If you’re quick, and can get down to the Greenwich Theatre in South East London on either of the next two evenings, you can catch a touring production of “A Spoonful of Sherman”, a celebration of the Sherman family of songwriters. Alternatively you can check out the touring schedule here and catch the show elsewhere in the UK or Ireland in the next few months, in places like Buxton, Swansea or Harrogate in April, Swindon, Lincoln or Exeter in May, or Dublin in June. I recommend it.
I hadn’t heard of it until last weekend, when it was mentioned on Elaine Paige’s BBC Radio 2 show, and my 13-year-old son came with me to see it last night. As I wrote last summer (“You’ve let yourself down”), for many years both of our children were heavily involved in dance and musical theatre shows. Those days are gone, for now at least, but they have left a legacy of familiarity with show tunes and musicals that far exceeds what I had at their age.
Like many households at the time my childhood home had vinyl copies of the soundtracks to a handful of shows (“My Fair Lady”, “The Sound of Music”, “Oliver!”) so we knew some of the songs well. My children have had access to a much wider range of shows and songs, and the Sherman Brothers wrote some of the best of them. I knew their names from “Mary Poppins” primarily but only learnt more about them after seeing “Saving Mr Banks”, a film I recommend heartily. It is largely about the relationship between author PL Travers (played by Emma Thompson) and Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) during the making of “Mary Poppins”, but my favourite scenes involve the Sherman Brothers and how they composed the songs. Robert B Sherman wrote the lyrics, Richard M Sherman wrote the music. A movie focussing on their lives and their creative process would be right up my street.
“A Spoonful of Sherman” also tells the story of their father, Al Sherman, who arrived in the States from Eastern Europe and whose formal education ended when he was 11. He became a successful songwriter in Depression-era and wartime America. His sons were born in the 1920s. Robert was the older (born in December 1925) and fought in the Second World War as a teenager. He led the troop of 8 soldiers who liberated the concentration camp at Dachau in April 1945, and a week later took a bullet to the knee from a German soldier. He walked with a cane for the rest of his life. The injury is referenced in “Saving Mr Banks” but not explained. After the war both brothers studied and graduated from university at the same time and after a year or two were challenged by their father to write hit tunes. This diverted them from their so-far unsuccessful labours, Robert trying to write “The Great American Novel” and Richard to create “The Great American Symphony”. The best-known of their 1950s songs (to me at least) was “You’re Sixteen”. Ringo Starr’s recording was a US #1 in 1974.
A song called “Tall Paul” brought them to Walt Disney’s attention, and their early work for him included “Let’s get together” for “The Parent Trap”. Thereafter they were employed as songwriters for Disney, on films like “The Jungle Book” and “Bedknobs and Broomsticks”, and later went freelance for projects like “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”, “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Slipper and the Rose”. They also wrote “It’s a small world after all”, which (my theatre programme tells me) has “become the most translated and performed song on Earth according to Time.com”. Robert B’s son Robert J Sherman is also a songwriter. He wrote the book for “A Spoonful of Sherman” and some of the songs, including a number from “Love Birds”, a show he took to the Edinburgh Festival in 2015.
Much of this information, contained in last night’s show, was new to me. There could have been even more facts, but understandably the songs took priority. Over 50 of them (or parts of them) were performed by five actor-singers, two of whom played piano, sometimes simultaneously. (There are two upright pianos on stage throughout.) There wasn’t room for one of my favourite Sherman Brothers numbers, “Sister Suffragette”, also from “Mary Poppins”, nor for the story that explains how it came about. It’s a songwriting tale I have told often. Here’s how it’s summarized on this Wikipedia page:
“ … [the] melody was borrowed from an earlier song entitled ‘Practically Perfect’, which had already been deleted from the 1964 film production. According to the songwriters in their [autobiographical] book, Walt’s Time, actress Glynis Johns thought she was being offered the title role of Mary Poppins when in fact she had been signed to play Mrs. Banks. To amplify Disney’s and Johns’ mutual embarrassment, the misunderstanding only became apparent as both parties sat opposite each other in Walt Disney’s Burbank studio-lot office. Thinking quickly, Disney softened Johns’ disappointment of not getting the film’s title role by telling her of the ‘terrific new song’ which the Sherman Brothers had written especially for her. Disney called up the songwriters to tell them that he was ‘just about to take Johns to lunch and how she was looking forward to hearing the new song following the meal’, all within earshot of the actress. The Sherman Brothers deciphered Disney’s coded hint, worked feverishly through their own lunch hour, and wrote ‘Sister Suffragette’.”