With his passing this past week, veteran songsmith Robert Sherman enters those most hallowed of music halls—the myth. Even beyond his personal life—he was with the platoon of American troops that liberated the German concentration camp Dachau during World War II—and his many achievements and accolades, he will always been known by the sound he left behind, the lingering melodies and razor sharp lyrics that would keep generations humming and singing along. After a challenge from their Tin Pan Alley icon father Al, Robert and his brother Richard became a duo, delivering an early hit for Disney’s reigning sweater girl, Annette Funicello. Their 1958 collaboration, “Tall Paul,” got the attention of Walt, and he soon hired the duo as resident House of Mouse composers.
And thus the legacy was born. Over the next few years, the Shermans would craft some of the most memorable music in the history of the studio. They also ventured beyond the celluloid, coming up with material for Disney’s theme parks (“In the Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room,” “Making Memories”) as well as the TV and theatre. When the venerable cartoonist died in 1966, the Brothers took their talents freelance, coming back from time to time to work on projects they deemed worthy. Nominated nine times for the Academy Award, he would pick up two for the family favorite Mary Poppins. In his later years, Robert would oversee the conversion of his work to the stage. In the final few years, and in failing health, he spent most of his time living in London and painting, a lifelong passion.
In celebration of this man and his amazing work, we have decided to pull together a Top Ten of sorts. This cannot possible represent everything Robert Sherman was responsible for—even in today’s peek preservationist ilk, some things are still MIA—but it does provide a brief overview of his undeniable accomplishments. Also, as with any compilation, this is a matter of opinion. One item may have numerous awards to support a higher placement, but in our heart, it cannot trump our final choices. So beginning with one honest obscurity, here is our salute to Sherman:
As a Mouseketeer, Annette was Disney’s early TV medium breakout star. Hoping to translate said fame into something more mainstream, starring vehicles were immediately lined up. This one, featuring Tommy Kirk as the seminal character Merlin Jones and the fictional college setting of Midvale is unusual in one regard - it offered up The Beach Boys (yes, with THE Brian Wilson on bass) vamping the title tune. The Sherman’s crafted the material in vein of the popular rock group, and the song remains a standout in an otherwise mediocre movie.
The ultimate underage ear worm was originally conceived for the 1964 World’s Fair. Known as “PEPSI Present’s Walt Disney’s “it’s a small world” — a Salute to UNICEF and the World’s Children,” it was an immediate smash. Along with an animatronic Lincoln for the Illinois exhibit and the Carousel of Progress, the Fair became a testing ground for future attractions. In 1966, It’s a Small World opened in Disneyland, and the rest is history. In fact, many don’t know this but the Shermans actually conceived the song as a response to nuclear tensions around the globe.
After the reasonable return to form that is Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the boys decided to head out again and team up with the fledgling feature film fortunes of Hanna-Barbera. Their idea - bring E.B. White’s beloved book about farmyard misfits to audiences everywhere. The result was another fine score by the Shermans, even if the movie was viewed as a “travesty” by the book’s author. As a matter of fact, her strong words may have been responsible for the project’s initial rejection by audiences. Today, almost all is forgiven.
By the mid ‘70s, the Shermans had taken on Disney, E.B. White, and A.A. Milne. They even made a pair of musicals based on Mark Twain’s twin titans of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. So tackling the story of Cinderella was not big deal - that is, until it was selected as the Royal Command Performance for 1976. The British production, featuring Richard Chamberlain and Gemma Craven in the leads, was a moderate hit, highlighting the kind of simple, some would argue syrupy material the Brothers excelled at. The Queen Mother loved it, by the way.
By 1968, the Shermans had lost faith in the Disney studios. When Walt was alive, they seemed to be more interested in movies than anything else. When he passed, the product side of the company came to the fore, pushing ideas like this one out into the edges of concern. With a smashing cast that included John Davidson, Kurt Russell, Buddy Ebson, Walter Brennan, Lesley Anne Warren, Goldie Hawn, and Richard Deacon, the story of the 1888 Presidential Election and the part played in it by the singing Bower family should have been a smash. Instead, just the terrific score remains.