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"it's a small world" composer looks back on his big career at Disney

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"it's a small world" composer looks back on his big career at Disney

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It wasn't always easy directly working for Walt Disney. Sometimes you found yourself dealing with some very weird assignments.

"My brother and I were in our office one day when we got a phone call. 'Walt wants you down on Stage 4,' "Disney Legend Richard M Sherman recalled during a recent phone interview. "So we hurry on down there. Walt greets us at the door and then leads us to some seats on this darkened soundstage. And he then says 'Okay. Turn it on.' And we're suddenly surrounded by all of these talking tikis and singing birds."

"After a few minutes, my brother and I turn to Walt and say 'This is amazing. But what's it all for? What's this show supposed to be about?," Richard continued. "So Walt laughed and then said 'Well, that's why I brought you two down here. You're going to write a song which explains to the world what this show is actually all about.' Which is where 'In the Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Room' song came from. "

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Mind you, this was just one of the dozens of tunes that Richard M and Robert B Sherman wrote while they were Walt Disney Productions' house composers during much of the 1960s and the early 1970s. So if you've ever found yourself humming the "Winnie the Pooh" theme song and/or singing "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," you have these two to thank.

And speaking of thanks ... Hundreds of Disneyana fans are expected to turn out in Hollywood tonight to pay tribute to Richard Sherman. This multi-media musical showcase - which will feature appearances by Maestro Richard Allen, international concert and recording artist Rob Richards and Nashville pianist Alex Zsolt --  will be presented at the El Capitan Theatre. Which is a part of Tinsel Town that this Disney Legend knows particularly well.

"The world premieres of 'Mary Poppins' and 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' - which my brother and I wrote the music & lyrics for - were held across the street at the Chinese Theater. And the premiere of 'The Tigger Movie' was held at the El Cap," Sherman said. "So this is a part of Hollywood that I'm very familiar with."

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Now when a 83 year-old songwriter typically receives these sorts of accolades, one would naturally assume that they've come to the end of their career. But Richard M Sherman is not your typical 83 year-old songwriter.

"I actually wrote a song last year - 'Make Way for Tomorrow Today' - which was used in both 'Iron Man 2' and 'Captain America,' " Richard stated. "I also recorded a CD of my piano music, 'Forgotten Dreams.' Not to mention performing at the Destination D event at Walt Disney World and taking part in the 'It's a Small World: Celebrating 45 Years' panel at the D23 EXPO."

Speaking of "it's a small world" ... Writing the theme song for this Disney Park attraction was another one of those assignments that Walt suddenly dropped in Richard & Robert's lap.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"Again we get a phone call. 'Walt needs you down on Soundstage 4 to take a look at the UNICEF ride.' So we get down there and it's a room full of singing dolls. Only because each of these dolls is singing the national anthem of their own individual country ... Well, it sounds just awful," Richard laughed. "So Walt turns to us and says 'I need you guys to write a song that all of these dolls can sing. A simple round. Nothing too preachy. But make it bouncy. And I need this yesterday. This 'UNICEF Salutes the Children' attraction opens at the New York World's Fair in 9 months."

So Richard and Robert retreat to their office on the Disney lot and quickly try to come up with a tune.

"Now you have to remember that this was the 1960s at the height of the Cold War. A time when it seemed like we were always minutes away from blowing everything up. Which wouldn't be a very smart thing to do because there is just one moon and one golden sun and a smile means friendship to everyone," Sherman recalled. "And just like that, that song flowed out of my brother and I. Its message is so simple and sincere. It's a small world after all. So let's be nice to one another and not blow each other up."

The Brothers Sherman with some of the props from "it's a small world."
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But because 'it's a small world' came together so quickly (Richard and Robert literally wrote this entire tune over a single lunch hour), the brothers didn't initially think that this song was any good. So they spent the rest of that afternoon laboring over alternate theme songs for this attraction.

"But now here comes Walt. We can hear his footsteps coming down the hallway. And my brother turns to me and says 'Play the first one.' I say 'Really? The simple one?" And he says 'Yes.' So as Walt walks into our office, I'm at the piano singing 'it's a world of laughter, a world of tears, it's a world of hopes, it's a world of fears ...," Richard remembered. "So Walt listens to the song and then says 'Play it again.' So I play it again. Walt then says 'Follow me.' So we get in his car and drive over to Glendale. Where we then play this song for the Imagineers. And they get all excited and start talking about how we can play it in a minor key during the Japanese & China section of the ride so that the song then sounds authentically oriental  ... "

"And nine months later, 'it's a small world' - the Imagineers ditched that awful 'UNICEF Salutes the Children of the World' name which this attraction originally had in favor of our song title - opens at the 1964 New York Worlds Fair. And it's the hit of the Fair," Sherman smiled. "And nobody knew that this song was something that my brother and I wrote on the fly because Walt needed something yesterday."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But the strength of "it's a small world" (i.e. that it's a seemingly simple song with a heartfelt sentiment which is also immediately catchy) is a strength that runs through many of Richard & Robert Sherman's very best songs. But at the same time, while they were working as the house composers at Disney, the Shermans never deliberately tried to write a catchy, commercial tune. They were always trying to find the very best way to service the ride or the show that Walt had assigned them to work on.

"Like when we worked on 'Mary Poppins.' All of the songs we wrote for that movie serviced the story. They all arose naturally from the characters or the situations that they found themselves in," Sherman said. "That's why my favorite compliment that I ever got for 'Mary Poppins' was when a friend of mine walked out of a preview screening and said to me 'Well, that didn't have a lot of music, did it?' And I then told him that 'Mary Poppins' has 14 songs and 12 reprises. It just didn't seem like a lot of music while you were watching that movie because those songs were all woven into the thread of that story."

 Sadly, that sort of craftsmanship seems to be in short supply these days. Which is why it's nice that music fans are coming together tonight in Hollywood at the El Capitan Theatre to look back at Richard M Sherman's career. Which is kind of ironic, given that - as the man wrote "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" - Richard is always one who keeps an eye on the future.

"My brother and I wrote a Broadway musical, 'Busker Alley,' that almost made it into New York. We were out-of-town in Tampa, literally ready to move this musical to Broadway when our star - Tommy Tune - injured himself while he was onstage performing and then couldn't continue with the show," Sherman stated. "I'm still trying to get that show produced on Broadway. Jim Dale did a benefit concert version of 'Busker Alley'that everyone just loved. So who knows? It may yet happen."

Which is just what you'd expect from the guy who wrote these optimistic lyrics for "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang."  Which (hopefully) will resonate with all those who really struggled to get through 2011:

So when it gets distressing it's a blessing
Onward and upward you must press
Till up from the ashes, up from the ashes grow the roses of success

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  • Awesome article - thank you, Jim!

  • Very interesting and amazing article! I've seen the Sherman brothers' documentary and they just had the music in them, so natural, so talented!! I think they were made for Disney! They fit like a glove!

  • how cool to be  the go to music guys for a lot of things Disney was doing that still are around like Mary poppins plus to actully learn they created the its a small world theme because Disney himself  requested it mostly because all those dolls singing their own countries song was not working.

  • Wow, cool article! I've always admired the Sherman Brothers, and it was very neat to hear the story behind some of their songs.

    Also, I heard on a Disneyland "documentary" (really an advertisement with a couple of neat facts thrown in) that it's a small world (the song) was orginally a slow sort of ballad. I can't imagine if it was slow!

  • Bethinator - Richard's made a couple of appearances in the past few years where he plays a couple of lines of the song at the original ballad-like pace, and it's actually kind of a sweet song that way. I'm surprised that nobody's ever decided to do a cover of the song at the slower pace, but I guess nobody other that Richard can really imagine the song being played at anything but the more familiar bouncy tempo.

  • Did the tribute evening get covered on video and does anyone have a link to it? These kinds of appearances from genuine Disney legends are so rare these days and it would be a shame if they weren't available to the general Disney fan base.

    EDITOR'S NOTE: Head on over to MouseInfo.com, Simon. While that site don't have the entire evening taped, they do have the high points. And it really looks like it was a fun night.

    Here's a direct link: http://www.mouseinfo.com/forums/content/644-inside-depth-tribute-richard-m-sherman-el-capitan-theater.html

  • Nice article,You're music will live beyond all of us.

    I bet the Sherman brothers must be very happy that Disney uses their music in all of the four cruise ship's horns.

    Bringing Disney to a different market.

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