“It’s A Small World.” “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” “Let’s Get Together.” “Tall Paul.” “There’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.” If you’ve heard of any of these songs, you’re familiar with the extensive work of the great composers and songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman. The Sherman Brothers worked together for 50 years until Robert’s death last year. Though they did not work exclusively for Disney, their work for the Mouse is their most well-known.
I recently stumbled on a documentary that came out just a few years ago that dives into the history of Richard and Robert Sherman’s amazing work. The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story brings the story of beautiful music and brotherly disharmony to the screen in an entertaining and poignant way.
The sons of noted Tin Pan Alley songwriter Al Sherman (in fact, Al paid the delivery costs for the birth of older son Robert with a royalty check that had arrived that day), Richard and Robert Sherman were born less than three years apart. Their family moved from New York City to Beverly Hills in 1937. Robert was an intellectual, studious boy, while Richard was more mischievous. Robert served and was injured in World War II, and the years of his combat stint meant that he and Richard entered college at the same time in New York.
Back in Los Angeles after college, Richard and Robert stumbled onto separate songwriting careers until a disagreement with a collaborator brought them together. An assignment to write a song for an Annette Funicello film led the brothers to Walt Disney:
Of course, the Sherman Brothers would work exclusively for Disney (both at the Studios and with Imagineering) for several years before working for other producers and studios – along with Disney – in later years.
After his wife’s death in 2001, Robert moved to London until his own passing in 2012, while Richard still lives with his family in California, so the interviews for The Boys took place separately. Because of these separate interviews, it’s fascinating to hear each brother relate the same stories in his own inimitable way. My favorite example is hearing Richard and Robert tell of Walt Disney’s offering the brothers a job and an office at the studios. Both brothers shed tears at their remembrances of Walt’s generosity and friendship decades later!
The Boys sheds light on the brothers’ style of collaboration. Richard would bang out ideas manically on the piano, often repeating phrases and trying new combinations of words. Robert would patiently wait for a break in Richard’s action, raise his hand quietly, and suggest lines of lyric or melody.
Oddly enough, the same disparate styles of creative work drove Richard and Robert apart personally. The brothers, so close in age, rarely spent time with each other outside of the studio and would often express irritation with each other in public. Cousins Greg and Jeff Sherman, who directed and produced the film, admit in the beginning that they barely knew each other until they grew up.
In addition to the extensive interviews with Richard, Robert, and other Sherman family members, The Boys features interviews with Dick Van Dyke, Julie Andrews, Ben Stiller (who also served as executive producer), Alan Menken, Sam Goldwyn, Jr., and many others. For anyone who is interested in Disney lore, pop music history, the songwriting process in general, or the Sherman Brothers specifically, I highly recommend this documentary.