a lot of trauma with that. And then Dick did service later, but by the time he was there, World War II was over. And so these two brothers who wrote the most beautiful family music ever had a deep, deep and complicated relationship.

KELLY: I'm thinking that their collaboration and the things they both brought to that partnership helped - I mean, it helped Disney films become successful. You know, we know them for the animation, but so much of this was stories told in song. Is it fair to give these brothers credit for setting that standard, not just for Disney, but for so many animated features, stage adaptations that have come along since?

SCHUMACHER: Well, sure. I - it's hard to imagine "Mary Poppins" any other way as a film than what they created. But it's not just the songs on "Poppins" that they did. You know, Don DaGradi, who worked with them, and Robert and Richard really shaped that story and found the through line through it. They made a major character out of Bert, who you know as Dick Van Dyke, of course, in the movie.

But those songs in "Mary Poppins" are proper, big production numbers. So it's not - traditional film musicals tend to use songs to pepper the locales and stuff. But they were actually making a proper musical like a Broadway-style musical, but on film. And so they told the story in song. Right at the top of the movie, you meet the mother, played beautifully by Glynis Johns. Winifred comes out right away and sings "Sister Suffragette," and we're in 1910, and women are fighting for the vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SISTER SUFFRAGETTE")

GLYNIS JOHNS: (As Winifred Banks, singing) Well done, sister suffragette.

SCHUMACHER: That was entirely an idea from the Sherman Brothers. That's nothing to do with Pamela Travers.

KELLY: We've been talking about their work and their music. Is there a story you would tell that would help us know Richard Sherman the man, what he was like?

SCHUMACHER: The curious thing about Richard was how he wore his heart so on his sleeve, you know? And he used to also say that he was a jukebox. Every time you'd tell - ask stories, you know, you'd ask him anything, and he'd tell you a story. And he began to joke he had so many of them, you could just say, you know, 14D, and the next story would come up like a jukebox. Because he had stories about Walt Disney. He had stories about Julie Andrews. He had stories about everybody he had worked with and always stories of extraordinary affection.

KELLY: It sounds like he would have been a formidable competitor in certain categories of Trivial Pursuit. (Laughter) I wouldn't have wanted to face him.

SCHUMACHER: He just wanted to share everything and be part of it. The dearest man I've ever known, dearest man I've ever known.

KELLY: Well, you know, I read a quote. This is from - what is this - like eight years ago, Richard Sherman talking about you. And he called you brilliant and said you were the only other person he knew who could juggle as much as Walt Disney himself. So it sounds like he was good about paying it forward as well.

SCHUMACHER: I never heard that he said that. I'm overcome right now.

KELLY: (Inaudible).

SCHUMACHER: That's really dear. He's so great. And he loved making things. He loved sitting down at the piano and putting his hands on it. He played in C. He wrote everything in C. And he would sit there at the piano, and you'd just watch him make something magical. It was - and he was such a - he was an open book about all that, so dear.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHERMAN BROTHERS SONG, "WINNIE THE POOH")

KELLY: We've been speaking with Thomas Schumacher, chief creative officer of Disney Theatrical Group, remembering the late songwriter, his friend, Richard Sherman. Thomas Schumacher, thank you.

SCHUMACHER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHERMAN BROTHERS SONG, "WINNIE THE POOH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.