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Publicity still from "Mary Poppins," in which the cast sings "Chim Chim Cher-ee," one of the Sherman brothers' most famous songs. Photo: Courtesy Disney.

It’s a Small(er) World Without the Sherman Brothers

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The Oscar-winning songwriter and composer Richard Sherman, whose musical work with his brother was such an essential part of Walt Disney Studios that the company renamed their premier soundstage after them, passed away over the Memorial Day weekend. He was 95. Robert, his brother and songwriter partner, died in 2012.

The pair, prolific since their teenage years in California, wrote the music that helped define the Disney brand during the 1960s and early 1970s. They wrote much, if not all, of the music for “Mary Poppins,” “Winnie the Pooh” and “The Jungle Book,” as well as the studio’s weekly television show.

They also composed what was the most played song in music history, at least until the digital era and streaming services.

“It’s a Small World (After All)” was first composed as the theme music for a ride at Disney’s exhibit at the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York. The water ride, which took passengers past rows of mechanical dolls from around the globe singing the song, became a fixture at the company’s theme parks and the song played endlessly, as every parkgoer came to know all too well.

“People either want to kill us or kiss us,” Sherman said in an interview with the Library in 2022, when the song was inducted into the National Recording Registry.

Robert and Richard Sherman (l-r) in 2002. Photo: Howard352, Wikimedia Commons.

Together, the Shermans wrote hits for pop radio, such as “You’re Sixteen” hit for both Johnny Burnette and Ringo Starr; music for films outside of Disney, such as “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “Tom Sawyer”; and many songs for Broadway.

The pair won two Academy Awards (both for “Mary Poppins”) and three Grammys. They were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and were awarded the National Medal of Arts. Songs from many of their productions — “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” “I Wan’na Be Like You,” “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Winnie the Pooh” — became staples for children of the era.

Sherman was in good spirits when I spoke with him by phone in April 2022 for the occasion of “Small World” being inducted into the NRR. He patiently explained how their father, Al, had fled Jewish persecution in what was then the Russian Empire (today, Ukraine), came to the U.S. and had an extremely successful songwriting career, penning hundreds of songs for Tin Pan Alley and for the film industry.

Robert and Richard were born in the 1920s and urged by their father to follow in his footsteps.

It wasn’t all Disney and show tunes, though. During World War II, Robert Sherman was one of the first U.S. troops who entered Dachau, the infamous Nazi death camp. Richard Sherman, two years younger, later served in the military but not overseas during the war.

Later, as the brothers’ fame increased, their relationship deteriorated to the point that they did not speak or socialize except for work. This was a delicate point of the 2009 documentary, “The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story.” Still, the personal sourness did not bleed over into their professional work. The stars who came out to appear in the documentary, all with affectionate anecdotes, included Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury and John Landis.

The best part of our 20-minute conversation, perhaps, was when Sherman recounted how easily the pair had written “Small.”

“We didn’t sweat blood over it,” he laughed.

Walt Disney had asked them to compose a song for the company’s exhibit at the World’s Fair, which was part of a tribute to UNICEF. The brothers worked up “Small” and, having no idea that Disney was about to embark on building more theme parks (the company had only one at the time), proposed to give the copyright of the song to UNICEF. It would be a very modest sum, they thought, since the ride would come and go with the fair.

Disney was driving them across the company lot when they proposed this. He was shocked.

Sherman, telling the story: “He stopped the car, turned and said, ‘Don’t you give that away! That’s for your grandkids! It’ll put them through college!’ ”

They kept the copyright and Disney knew his business. Out of all their major hits? “It’s our biggest copyright by far,” Sherman mused, more than half a century later.

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  1. I well remember this song when my first wife and I went on this ride in Florida. It was bittersweet as she had cancer, of which she subsequently passed.
    That was 1992, and it was a sweet and beautiful memory that eased the pain and hurt of that time. I hope they keep this ride up as it’s one of the best rides in the park!

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