Richard M. Sherman, ‘Mary Poppins’ and ‘It’s a Small World’ Songwriter, Dies at 95

Richard M. Sherman, two-time Oscar winner who collaborated with brother Robert B. Sherman on the songs for “Mary Poppins,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and the enduring Disneyland tune “It’s a Small World (After All),” died Saturday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Beverly Hills due to age-related illness. He was 95.

The Sherman brothers worked in a job that no longer exists: inhouse songwriters for a studio. In their case, the studio was Disney, and the brothers were hired for that steady gig after their 1958 song “Tall Paul” was a hit for Mouseketeer Annette Funicello.

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In the early 1960s, they penned tunes 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, always aware of synergy, made sure his family comedies had a tune with radio-play potential. The Shermans wrote for the animated “Sword in the Stone” (1963), which was a big hit, but their career really skyrocketed the following year. Their “Small World” song debuted at the New York World’s Fair, in a boat ride past audio-animatronic puppet-children singing and spinning to the song continuously. After the World’s Fair, the attraction transferred to Disney theme parks. The song is the ultimate ear-worm: Once heard, it’s never forgotten, meaning the millions of people who have experienced the ride can sing the song at the drop of a hat.

Also in 1964, the Shermans wrote the songs for “Mary Poppins,” which was their biggest success. The brothers won Oscars on both of their nominations, for music score and for song “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” The score also includes “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “A Spoonful of Sugar” and a song that was a personal favorite of Disney, “Feed the Birds.”

The Shermans worked directly for studio topper Disney until his death in 1966. After 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) and occasional animated films, notably the 1967 “The Jungle Book” (including “I Wanna Be Like You,” performed by Louis Prima).

They began to alternate work for the studio with other gigs. Their first non-Disney assignment came with Albert R. Broccoli’s 1968 film “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” which garnered the brothers their third Academy Award nomination.

Even when they weren’t working for the Mouse House, their songs carried a Disney sensibility — bouncy and positive, without any of the cynicism so prevalent in creative works (including music) in the late 1960s and 1970s. All of the Shermans’ songs had a catchy hook, and straightforward, unfussy lyrics with an upbeat attitude. At their best, the duo came up with “Feed the Birds,” heartbreaking in its tenderness, or “Wanna Be Like You,” an infectious Dixieland-style number.

On the other hand, their “Small World” and “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” (written for Disneyland’s Carousel of Progress) are like commercial jingles: less than a minute long and with a sing-song simplicity that is either fun or grating, depending on your mood.

They wrote the score for a WWII-era musical, “Victory Canteen,” that ran for seven months at the Ivar Theatre in Hollywood. That evolved into the 1974 Broadway show “Over Here!” with a book by Will Holt and starring two of the Andrews Sisters, Patty and Maxene. It was nominated for five Tony Awards but is best remembered for a cast of little-known performers including John Travolta, Marilu Henner, Treat Williams and Ann Reinking.

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

The 2000 film “The Tigger Movie” featured a song score by the brothers, their first work on a Disney film in nearly 30 years.

The Shermans certainly had their share of misfires, but their best work has been long-lasting. In 2002, a legit “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” including six new songs by them, premiered at the London Palladium, while the Broadway production launched in 2005.

A legit “Mary Poppins” bowed in 2004 in the West End and two years later on Broadway. It featured the Shermans’ songs from the film, plus added tunes by others. P.L. Travers, author of the original “Mary Poppins,” was said to be so unhappy with the Disney film that she told legit producer Cameron Mackintosh that no Americans would be allowed to work on the stage version.

The tense Disney-Travers relationship was chronicled in the 2013 Disney film “Saving Mr. Banks,” in which Jason Schwartzman played Richard, and B.J. Novak portrayed Robert.

Robert Sherman had died in 2012, but Richard was an enthusiastic campaigner for the film during awards season, appearing at screenings and fronting a sing-along at the Beverly Hills Hotel for awards voters.

In all, the brothers earned nine Oscars (seven of them from 1968 through 1978) plus four Grammy Award nominations (and two wins) and 23 gold and platinum albums. In 2008, they were awarded the National Medal of Arts at the White House by President George W. Bush.

In May 2009, Disney released the documentary “The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story” and later that year, the company released “The Sherman Brothers Songbook,” a two-CD set covering 42 years’ worth of their songs for the studio.

“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, CEO of the Walt Disney Company.  “From films like ‘Mary Poppins and ‘The Jungle Book’ to attractions like It’s a Small World, the music of the Sherman Brothers has captured the hearts of generations of audiences. We are forever grateful for the mark Richard left on the world, and we extend our deepest condolences to his family.”

Richard Sherman was born in 1928, three years after Robert. Their father was a songwriter, and the family moved around frequently but settled down in Beverly Hills in 1937. After his 1946 graduation from Beverly Hills High School, Richard Sherman went to Bard College, majoring in music.

In 1957 Sherman married Elizabeth Gluck, with whom he had two children: Gregory and Victoria. Lynda (Sherman) Rothstein is his daughter from a previous marriage.

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