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Step In Time. Q+A With Legendary Songwriter Richard Sherman For ‘Mary Poppins’ At 50

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He will soon be seen played by BJ Novak, in the upcoming SAVING MR. BANKS but Richard Sherman will always be remembered as a Disney legend, writing scores with his brother Robert for the likes of THE JUNGLE BOOK, THE PARENT TRAP, THE SWORD IN THE STONE, and most famously for MARY POPPINS, which celebrates its 50th year in 2014.

The film will be getting a glorious Blu-Ray release featuring tons of special features on Monday 18th, January, and to co-incide with the release, here’s Sherman talking about working on the film back in the early 1960s.

Q: What was your role in writing the songs for “MARY POPPINS”?

A:. We had done some project work for Disney, previously, on films like “THE PARENT TRAP,” when one day Walt Disney handed us a book. It was the very first of the four Mary Poppin’s books and Walt said, “Read this and tell me what you think.” Robert and I read it and realized we were facing the opportunity of a lifetime to create a great musical fantasy that could potentially rival “The Wizard of Oz.” “MARY POPPINS” still remains more than just a song-writing project for my brother, Robert, and myself because it was after our work on the film that we were hired on by the studio as staff writers

Q: How closely did you work with Walt on the music for “MARY POPPINS”?

A: My brother and I developed a musical outline based upon six chapters in the book and then asked Walt’s assistant if we could meet with him to discuss our ideas. We came into the meeting and started talking and Walt never interrupted us. He seemed as enthusiastic as we were about our ideas, but very quiet. At one point Walt said, “Let me see your notes.” We handed him our copy of the “Mary Poppins” book in which we had underlined the six chapters we wanted to use. Walt chuckled to himself, pulled out his own copy of “Mary Poppins,” and showed us he had underlined the same six chapters.

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Q: Is it true that “MARY POPPINS” was the culmination of a 15 year dream of Walt’s to bring the story to the screen?

A: There were a number of people who had tried to do this project previously. Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim and Samuel Goldwyn had all tried to obtain the rights to “MARY POPPINS” with no luck. I think that Walt’s version prevailed because he had a unique sense of which parts of the book would appeal to audiences and also a unique ability to spark creativity in people. For example, in the books, there are actually three separate male characters -a houseman, a sidewalk artist and a chimney sweep – that were combined into one character named Bert for the film. Walt said, “We don’t need all three characters, it’s getting too confusing. Let’s just have one character who’s a jack-of-all-trades.”

Q: Where did you and your brother find your inspiration for the songs in MARY POPPINS?

A: Much of our inspiration came from our own lives. For example, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” came from our memories of our father as kite maker and the times he would take us out in the park to fly kites. In the case of “Supercalifradgilisticexpliadocious,” we remembered being children at a summer camp in the Aiderondack Mountains in Pennsylvania. At camp we had a contest for who could invent a word longer than “antidisestablishmentarianism.” We were all coming up with crazy words and Bob and I remember one similar to “supercalifradgilisticexpliadocious” but it didn’t quite have “docious” in it. We added it in the song because the word needed to rhyme it with atrocious and precocious.

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Q: What is your favorite MARY POPPINS song?

A: If you have 14 beautiful children and you love them all, and they’ve all turned out so well, how can you pick one? “Feed the Birds” will always be near and dear to my heart because it was not only Walt’s favorite “MARY POPPINS” song, it was his favorite song altogether. We often tell the story that on Fridays, we would go into Walt’s office to discuss various projects we were working on and he would look at me and say, “Play it, Dick.” I knew he meant “Feed the Birds,” and I’d play and sing it for him.

Q: Since MARY POPPINS is a blend of live-action, animation and special effects, were there any special challenges in creating the music for the film?

A: My brother and I have always written songs to fit a particular character and not the specific genre in which they appear. In “THE JUNGLE BOOK,” we didn’t think in terms of Baloo as a bear, or King Louis as an ape. We wrote a character and played to its personality. In “MARY POPPINS,” it was my brother and I who sparked the idea to combine animation and live-action in the chalk painting while we were working on the tea party scene when the four waiters appear. We were singing the song to Walt for the first time when he said, “You know, waiters always remind me of penguins. Why don’t we have penguins for waiters?” We asked Walt how was he going to train four penguins to sing lyrics and dance and he said, “No. We’re going to animate this thing.”

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Q: What do you feel are the qualities of “MARY POPPINS” that continue to endear the film to a new audience with its release on Blu-ray?

A: “MARY POPPINS” is charming, honest and very unpretentious. It has a timeless quality because it was done as a period piece. The score does not sound like 1960, it sounds like 1910, and that’s how we planned it. The harmonizations, the structure of the songs, their style — all of that was very English and very timeless. That is why “MARY POPPINS” and its music will continue to remain forever young.

In addition to the classic bonus already available, the MARY POPPINS 50TH ANNIVERSARY Blu-ray includes two brand new special features. Young and old can sing along to the Sherman Brothers’ unforgettable songs including A spoonful of Sugar, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, Step in Time and the Oscar® winning, Chim Chim Cher-ee with the new Mary Oke Karoake bonus feature. Also included is a special documentary, Becoming Mr Sherman, which gives audiences a unique insight into a meeting between the legendary songwriter Richard Sherman and actor Jason Schwartzman, as he prepares to play him in the forthcoming new film SAVING MR. BANKS.

It hits UK stores on Monday 18th November, and north America on the 10th December.

Watch footage from the special screening of the film for the AFI this past week in our player below.

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Paul has been writing for film websites for over ten years. The Hollywood News was born out of love for film and his frustration at not being a very good filmmaker himself. Those who cannot do, write about – or so they say. Aside from the site, Paul has directed a music video (badly), has one credit to his name on the IMDb, enjoys running, driving (now that he has finally passed his test at the age of 33), and of course going to the movies.

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