Published March 6, 2012 in the NY Times.Com
By Bruce Weber
Robert B. Sherman, half of the fraternal songwriting team that wrote the ubiquitous paean to togetherness, “It’s a Small World (After All)”, and that in films like “Mary Poppins” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” etched dozens of tunes and volumes of lyrics into the permanent memories of generations of children and their parents, died Tuesday in London. He was 86.
His death was confirmed by his son Jeffrey.
Mr. Sherman and his brother, Richard M. Sherman, were known for perky tunes and generally cheery lyrics, and their best-loved songs became standards of family entertainment, though their own difficult relationship was marked by decades of strain and periods of estrangement.
They won two Academy Awards — for “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” a chimney sweep’s proud anthem from “Mary Poppins,” the celebrated 1964 film about a nanny with magical powers, starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, and for the film’s score, which included the nonsense song “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” the spirited theory of child-rearing “A Spoonful of Sugar,” and “Feed the Birds,” a ballad that extols caring for other creatures, said to be a favorite of Walt Disney, their longtime boss.
The Sherman brothers worked side by side at the Disney studio from the early 1960s into the 1970s, producing songs for several movie musicals, both live-action and animated — “The Jungle Book,” “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” “The Sword in the Stone,” “The Aristocats” and “The Happiest Millionaire” — as well as short cartoons based on A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories.
After Disney died, in 1966, they also wrote the songs for “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” produced by Albert R. Broccoli, a film, jovial but with a hint of World War II darkness, about the inventor of a flying car. Adapted for the stage with new Sherman brothers songs, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” opened in London’s West End in 2002 and ran for more than three years; it was also on Broadway for eight months in 2005. The stage adaptation of “Mary Poppins” opened in London in 2004 and ran for more than three years; it is now in its sixth year on Broadway.
Both brothers took credit for words and music, though Robert was primarily the word man and Richard, who would sit at the piano as they worked, primarily the music guy.
“Their standard line,” Jeffrey Sherman said, “was ‘I write the words and music and he writes the music and words.’ ”
All the while they were immersed in a sibling rivalry and personality clash that eventually divided them and their families. Richard, the younger brother by two and a half years, was the more single-minded of the two, devoted to songwriting and little else; he was also known to have a blustery temper. Robert, who survived a harrowing war experience, had more of a wide-ranging curiosity, more of a poet’s probing mind. Friends made parallels to Paul McCartney and John Lennon; Robert was the brooder, the Lennon of the two.
In “The Boys” — a 2009 documentary about the brothers made by Jeffrey Sherman and Gregg Sherman, Richard’s son — Walt Disney’s nephew Roy, a former top executive at the Walt Disney Company, said that the difference could be seen in two of their songs from “Mary Poppins”: Richard was more “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” Robert more “Feed the Birds.”
In any case, though they continued to work together off and on and feigned closeness in public, they rarely spoke, their families did not socialize and the broken relationship was barely ever mentioned, even in private.
“We’ve perpetrated a facade for 50 years,” Richard Sherman said in the documentary.
Robert Bernard Sherman was born in Brooklyn on Dec. 19, 1925. His father, Al, came to this country with his family, Russian Jews who fled the pogroms, and became a Tin Pan Alley composer; he married Rosa Dancis, a silent film actress.
The family moved to Southern California when Robert was still a boy; he went to high school in Beverly Hills and at 17 enlisted in the Army. He served in Europe, was shot through the knee, awarded a Purple Heart and bore witness to the horrors of Dachau.
After the war, both he and his brother attended Bard College in upstate New York, where Robert studied literature and Richard studied music. It was after graduation, when they were sharing an apartment in Los Angeles, one brother trying to write stories and novels and the other trying to write symphonies, that their father issued them a challenge: “I’ll bet you two guys couldn’t pool your talents and come up with a song that some kid would give up his lunch money to buy.”
The sons took the bet and eventually came up with a song, “Gold Can Buy Anything (but Love),” that was recorded by Gene Autry. In 1959, their teeny-bopper tune “Tall Paul,” written with Bob Roberts, became a hit for Annette Funicello.
The brothers went on to write a handful of songs for Disney, films in the early 1960s, including “The Parent Trap,” and one day Walt Disney called them to his office and gave them a book by P. L. Travers about a magical nanny named Mary Poppins.
“He said, ‘Do you know what a nanny is?’ ” Robert Sherman recalled. “And we said, ‘Yeah, a goat.’ ”
The two songwriters came back with ideas for organizing the film’s story as well as for several songs, and Disney offered them a job.
Mr. Sherman’s wife, the former Joyce Ruth Sasner, who was a stewardess when he proposed to her on their first date and whom he married in 1954, died in 2001. After her death, Mr. Sherman moved to London. In addition to his brother and his son Jeffrey, he is survived by another son, Robert; two daughters, Laurie and Tracy; five grandchildren; and two step-grandchildren.
Among many other credits, the Sherman brothers wrote screenplays and scores for the films “Tom Sawyer” (1973) and “Huckleberry Finn” (1974) and songs for “Charlotte’s Web” (1973). They also wrote non-film songs, including “You’re Sixteen,” which was recorded by Johnny Burnette in 1960 and became a No. 1 hit for Ringo Starr in 1974. Perhaps their most listened-to song, “It’s a Small World (After All),” made its debut at the 1964 World’s Fair and, in a variety of translations, is played in continuous loops at Disney theme parks.
In the documentary, Jeffrey Sherman summed up the relationship between his father and his brother: “In life, not everything turns out like a Sherman brothers musical.”
In an interview on Tuesday he added: “My father had a lot of weight on him when he came back from the war. All he wanted to do with his life was make people happy, and I think he did that.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 8, 2012
An obituary on Wednesday about Robert B. Sherman, who with his brother Richard wrote the songs for “Mary Poppins” and other movies, referred incorrectly in some editions to Roy E. Disney of the Walt Disney Company, for which the Sherman brothers did much of their best-known work. He was a former top executive there, not a former head of the company; and he was Walt Disney’s nephew, not his son.
A version of this article appeared in print on March 7, 2012, on page B19 of the New York edition with the headline: Robert B. Sherman, a Songwriter For Disney and Others, Dies at 86.
All of these wonderful songs composed by the Sherman Brothers, are part of my formative years. Like most Boomers out there, I can sing all of these songs by heart and not miss a lyric.
Mr. Sherman has made an indelible mark on my life and I thank him for the joy his music brought me.