Monday, July 16, 2007

Meeting Composer Richard Sherman

6/21/07


"Mr. sherman, it's a pleasure to meet you," I said, snagging a free moment of his time."
"Hi. richard sherman. Your name?" He was eager and ever-so-nice, towering over me at about 5'11.
"Jake. Jake Friedman. Should I call you richard? Or Mr. Sherman?"
"Richard. Richard. Call me Richard," he smiled.

Here was the man in full form, as seen on the Mary Poppins DVD and Peter Pan DVD. I complimented and thanked him for his work on the Poppins DVD, and I told him I loved the work on the Peter Pan song. He proceded to tell me the story like I was buying him a drink.

"...And i just sat with those lyrics on my desk for day after day, because the words just ended at '...in Never land.' and it just died. and then I just threw in an extra 'Never' so it became 'Never neverland.' and it just flowed. But i talked about all this on the DVD."

"You touched upon it," I lied. I was all smiles. Who was I to say not to rehash an interesting story? And he was telling it TO ME! Suddenly one of the PR folks readied him to prepare for his performance -- a live performance by Richard Sherman!

"Break a leg," I said.

"Do you know what that's from?" he asked. "That's not backwards luck, wishing someone harm. That's for the deep bow. You should bow so deep that you break a leg." And he proceded to bend one leg in front and one behind, as if he were halfway to a kneel, with his arms full out. This was a man in his 70's ful of vim and vigor.
"I never knew that!" i said, and he laughed and squeezed my upper arm affectionately as I took my seat.

I had reserved the closest seat to the man, thanks to my handy food-filled plate. The baby grand was in the corner, and my chair was on one side of the wall, about 4 feet from his seat. After a brief formal introduction, Richard Sherman walks casually between the rows and stand at his piano.

He starts his performance by saying he and Bob had the pleasure and fortune to work with Walt Disney, the greatest story teller of the last century, and to work with the famed nine-old-men. "I can't rememebr their names now, and we didnt know that they were the nine old men then, they were just the talented animators we worked with."

He takes his seat, and begins with his first works at Disney: A Poppins Medley; about 30 seconds each from Spoonful of Sugar, Let's go Fly a Kite and It's a Jolly Holiday, and Chim Chim Chiree. He then told the story of how one artist's sketch of a chimney sweep inspired the song, as well as that artist saying that it's good luck to shake a sweep's hands. [He identified the aritst. I cannot recall who it was, but i'm sure it's on the dvd somewhere.]

"This was Walt's favorite song," he says reverently. "Not just that my brother Bob and I wrote for him, but that anybody ever wrote for him." And he proceeds to play Feed the Birds. BUT before he begins the chorus, he goes straight into Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. he plays the first verse, And right before the repitition of the chourus, he stands up. "Can anybody say it backwards?" I scan my memory like a maniac, but he jumps on it. "docious-ali-expi-istic-fragil-cali-rupus." and begins to play the next verse, "...When I was just a lad, me father gave me nose a tweak and told me I was bad..."

After brief applause, Richard stood up. " Well, now that we got the Poppins medley out of the way... one of our next assignments was to musicalize another popular children's book series, one by A. A. Milne." He proceeds to play "Down in the hundred achor wood, where Christopher Robin plays..." into the verse beginning with Eeyore, letting his piano keys gallumph like a donkey gait, and then kind of hop-skipping during the "Winnie the Pooh" chourus. "Tubby little Cubby all stuffed with fluff... Willy nilly silly old bear."

Something occurs to me while hearing him play his tunes. This man and his brother had such a great FEEL for fun, nonsense, musical and lyrical language. Not only do the words fit the tone of the character and writing, describing the hum-hum-doodle-dum style of a bear of very little brain, but the melody is just fun and very descriptinve of each character, like Peter and the Wolf.

"Now, Pooh likes to excercise, but his reasons are vey different than yours or mine." He proceeds to play "Up down, touch the ground, puts me in the mood... for food." He then asks us, "Do you know what kind of animal is Tigger? ... He's not a Tiger. That's right, I heard someone say it in the back. He's a Tigger." And he plays "The wonderful thing about tiggers, is tiggers are wonderful things. their tops are made out of rubber, their bottoms are made out of springs..." And his caps it off by laughing like Paul WInchell. "Hoohoohoohoo!"

Richard then stands up and tells a story of getting the assignment for the Aristocats. He and Bob wrote the introductory song, and he told director Woolie Reitherman, "you know, it would be great if we could get Maurice Chevalier to sing this." Woolie suggested he record himself doing a Chevalier impression, send Chevalier the record, and see if he comes out of retirement. So he made the dummy recording, and Richard demonstrated how he sung the song in an awful French accent at his piano. Sure enough, Chevalier agreed to come out of retirement to record the song. Later, Richard was in France and happened to see Chevalier. "'I want to apologize to you for singing that song with that outrageous accent,' I told him. I'll never forget, he looked me dead in the eye and said, 'What accent?'"

"Looking around here, I'm reminded of another project Walt gave us." he said, referring to the jungle shrubs around us. Richard then tells the story of being brought to the Enchanted Tiki Room as it was being built. "It had some wooden totems saying "ooga Ooga and flames coming from torches, and it was interesting, but it really didnt' make any sense." In the presence of others, Walt asked Richard what he thought of it. "'It's nice, Walt, but I don't really know what it's about.' And Walt ponted at me and said, 'and YOU'RE going to write a song that explains what it is,' 'Ok, well, we'll it's enchanted, so we'll have them singing about it. It would be great if there was a parrot or something to help connect it all.' and Walt said, 'yes, four parrots, a French parrot, a Mexican parrot, a Dutch Parrot...' That was Walt. He had a way of always plussing an idea. And that's the way the Tiki Room has been for ...40-something years, in every Enchanted Tiki Room in the world. It was the first singing animatronics and it's still around 40 years later."

He then performs "A great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" from the Carosel of Progress," and "Imagination" from the Imagination pavilion at Walt DisneyWorld.


"Now sometimes the best productions can go sour." he says, and begins to talk about The Jungle Book, how Bill Peet boarded the whole thing, how he worked with Peet on Sword in the Stone and other projects, and how, due to Peet's dark observance of Kipling's original text, Walt was disatisfied, scrapped a year's worth of pre-production, and caused Peet to walk out. Walt then had a story meeting and held up the book: "'Did any of you read this?' no one did. 'Good.'" He then proceeded to act out the entire movie, Kaa, the tiger, the boy, the bear, "and by the end, we were all pumped and excited about it." In his explaining to the audience, Richard relives the moment, and there's a glint of excitement in seeing Walt, even in his memory, acting out the whole movie with zest and youthful enthusiasm.

"And then Walt came up to Bob and me and said, 'I want you to write new songs for this movie. But we're going to keep this one song from the other guy. you don't mind, do you?' 'oh no, of course not.'" and Richard rolled his eyes and gritted his teeth for us to see. Walt told them to find the scariest parts of the script and make it fun and light [which would become the King Louie scene].

The Shermans wrote all the songs except for "Bear Necessities," "It's a wonderful song by Terry Gilkyson, but I didn't write it, so i'm not going to play it, but i will play this one," and he begins with Col. Hathis's march. "we wanted to lampoon a military march with this one. And this one, we threw in all the S's we had," and he proceeds to play Kaa's "Trussst in Me" song. "And we were given the assignment to make an overall theme of the picture, so we made that the song that the little girl sings at the end, which Darleen Carr sung beautifully in the movie. I'm not going to sing it, but the words are --" and he proceeds to read the lyrics at the silent piano."...mother's cooking in the home, I will go and fetch the water, 'til the day that I am grown. ... It's about the whole cycle of growing up." Then he explains he will play the melody, and he does so, beautifully.

He also says he wrote the vulture song with the Beatles in mind, but they weren't up for doing the film. "We never met an an animal we didn't like -- I always liked that line best, because of course they haven't, they're vultures, they'll eat anything!"

Then he stands up, announces he will tell a funny story, and talks about "I wanna be like You" - starting with the Ooo Ooo Ooo gutteral grunt that monkeys make becoming "oo oo oo, I wanna be like you-oo-oo. Well, what monkeys do - they swing! ... he's the head honcho, the.. VIP. SO he's the king of swingers, the jungle V.I.P. Richard starts playing the song, and divulges a lost verse in the middle of the song, singing about Louie and Mogli being so close as like twins, that people won't be able to tell the difference, but currently Louie peels bananas with his feet and wants to learn etikeet.

And Richard tells how Louie Prima and Phil Harris weren't able to record on the same day ever, so Louie recorded first, with his right-hand mea, who repeated Louie's scat word for word. When Phil listened to it with the headphones, he got really upset, "I don't scat like that. That's not me." so Woolie said, "just do whatever you feel comfotable saying," and it resulted, as Richard said, "in this great double talk jibber jabber between the two of them. They're having a real dialogue, and then we told phil to add some words, so he says things like 'take it home, daddy.'"

Richard is ready to wrap up, and he then concludes by saying, "this is a song we wrote for the 1964 world's fair. I think you'll recognize it. Feel free to sing along if you know the words. We wrote this as a prayer for peace." And he begins very sollemnly to play "It's a Small World" on the piano, "It's a world of laughter, a world of tears..." with the humble sensitivity that only its composer - not a cavalcade of suger-high robot children - can give.

He stood up, we applauded [i was grinning ear to ear throughout and he winked at me a few times. i was clapping twice as fast].

Afterward, i got the chance to ask him a couple questions. Did Walt hear the Pooh songs? Yes. The Aristocats songs? "No, that project started after he was gone." When I was on the Carosel of progress, it played "This is the time, this is the best time, this is the best time of your life..." He said, "yes, we wrote that, too. There was new management, and they wanted a song that was more about the present instead of the future." Finally, i asked him about that moment in "Lion King" where the bird starts singing "It's a small world," and Scar says, "anything but that." Richard kid of rolls his eyes in mild annoyance and says, "well, i can see how that song could drive people crazy. Some people wouldn't want to be stuck on that ride. I know i wouldn't."

His hands were shakey when he wasn't playing, he voice was a bit shakey and sounded a little hoarse with age. His body is aging. But he had the youthful spirit of a man who was touched by the gift of letting his dreams come true.

Walt gave him that opportunity. Richard could have easily stayed at home and let us fools entertain ourselves. But it became clear that he wasn't playing for us. He was playing for Walt.

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