Richard M. Sherman, ‘Mary Poppins’ Songwriter, Dies at 95

Richard M. Sherman
Richard M. Sherman

Richard M. Sherman, a two-time Oscar winner who wrote songs for “Mary Poppins,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” and the classic Disneyland song “It’s a Small World (After All),” died on Saturday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Beverly Hills of an age-related illness. He was 95.

The Sherman brothers worked as in-house songwriters for a studio, a position that no longer exists. In their instance, the studio was Disney, and the brothers were hired for a stable job after their 1958 song “Tall Paul” became a hit for Mouseketeer Annette Funicello.

In the early 1960s, they wrote songs for Hayley Mills in Disney films “The Parent Trap,” “In Search of the Castaways,” and “Summer Magic,” as well as songs for “The Absent-Minded Professor” and “Moon Pilot.”  Walt Disney, who was always aware of synergy, made sure his family comedies had a radio-playable tune. The Shermans wrote for the animated film “Sword in the Stone” (1963), which was a huge success, but their career truly took off the next year.

Their song “Small World” made its debut at the New York World’s Fair, on a boat ride past audio-animatronic puppet children who sang and spun to the music repeatedly. Following the World’s Fair, the attraction moved to Disney theme parks. The song is the ultimate earworm: once heard, it’s never forgotten, which means that millions of individuals who’ve been on the trip may sing it at any time.

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In 1964, the Shermans also wrote the music for “Mary Poppins,” their most successful film. The brothers won Oscars for both their nominations, for music score and song “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” The score also includes “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” and Disney’s personal favorite, “Feed the Birds.”

The Shermans worked directly for Walt Disney until his death in 1966. Following that, they continued to provide material for the studio, including the musicals “The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band” (1967) and “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” (1971), as well as occasional animated films, most notably “The Jungle Book” (1967) (with “I Wanna Be Like You,” performed by Louis Prima).

They started alternating between studio work and other gigs. Their first non-Disney work was Albert R. Broccoli’s 1968 film “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” which earned the brothers their third Academy Award nomination.

Even when they weren’t working for the Mouse House, their songs had a Disney vibe—joyful and uplifting, with none of the pessimism that was so common in creative works (including music) in the late 1960s and 1970s. All of the Shermans’ songs included a catchy tune and clear, uncomplicated lyrics with a positive attitude. At their best, the duo created songs like “Feed the Birds,” which is heartbreakingly beautiful, and “Wanna Be Like You,” a thrilling Dixieland ballad.

Their “Small World” and “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” (written for Disneyland’s Carousel of Progress) are more like commercial jingles: shorter than a minute long and with a sing-song simplicity that is either delightful or annoying, depending on your mood.

They wrote the score for “Victory Canteen,” a WWII-era musical that ran for seven months at Hollywood’s Ivar Theatre. That grew into the 1974 Broadway musical “Over Here!” written by Will Holt and starring two of the Andrews Sisters, Patty and Maxene. It received five Tony Award nominations, although it is primarily recognized for a cast of lesser-known actors that included John Travolta, Marilu Henner, Treat Williams, and Ann Reinking.

In 1973, the Sherman brothers became the first Americans to win the top award at the Moscow Film Festival with “Tom Sawyer,” for which they also penned the screenplay. They also wrote the song score and storyline for “The Slipper and the Rose” (1976), a musical adaptation of Cinderella.

The brothers’ song score for the 2000 film “The Tigger Movie” was their first for Disney in nearly 30 years.

The Shermans had their share of misfires, but their best work endured over time. “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” featuring six new songs by them, opened at the London Palladium in 2002, with a Broadway staging following in 2005.

A legitimate “Mary Poppins” premiered in 2004 on the West End and two years later on Broadway. It included the Shermans’ songs from the film, as well as additional songs by others. P.L. Travers, the author of the original “Mary Poppins,” was believed to be so dissatisfied with the Disney film that she informed legitimate producer Cameron Mackintosh that no Americans would be permitted to work on the stage version.

The acrimonious Disney-Travers relationship was depicted in the 2013 Disney film “Saving Mr. Banks,” starring Jason Schwartzman as Richard and B.J. Novak as Robert.

Robert Sherman died in 2012, but Richard was a vocal supporter of the film during awards season, attending screenings and hosting a sing-along at the Beverly Hills Hotel for voters.

Overall, the brothers received nine Oscar nominations (seven from 1968 to 1978), four Grammy Award nominations (two wins), and 23 gold and platinum albums. They received the National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush at the White House in 2008.

Disney published the documentary “The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story” in May 2009, followed by “The Sherman Brothers Songbook,” a two-CD set featuring 42 years of their studio tunes.

Richard Sherman most recently appeared in “Once Upon a Studio,” a 2023 live-action/animated crossover short commemorating the Walt Disney Company’s 100th anniversary of storytelling and enchantment. A cast of 543 characters from over 85 feature-length and short films includes iconic characters such as Snow White, Peter Pan, and Robin Williams’ Genie. In “Once Upon a Studio,” Richard Sherman performs “Feed the Birds” on the piano at Walt Disney’s Burbank office.

“Richard Sherman was the embodiment of what it means to be a Disney Legend, creating along with his brother Robert the beloved classics that have become a cherished part of the soundtrack of our lives,” said Bob Iger, chief executive officer of the Walt Disney Company. “From films like ‘Mary Poppins’ and ‘The Jungle Book’ to attractions like It’s a Small World, the Sherman Brothers’ music has captivated generations of fans. We will be eternally grateful for Richard’s impact on the globe, and we send our heartfelt condolences to his family.

Richard Sherman was born in 1928, three years after Robert. Their father was a songwriter, and the family moved frequently before settling in Beverly Hills in 1937. After graduating from Beverly Hills High School in 1946, Richard Sherman attended Bard College and majored in music.

Sherman married Elizabeth Gluck in 1957, and together they have two children, Gregory and Victoria. Lynda (Sherman) Rothstein is his daughter from a previous marriage.


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