Keala Settle, co-star of the smash movie musical The Greatest Showman, hit the stage at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theatre on Wednesday night to sing a killer rendition of the iconic Disneyland theme, “It’s a Small World,” the kickoff to a magical night as Oscar celebrated the writers of that tune: Disney legends Richard M Sherman and Robert B. Sherman.
So the lyrics might have said “it’s a small world,” but the lines outside the Academy to get into this sold-out tribute were anything but small, with upward of 100 turned away due to capacity issues. Every seat was taken, and some even tried sitting in the aisles for this once-in-a-lifetime show called The Sherman Brothers: A Hollywood Songbook, timed to Richard Sherman’s 90th birthday (the actual date was June 12). He is the surviving brother of the duo, with Robert having passed away in 2012.
As the resident songwriters for several generations of Disney fans, their work stretches from two Oscars for Mary Poppins to Winnie the Pooh, The Jungle Book, The Parent Trap and, among other Disneyland attractions, the Tiki Room. They also wrote memorable scores for numerous films outside of Disney including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Tom Sawyer and Charlotte’s Web, among many others. There even was a fascinating 2009 documentary The Boys — some of which was shown in the clips expertly assembled for the presentation –that also has been in development as a narrative feature on and off over the years. Anyone who saw Disney’s story of the creation of Mary Poppins called Saving Mr. Banks also saw the Shermans significantly depicted in that 2013 film. Their list of honors include nine Oscar nominations and two wins, three Grammys, 24 platinum and gold albums, as well as the National Medal of Arts in 2008.
It would be hard for any two-hour show to do this all justice, but the Academy did a supercalifragilisticexpialidocius job of pulling it off. Of course it helps that Disney opened the vaults and provided some terrific clips and footage throughout as host John Stamos (a certified Disneyphile) and an onstage cast of presenters and performers did the boys justice and pulled off a terrific birthday celebration. After Settle’s opener of “It’s a Small World,” Stamos explained that the song — yes, the one you hear that you can’t get out of your head! — represents the idea we are all human and that “the same sun that shines on a child at Disneyland also shines on a child in Syria.” The recurring theme of the evening was that the brand of optimism expressed in so many of the more than 1,000 Sherman brothers tunes is needed now more than ever, and we certainly got a lot more than a “spoonful” of it last night as Stamos pointed out this was the year Mickey Mouse, Oscar and, yes, Richard Sherman all turned 90.
Dancing with the Stars champ Jordan Fisher sang “You’re Sixteen,” the 1960 Johnny Burnette rock ’n’ roll hit that started it all big time for the Shermans, and that began a succession of memorable tunes and film sequences as the night progressed. As Richard put it, their entry into Disney lore began with the 1959 Annette Funicello hit “Tall Paul,” and that led to their relationship with that iconic Disney star as well as Walt Disney himself, and a long career association with the studio that keeps going to this day. But nostaligia was the main focus of the evening, and for any red-blooded boy of a certain age, the appearance of Hayley Mills was well worth the two standing ovations she got as she charmingly told how the Shermans turned her (“I can’t sing”) into a singer with a hit record, “Let’s Get Together,” her “duet” from 1961’s The Parent Trap. She sang it last night, sounding almost exactly like she did nearly six decades ago (without the overdub of her own voice). “Richard, this is all your fault. … The Parent Trap changed my life more than any other,” said the star who won a honorary juvenile Oscar for her first Disney film Pollyanna. She gave a charming speech aimed directly at the man of honor. A great rare clip with Mills and her In Search of the Castaways co-star Maurice Chevalier also was unearthed for this occasion. Film Critic and Disney expert Leonard Maltin followed by talking warmly about his personal friendship with Richard Sherman and noting the team has produced more musical song scores than any other in movie history.
Perhaps the highlight of the evening was the appearance of 92-year-old Dick Van Dyke, who of course starred in both Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. “[The Shermans] never made fun of my Cockney accent, although several other people did. I can’t go to England anymore,” he laughed as he recalled the first time he heard the Shermans play the Poppins score in Disney’s office. “There was something about every song they wrote that went straight to your heart, and they were on the set every day helping us.” Joined by his barbershop quartet-style group, The Vantastix, Van Dyke proceeded to stop the show — and time — with a rousing Mary Poppins medley that also included a bit of fancy hoofing from the ageless star who still knows how to “step in time.”
Following that act was tough, but guitar legend Tommy Emmanuel did it with a winning instrumental of the Winnie The Pooh theme song.
Animator-artist Floyd Norman reminisced about working with the Boys on Jungle Book and The Aristocats along with other ’60s animated classics as he introduced a clip package including them all. “We all have memories, but the soundtrack of our lives was written by the Sherman Brothers,” he said before introducing young Coco star Anthony Gonzalez to sing the haunting “It Changes” from Snoopy Come Home. Fellow composers Michael Giacchino and John Debney shared their memories and awe at working on the same lot as the Shermans, with Giacchino complaining to Sherman, “You guys took all the good melodies — you left us with nothing.” Eight-time Oscar winner Alan Menken followed by singing a special rendition of “I Wanna Be Like You” from Jungle Book. Country star LeAnn Rimes did a beautiful version of “Stay Awake.” Actor B.J. Novak who played Robert Sherman in Saving Mr. Banks introduced a terrific old musical film clip featuring the brothers’ dad, songwriter Al Sherman while reciting the Sherman family’s motto of musical magic, “make it simple, singable, and sincere.”
Gregory Sherman, who wrote last night’s show in honor of his dad’s 90th, was joined by Jeffrey Sherman (Robert’s son) to share the special moments they recall growing up as the sons of musical legends. They focused on the 1973 musical film version of Tom Sawyer (star Johnny Whitaker was introduced in the audience) before bringing on Michael-Leon Wooley to sing a powerful version of that film’s signature “River Song.” The Happiest Millionaire and One and Only Genuine Original Family Band star Lesley Ann Warren sang a lilting version of “Valentine Candy” from Millionaire (Walt Disney’s final movie in 1967). And in another show-stopping moment Kenny Loggins hilariously recalled collaborating with the Shermans on a song for The Tigger Movie, before flawlessly singing the gorgeous eventual tune they all co-wrote, “Your Heart Will Lead You Home.”
It was great to see Mary Poppins star Karen Dotrice (who played Jane Banks in the film) tell the story of Walt Disney’s personal favorite Sherman Brothers song, “Feed the Birds” and how that scene, and the casting of retired Oscar-winning actress Jane Darwell, came about as the old woman featured on screen when Julie Andrews sings it in the film. The Pixar trio of Bob Peterson, Jonas Rivera and newly installed Pixar chief Pete Docter were up next, with Docter recounting how he was so obsessed as a kid by the Tiki Room that he re-created it in his own room. They introduced a riotous specially re-voiced version of the old newsreel that appears in their movie, Up.
It was the perfect way to end the show before bringing Richard Sherman up on stage to a roaring standing ovation. “I didn’t expect to be up here. Thank you for this incredible reminiscence of the career my brother Bob and I shared together over so many years,” he said,clearly overwhelmed by it all. “There are so many ways how very very lucky I am, because truly luck played a great part in our career. I remember vividly Bob once said, ‘Stick with me, kid, and we’ll both be wearing silk underwear.’ … Walt Disney gave us the opportunity of a lifetime, he gave us dream assignments… We worked very hard to give him the best possible songs and he gave one film after another to us and they were all wonderful stories to tell, and we had a chance to do our part. I am ever so grateful to Walt Disney for that. He was the greatest man in the world and was so kind to us. I feel very honored tonight, ” he said before simply describing the whole night by saying Supercalifragiliciousexpialadocius backwards. Stamos then coerced him to the piano to lead the audience in that very song.
Among those paying homage was Disney Studios Chairman Alan Horn who told me he was thrilled the studio could help make this happen. I told him I heard Richard Sherman had some new songs in Disney’s upcoming summer release, Christopher Robin. Horn smiled and put up three fingers, which means we have yet another Disney/Sherman collaboration to look forward to this season. Disney’s big holiday film, Mary Poppins Returns, is the first sequel to Mary Poppins since the 1964 release of that Sherman Brothers classic that won five Oscars and was nominated for eight others. New stars Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda appeared on film to wish him a happy birthday. Horn told me in Cannes that the movie, directed by Rob Marshall, is a wonder (Van Dyke appears in a cameo).
A big shout-out to Disney’s Howard Green, Tim O’Day and the Academy’s Randy Haberkamp, who also contributed to making this a night to remember. It is the kind of evening the Academy often did in the past but not as much recently. I hope the reaction and the turnout encourages AMPAS to do more like it and honor — and thank — the greats of this business before it is too late.
Thanks to my buddy Leonard Maltin I have gotten to know Richard Sherman and his wife, Elizabeth, over the years, even shared a mutual June birthday dinner with him and goddaughter Jessie Maltin. The first time I met him was at a Maltin party where Sherman sat down at their piano and played “It’s a Small World.” It’s great to see that now, just hitting 90, he’s still going strong and the musical legacy of the Sherman Brothers is rightly being celebrated. What a swell birthday party.