Richard M. Sherman, Composer of Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Dies at 95 | Playbill

Obituaries Richard M. Sherman, Composer of Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Dies at 95

He was part of a songwriting team with his brother Robert B. Sherman.

Richard M. Sherman

Academy Award-winning songwriter Richard M. Sherman died May 25 due to age-related illness. He was 95. The news was announced by the Walt Disney Company, who called Sherman, "one of the most prolific composer-lyricists in the history of family entertainment, and a key member of Walt Disney’s inner circle of creative talents."

With his older brother Robert B. Sherman, the Sherman brothers wrote the soundtrack to multiple generations' childhoods, including "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," "A Spoonful of Sugar," "I Wan'na Be Like You," and “It’s a Small World." They also composed three Broadway musicals, including the stage versions of Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Richard M. Sherman was born June 12, 1928 in New York City. His father, Al Sherman, was a Tin Pan Alley songwriter. His mother, Rosa Sherman (née Dancis), was an actor. From an early age, Mr. Sherman had an aptitude for music, studying piano, flute, and piccolo at Beverly Hills High School. He majored in music at Bard College. As Mr. Sherman told Playbill in 2012: "Our dad was the one who taught us the three rules of writing a good pop song—simple, singable and sincere. And, I tell you, we always tried to make our songs singable."

In 1951, the Sherman brothers wrote their first hit song. It was a country-tinged ballad called “Gold Can Buy You Anything But Love" and was recorded by Gene Autry. Their bouncy tune, “Tall Paul," was recorded by Annette Funicello in 1959. That song caught the attention of Walt Disney, who then hired them as staff songwriters for The Walt Disney Studios. In their eight years at Disney, they wrote more than 200 songs for around 27 films and 24 television productions. 

Their most notable credits for the company include The Parent TrapThe Sword in the Stone, The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, and Mary Poppins. Their work for Mary Poppins earned them two Academy Awards in 1964, including for Best Original Song for "Chim Chim Cher-ee." They also won two Grammy Awards for Mary Poppins and Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too! The Sherman brothers also composed songs for Disney's theme parks, including the ditties “The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room” and “It’s a Small World." 

Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman with Walt Disney

In the early 1970s, the brothers left Disney to pursue independent projects. They wrote for a number of movie musicals, including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Charlotte’s Web. In 1974, they premiered a musical on Broadway, Over Here! A nostalgic look at the 1940s, the show ran for 13 previews and 341 performances, becoming one of the best-grossing musicals of 1974. The young cast would go on to become famed performers, including Patty and Maxene Andrews (of the Andrews Sisters), John Travolta, Ann Reinking, Samuel E. Wright, and Treat Williams.

In 2002, the Sherman Brothers adapted the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for the stage, writing new songs for it. The show premiered at the London Palladium before opening on Broadway in 2005 where it played 285 performances. It also earned five Tony Award nominations. Its cast included Raúl Esparza, Jan Maxwell, Marc Kudisch, and Chip Zien.

In 2004, when Disney Theatricals and Cameron Mackintosh produced a stage adaptation of Mary Poppins, the Sherman Brothers' songs from the film were used for it (though George Stiles and Anthony Drewe wrote new music). The show ran first in the West End, where it won two Olivier Awards. The Broadway transfer ran for 2,619 performances, from 2006 to 2013 (it earned seven Tony nominations and won one Tony Award).

Robert B. Sherman passed away March 6, 2012, at the age of 86. After his brother's death, Mr. Sherman continued to write songs. He wrote new compositions for a stage adaptation of the Disney film The Jungle Book, which premiered at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 2013. 

In the 2013 Disney film Saving Mr. Banks, about the making of the Mary Poppins film, B. J. Novak played Robert Sherman and Jason Schwartzman played Richard Sherman. In 2015, Disney produced a documentary called Richard M. Sherman: Songs of a Lifetime that aired on PBS. The last film that Mr. Sherman wrote songs for was the 2018 Winnie the Pooh sequel Christopher Robin, where he also made a cameo as a piano player.

On songwriting, Mr. Sherman once told Playbill: "The most important part of any song is the idea—the idea behind it. Why do it? Everybody's written 'I love you…I need you…I want you…I lost you.' These things have been written a thousand times, but why don't you find some new way of saying something? Something that nobody has said it this way, and so Bob and I would always kill ourselves to come up with saying something different than anyone would say it, so we didn't say, 'Have a happy attitude, and a tough job is easy,' we said, 'A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down!'"

Mr. Sherman is survived by his wife Elizabeth Gluck; their son Gregory and grandsons William and Matthew; daughter Victoria Wolf, son-in-law Doug Wolf, and grandchildren Mandy and Anthony. He is also survived by his daughter from a previous marriage to Corrine Newman—her name is Lynda Rothstein, and she has two children and three grandchildren.

There will be a funeral May 31, at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary in Los Angeles. Plans for a celebration of life will be announced at a later date.

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