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Sherman's March

May 10, 2007 By:
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Teaspoons of sugar do not make for a saccharin show as composers Anthony Drewe (left) and George Stiles (seated) join Richard M. Sherman in making "Mary Poppins" soar.
A nanny over the roof ... sounds crazy, no?

No, because in this little village that is Broadway and 42nd Street, a nanny over the roof is filling the auditorium underneath it, with a magic and magnetic appeal that carries all the way to the ... well, to the roof.

Eat your heart out Tevye! But then, he's not jealous. With five daughters, he could use a good nanny, too.

And who couldn't use a great one? And that's exactly what "Mary Poppins" is, the nano-nanny of the new millennium, whose practically perfect performance at the New Amsterdam Theatre provides umbrella smile insurance for children worldwide.

Based on the "nanny diaries" of Pamela Lyndon Travers, the Brit author with a stiff upper lip and flexible flyer of a bumbershoot who sent Mary Poppins soaring over a sextet of children's novel dating back to the '30s, "Mary Poppins" takes care of more than her children; she's doing quite well for her investors, too, including Disney, taking in some 750,000 pounds (that's about $1.4 mil) a week at the busy box office, where a teaspoon of sugar goes down quite well with the jam and marmalade that is the spreadsheet of being the toast of the town.

Drinking it all in is Richard M. Sherman, a demi-god of the demitasse tea crowd that is the English "Poppins" original populace whose cups are lofted in his direction. After all, it was his score -- co-created with older brother Robert B. -- that helped explain how to keep your chin up with a "Chim Chim Cher-ee" cherished to this day by fans of the Disney 1964 film of "Mary Poppins."

And if Travers herself wasn't exactly one of them -- denying permission for the film to be adapted to the stage for decades, finding the film more treacly than a treat to her taste until approving this version as a "Mary" not so contrary -- well, surely the late Travers would traverse the road to the New Amsterdam, where merry Mary has her occasional -- and delightful -- dark side, too.

Not that Richard Sherman has helped pop Poppins' buttons and turned her umbrella inside out. No rain of terror, he, but a gifted gale of great tunes, a swift storm of songs which trail-blazingly trumpets the cloudless skies, skirting the Sturm und Drang that drags so many less talented music men down.

Here he is, an ageless still agile piano man -- whose ability to put pedal to the mettle of a song has earned him and his bro a batch of Oscars, Grammys and other accolades over a 50-year career -- seated at a table with George Stiles, the stylish songster whose contributions with Anthony Drewe to the Broadway score of "MP" pop with panache with such power plays as "Practically Perfect" and "Anything Can Happen"-- happily discussing "The Medfield Fight Song," one of his guest's favorite film fight songs.

Punching the air, his nimble hands a parade of oom-pa-pah playful and powerful showmanship, he is still the rah-rah Richard who wrote with brother Robert the 1960 number for "The Absent-Minded Professor," their first joint screen credit.

It's a small world.

And, yes, the Shermans wrote that, too.

"We wrote that for the '64 World's Fair," recalls Sherman of the Flushing, N.Y., extravaganza in which the universally adored Disney theme song for the UNICEF Pavilion left fairgoers flush with feeling for how all the world's really a small village with a big heart.

Small wonder that the song has gone on to become the most translated and sung composition anywhere -- possibly including that new "earth" they just discovered outside our solar system.

Forget the Blues Brothers and their "Soul Man"; Richard and Robert are the real Solar Men. And, in many ways, they both owe their golden ears to the Tin Pan Alley talents of their dad, Alan, the Ukraine-born composer with a ukulele on his knee -- okay, maybe it was a piano at his hands -- who became a Yankee Doodle Dandy of a writer when he arrived in this country, composing for the likes of Eddie Cantor -- whose rendition of "Now's the Time to Fall in Love (Potatoes Are Cheaper") was no small potatoes in the '50s -- and Bing Crosby.

And how they liked his music, taken note of by such singular sensations as George Gershwin, with whom Alan also shared a workbench.

And while the paterfamilias of the popular Jewish Sherman dynasty wrote "You Gotta Be a Football Hero," it was the upward spiral that his kids' careers took that gave him the biggest rush.

Indeed, notes Richard, one-half of Alan Sherman's "My Sons, the Songsters" -- no, not that Al(l)an Sherman -- it was his dad who got them to name that tune in the first place. It was a challenge posed by their father, relates Richard, that they compose together that sent them from dueling banjoes to dueting brothers.

And the bonded boys knew the answer to "Who's the leader of the band?"; they soon found themselves spelling D-i-s-n-e-y on their bulging bio.

And so begins the Sherman march to magic: It was "Tall Paul," recorded by Mouseketeer Annette Funicello nearly 50 years ago, that proved the tall order handled masterfully as the Top 10 hit came to the attention to the top Mouseketeer, Walt, and landed the Shermans tanks full of top-notch work for decades to come.

Nothing -- yet, wonderfully, everything -- was Mickey Mouse about this joint career as scores of their scores scored over and over again for the twosome whose "Sword in the Stone" was Arthurian in its artfulness and whose "Let's Get Together," sung by Haley Mills in "The Parent Trap" (1961), proved a puberty trap for those caught with crushes on the young English star who doubled as a teen icon.

"That's 'Let's Get Together, Yeh, Yeh, Yeh,' " corrects a teasing Richard Sherman.

Yeah ... he should know. The New York native is no stranger to the screaming kid face-off of rock singers and fans. A different "Yeh, yeh, yeh" graduate, Beatle Ringo Starr, covered the Sherman Bros. "You're Sixteen" more than a decade after it was sung by Johnny Burnette in 1960.

The same composer who penned "Small World" could write such a huge hit of the rock 'n' roll world?

"We wrote it when rock 'n' roll was huge," says the music man whose Jewish roots are revealed in the revelry and frailach frenzy that explode off the bimah that is his music stand.

"We did it with a shuffle rhythm," and here he demonstrates, using the desk for a disk, his fingers tapping a teen song teeming with the low-down and upbeat know-how of what it means to be a sweet 16.

But it wasn't to be the first time the Shermans traveled down Abbey Road; they later contributed songs to the score of Disney's "Little Nemo," the huge fish tale scaled for the whole family -- and recorded at the Beatles' Abbey Road Studios.

Penny Lane? How about Millionaire's Row! (They also wrote "The Happiest Millionaire.") And Sherman is doing it all at 78 rpm, a number associated with his chronological age but not the contemporary credo he has of speaking -- and singing -- to a modern-day crowd.

Indeed, at 78, he seems more like 331/3 or, in today's sound-speak, in tune with the iTunes.

IPodders are his pod people, boomers who traded boom boxes for downloading and disks. Part of the tagteam that has played musical tag with generations of kids and their parents, he understands life isn't always a walk in the park ... unless, of course, you're at the Disney resorts, where the Shermans surely contributed to the carousel of progress that is Disney World/ Land.

Of course, back in the backlot days of the early Disney films, the focus was on composing outside the box if not the box office.

"Nobody thought of box office," says Sherman. "It was always how good the songs could be."

No matter how good and omniscient Disney was -- and Sherman sings his praises -- sometimes in the era of innocence that was the pre-dancing version of Chip 'n' Dale, it helped to let the boss figure it all out himself.

"I saw her on 'The Ed Sullivan Show,' but I let Walt discover her for himself," chuckles Sherman of Julie Andrews, the fair lady of the Broadway stage who fared even better as "Mary Poppins," capturing an Oscar while Audrey Hepburn, who snared the "My Fair Lady" screen role, was to do little at the awards ceremony.

If Disney projects were to be their feed bag -- the Shermans actually were contract talent for years before finally landing full-time status -- it was "Feed the Birds" that bagged a tomorrowland of a future for the brothers. That song, from "Mary Poppins" -- with its pure snow white of a wish that people realize "it doesn't take much to do great things" for others -- had their boss wistfully wishing on a star.

After end-of-week meetings, Disney would sometimes stare through the window at the sky and ask, "Play that bird lady thing," recalls Sherman.

"He would then turn and say, 'That's what it's all about.' "

And it was just about the best birthday present Walt could receive. "At the park at a ceremony dedicated to his 100th birthday," notes Sherman of the late great Walt who died at age 65 in 1966, "they played 'Feed the Birds'. What followed was silence then all these cheers. Because, at the end of the song, out of the cloudless sky flew a bird. I got goose [bumps]."

A natural reaction for someone who was always just a Web site away from Donald on the Disney lot anyway. Not that the Shermans burned their bridges even after Disney died, remaining faithful to his wonderful colorful world of magic.

And not that Disney dissed them by not allowing the "boys" to score for others. With his permission, they took the wheel of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," another impressive big-bang-for-your-buck movie musical -- this time with the Shermans getting Disney's imprimatur if not his imprint when it was made by another studio.

In a broad way, it was a small world after all, with New York just a tuneful toss from their digs in Beverly Hills. The Sherman Brothers scored the Andrew Sisters' 1974 Broadway hit "Over Here!"

Make it now over there; actually, Robert has popped over into Mary Poppins land: He has been living in London for the past five years while Richard retains his L.A. way. But they'll always have a hall to hang their hat as they've been enshrined in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Yet, in a way, music has always hit home for the Shermans, writing their own musical bridge not just onto their father's illustrious life span but their zayda's too: At fin de siècle -- but pre-hammer and sickle -- Russia, Samuel, Alan Sherman's father, uprooted his family from their pogrom-plagued homeland and fled to then-Austria-Hungary, where the music mensch became a court composer in service to Emperor Franz Josef of Prague.

From emperor of Prague to the emperor penguins of "Mary Poppins," the Shermans certainly can carry a tune. The current day golden guys have also composed for "The Golden Girls," "The Simpsons" and for that poo-bah of all poo-bears: "Winnie the Pooh."

Leave the music of the night to those phantoms haunting opera houses; the Shermans' music of the day and matinees, where children and parents gather in sync and song, is haunting in its own distinctive dynamic beauty.

The score saluting chimney sweep Bert and his earnest Mary soots others, too, but that's no surprise. The Sherman Brothers' music travels well; indeed, the Shermans celebrated their own midnight in Moscow, the lone Americans ever to take the top spot at the Moscow Film Festival in 1973 for their score and screenplay for "Tom Sawyer."

But it would be a whitewash of history to exclude that one attempt at acting that stands out as a splinter among a perfect picket fence of a career; alas, Richard Sherman's scenes as a bandleader in "Beverly Hills Cop III" -- that 1994 Rodeo Drive round-up of cops and robbers -- wound up on the cutting room floor although his brother's cameo as a bar customer passed the bar.

Cut to the present. Here he is, the musical pride of "The Jungle Book" with a lion's share of film fame and fortune, joining a guest in a sing-a-long of the brothers' "Although I Dropped a Hundred Thousand in the Market, Baby, I Found a Million Dollars in Your Smile" -- sort of a stock market "crash-crush" number -- from "A Symposium on Popular Songs" (1962). Yes, Richard Sherman, his Broadway baby this time named "Mary Poppins" -- the mother of all musical nannies -- has much to smile about -- including a possible chimney sweep of honors at what is now awards season.

For the boy whose father's prowess at building kites for his kids lends itself to the tale of why "Let's Go Fly a Kite" proved key to making "Mary Poppins" soar so splendidly, life is, indeed, supercalifra ...

Well ... you know.

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