Robert Sherman died this week at his home in London, at the age of 86. And if the name doesn't ring a bell, you probably know his work more than you may realize: With his brother Richard, Robert was one-half of the Sherman Brothers, Walt Disney's favorite songwriting team. In 1965, their work on Mary Poppins won the Academy Awards for Best Original Score and Best Song ("Chim Chim Cher-ee") for familiar tunes such as “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” which—combined with Julie Andrews’s Best Actress win—were part of Uncle Walt's best Oscar night ever.
Still, the Shermans’ crowning achievement for Disney was probably "It's A Small World (After All)", the theme song originally written for the pavilion Disney designed for the 1964 New York World's Fair. Intended as a salute to universal brotherhood (and a fundraising tool for UNICEF), the song has never been copyrighted, and since its debut on April 22, 1964, it’s gone on to become one of the most familiar pieces of music in the world. It's probably earworming someone right now, possibly you.
Sherman, a child prodigy, broke into showbiz when he was still a 16-year-old high school student, writing a stage play that was broadcast on radio to raise war bonds, earning him a special citation from the U.S. Army. He soon joined the army himself and was among the American troops who liberated Dachau, later shipping home after a gunshot wound that required him to walk with a cane for the rest of his life. Sherman then graduated Bard College and tried his hand as a painter and novelist before joining forces with his brother to follow in the footsteps of their father, Tin Pan Alley songwriter Al Sherman. The duo had their first success in 1958 with "Tall Paul", a Top 10 hit for Annette Funicello. It was that Mouseketeer connection that landed them a meeting with Disney, which soon led to an assignment to write songs for The Parent Trap.
The Shermans soon settled in at the Disney studio and worked hands-on with Disney himself on many projects, including The Sword In The Stone and The Jungle Book—the last animated feature to be partly overseen by Disney before his death in 1966. They continued to write songs for such Disney films as The Aristocats and Bedknobs And Broomsticks, although after Walt’s death, they felt that the atmosphere at the studio no longer seemed as welcoming. So they began to branch out, doing work on other children's films such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Snoopy Come Home, The Magic Of Lassie, and The Slipper And The Rose.
The two were credited with both the songs and the screenplays for the 1973 Reader's Digest production Tom Sawyer (with Johnny Whitaker, Warren Oates, and the ten year-old Jodie Foster) as well as its follow-up, Huckleberry Finn. The brothers' stage musical Victory Canteen opened off-Broadway in 1971, and was followed in 1974 by the Broadway hit Over There. And of course, their biggest non-Disney individual success was probably "You're Sixteen", a 1960 hit for Johnny Burnette that became an even bigger hit when Ringo Starr covered it 14 years later.
By the end of the 1970s, the brothers' careers had cooled off considerably, and by the time Disney started making noise with animated features again in the late '80s and early '90s, Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Beauty And The Beast) was the new studio favorite. In the 2009 documentary The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story, Menken describes his mixed feelings when a Disney executive told him he was eager to hear his ideas about songs for a new movie but that he first had to go into the next room and—as a courtesy—humor the Shermans, who thought they had a chance at the job. (Nevertheless, the brothers did finally write songs for one more Disney release, 2000’s The Tigger Movie.)
The Boys (which at one time was being considered for a dramatized adaptation) includes both classic footage and recent interviews with both Robert and Richard, and reveals the contrast between Robert and the music he produced. While Richard comes across as a likable, happy schlub, Robert, handsome and intense, seemed like someone who often had something on his mind that wasn't entirely supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. He'd had an exciting, unpredictable, and sometimes scary youth, and he wound up rich, comfortable, and esteemed in his field, but still, Robert Sherman clearly wasn't a man who never thought about what he might have missed on the road not traveled.
The brothers had one more great big theatrical hit when Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, their songs still intact, was converted into a stage show that became the longest-running production in the history of the London Palladium. (An attempt to repeat its success on Broadway didn't take.) This was followed in 2004 with a stage version of Mary Poppins that incorporated the songs from their movie score. A year later, the Shermans were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and in 2008, they were awarded the National Medal of the Arts.