Robert B. Sherman co-wrote with his younger brother Richard some of Hollywood’s most enduringly popular song scores for family films. Mary Poppins won them Academy Awards for Best Score and Best Song (‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’), and their prolific output included The Jungle Book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Slipper and the Rose (which they co-scripted with director Bryan Forbes). They were Walt Disney’s only ever staff songwriters.
Yet despite a working relationship lasting almost six decades, the brothers were personally estranged, even keeping their families apart. The cause, as examined in Disney’s 2009 documentary The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story (directed by their sons), was an unresolved personality mismatch, Richard being more ebullient and Robert quietly reflective.
The sons of Tin Pan Alley composer Al Sherman, the brothers were raised in New York and California. Robert enlisted in the army at 17, fought on Omaha Beach and was the first American soldier to enter Dachau at its liberation. He received a lifelong leg wound and won the Purple Heart. Reacting to the horrors of war, he dedicated the rest of his life to the arts, becoming an adept musician, poet, sculptor, novelist and painter.
Still, it was the brothers’ catchy, impeccably crafted dramatic songs that brought global renown. They shared songwriting duties, but Robert was keener on lyrics and Richard on music. They excelled at melodic gusto, amusing rhymes (“time to munch an early luncheon”) and witty conceits (the reverse-psychology lullaby ‘Stay Awake’), displaying especial brilliance at the fantastical neologism children delight in (“hodgepodgical”, “discomboomerating”, or the 14-syllable ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’). Mixing Broadway panache with a touch of music hall, they adroitly cemented scenes with upbeat or tender songs about finding the good in life and meeting challenges with good cheer.
Following his wife Joyce’s death in 2001, Sherman lived his final decade in London. His Anglophile tastes (gained during wartime convalescence in Taunton and Bournemouth) are detectable in his work’s sources: Kipling, Fleming, A.A. Milne and tales of nannies (Poppins), Blitz evacuees (Bedknobs and Broomsticks) and King Arthur (The Sword in the Stone).
The Shermans never clamoured for the limelight. Ever professional, they would arrive for work in smart dark suits and their rift remained a private matter. It is fitting to the spirit of their songs, routinely celebrating unity and perseverance, that, for all their sibling strife, they will be remembered together.
Also in the March 2013 issue of Sight & Sound
Bob Mastrangelo’s survey of the film greats and lesser-knowns who left us during 2012, with new obituaries of Herbert Lom, Sylvia Kristel, Yamada Isuzu, Seyfi Teoman and child actors of the silent era.