Composer Richard Sherman is a Disney Legend, but, more than that, he is part of history. He and his brother Robert, the Sherman Brothers, created the soundtrack to many of our childhoods with the songs from classic family films and Disney theme park attractions. Beyond that, Richard Sherman is a kind and gentle man, willing to share his memories and experiences to give us a glimpse of what it was like working with a genius like Walt Disney. Continue reading for more of Richard Sherman’s contributions as consultant to the upcoming Disney film SAVING MR. BANKS, in theaters December 20, 2013.
From Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
If treasures belong in museums, someone needs to book a place for the legendary songwriter Richard Sherman, who waxed nostalgic, with memories both good and less so, as he consulted during the film’s production. Not only about revisiting those moments in 1961 (and the 1964 premiere, which director John Lee Hancock also stages in the film), but the personalities with whom he shared these experiences all those years ago.
Talking first about writer and storyboard genius Don DaGradi, Sherman states, “Don was incredible. He was one of the most brilliant story men at the studio if not the entire industry. He was the senior citizen in the group because Don had been at Disney for 20 to 25 years. Bob and I were the new kids on the block in 1961 and he chaperoned us, looked out for us and guided us.”
Playing screenwriter Don DaGradi is Bradley Whitford, who gives some insight into the man he plays in the film, who was formerly an animator. “This was a huge shot that Walt gave him, promoting him from simply being an animator to being co-writer of the script,” explains Whitford. “It was a huge break for him, and that’s part of what was so excruciating for Don and the Sherman brothers when they were confronted with this brick wall called P.L. Travers.
“Part of the problem with adapting ‘Mary Poppins’ is the books are a series of episodic events,” actor Whitford explains. “The books don’t have the beginning, middle and end that every screenwriter or story person looks for. So, these three guys had to manufacture it. Walt knew he wanted to do something unprecedented—including animation with live action, which was a radical thing to do back then, and something that terrified Travers.
“By all accounts, Don felt incredibly fortunate to spend his life telling stories, animating stories,” the actor goes on to say about his real-life character, who died in 1991, thus not affording Whitford the opportunity to pick his brain about the era. “There was a lot of joy in his work. There was a gratitude in his personality.”
To play famed “Mary Poppins” composers Richard and Robert Sherman, the filmmakers tapped Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak. “Bob was the yin and I was the yang,” Richard Sherman observes about the relationship with his older brother, who passed away at the age of 86 only six months before filming began on “Saving Mr. Banks” last year. “I mean, we were two different people, but we believed the same way. We really were a very strong team. We sort of tolerated each other, as brothers do. But, we loved each other. Bob’s inner fires were different than mine.”
In watching actor B.J. Novak play his older sibling in the film, Sherman calls it “magnificent” casting. “He was absolutely right on it because he is more of an introverted personality,” says Sherman. “Very thoughtful about what he is going to say before he says it and doesn’t mince words, just like Bob. And, strangely, B.J. is the same age as Bob was when this happened back in 1961, just as Jason is the same age as I was back then.”
“I knew nothing about the Sherman brothers when I started on this,” admits Novak, one of the creative forces behind NBC’s hit sitcom, “The Office.” “Bob and Richard Sherman were the team that wrote all the songs that you remember from a certain Disney era. All the ‘Mary Poppins’ songs. Later, ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks’ and ‘Winnie the Pooh’. Most famously, ‘it’s a small world’ ride and other theme-park songs. They were studio guys. They were professional, salaried musicians, which was Richard’s dream come true.”
Novak says about Bob Sherman’s character: “Bob took things much more personally. He did not sugarcoat anything. He had been in WWII. He had been through a lot of disappointments in his life. He was the much more serious older brother of the two, but he was very straightforward, very sincere and very talented. According to Richard and every other bit of research that I did, this was a very happy time, in general, for both brothers. I think this is really the height of their careers.”
Novak adds, “People were excited when I told them that Jason Schwartzman and I play brothers in the film. I think there’s something in temperament and in looks that feels compatible. I will also say that I am by nature a bit of a serious, more introverted guy, like Bob. Much more so than Jason, who is such a pure sunshine individual. I think it’s pretty funny that we played brothers of that exact dynamic.”
To which co-star Jason Schwartzman replies, “When John Lee Hancock said we’ve cast B.J. Novak as your brother, it was a very exciting moment because I thought, that’s great, because we share a physical resemblance. And judging a book by its cover, B.J.’s pretty reserved and serious, which is very similar to Bob. But, he’s also super funny and a great writer.
“They were up against a real force of nature in this woman, P.L. Travers,” Schwartzman says of the brothers’ relationship with the obstinate author. “Sort of a mysterious woman who had very specific ideas about her work, how it should be handled. She was very protective of it when she came to L.A. She meets the Sherman brothers and the first thing she says to them is ‘I don’t think this should be a musical.’”
In watching Schwartzman (“Moonrise Kingdom,” “Rushmore”) bring his younger persona to life before the movie cameras 50 years later, you understand Sherman’s observation that it was like watching a home movie. “He’s great, he’s wonderful,” gushes Sherman about Schwartzman. “A very musically talented young man. He is a drummer, plays piano and writes songs. He’s full of energy and that’s exactly the kind of a person that I was. And think still am.”
“Jason Schwartzman is already a musician, plays the piano,” notes director Hancock. “I knew that would be helpful for us because we played a lot of (the music) in the rehearsal room scenes. And, he learned to play like Dick Sherman by spending hour after hour after hour with Dick, learning to play in that jaunty fashion that Dick does.”
“I can’t imagine what it’s like to be Richard watching people playing him and seeing Walt Disney walk into a room. Pretty wild,” actor Schwartzman admits about playing the role of the only person in Marcel’s story still alive, one who also spent several weeks with the production and was the company’s living, breathing encyclopedia to the era depicted in the film.
“Getting the access to Richard personally while getting to view certain original documents from this era was great,” says Schwartzman.
Schwartzman sheds light on an aspect of the story that strikes many as surprising when he states, “They recorded all of these meetings between the Sherman brothers and P.L. Travers. It is all on tape, hours and hours of it, that she demanded be done. I was able to get all of the recordings and a transcript of the treatment that they were reading through. Listening to the audio and holding the treatment in my hand as if I was in the room with them was just so much fun.”
After Sherman watched several takes of actors Schwartzman, Novak, Whitford, actress Melanie Paxson (as Disney’s chirpy secretary, Dolly) and Thompson dance-and-sing to “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” he shared some wonderful anecdotes about one of the songs on the “Mary Poppins” score. Notably, a touching one about “Feed the Birds.”
“Jason sings ‘Feed the Birds’ very well by the way. Sings it beautifully,” Sherman rhapsodizes. “And, Walt loved that song, ‘Feed the Birds.’ He knew that that was the keynote of what we had in ‘Mary Poppins,’ the message that it doesn’t take much to give love. And that’s what Bob and I were saying without saying it in those words. It doesn’t cost much to buy a bag of breadcrumbs. We had touched Walt with this very spiritual note. Every once in a while, he would call us up and say, ‘Play that.’ He didn’t even have to say ‘Feed the Birds.’ He would say, ‘Play it,’ and we would go to his office and play it for him.”
“Dick still has the greatest amount of enthusiasm for the process and the history of it all,” hails Tom Hanks about Sherman. “He was a sweet guy to have around, just a fount of knowledge…the anecdotes that only he knows.” Adds Hancock, “The songs are so terrific. The fact that we still hum them and sing them and know them immediately speaks to the genius of the Sherman brothers.”
As the 150 or so cast and crew members gathered around as production wound down in the rehearsal studio set, all still infected from the joyous days of playback of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” Richard Sherman, unbeknownst to most everyone gathered, took a seat on the piano bench, and began playing the song, asking everyone there to join in a sing-a-long. Instantaneously, dozens grabbed their cell phones and began recording the spontaneous music video to hold on to their own unique connection to “Mary Poppins.”