Throughout the long history of music, great songwriting partnerships, from Gilbert and Sullivan to Lennon and McCartney, have been fraught with tension and discord.
But who would have believed that Robert and Richard Sherman, the composers for a number of Walt Disney family musicals like Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book, and wrote hit romantic pop songs like She’s Sixteen and unforgettable tunes like Chim Chim Cher-ee, could have a relationship as turbulent as a summer storm?
Their fractious relationship, a sibling partnership, which was encouraged by their songwriting father Al Sherman, is the subject of a fascinating documentary called The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story.
In telling this compelling saga, the task wasn’t left to just any filmmaker. With the musical brothers barely speaking to each other, it was up to their boys, Greg (Richard’s only son) and Jeff (Robert’s oldest boy) Sherman, to examine the artistic and personal legacy of both fathers. And, as it turned out, the cousins hadn’t spoken to each other either for years — although it wasn’t by choice.
“We had attended the London stage premiere of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in 2002, and, as usual, we went with our immediate families to separate sides of the theatre,” recalls Jeff Sherman. “Afterwards, we met up at a party and tried to figure out why we had been living out our lives with no contact.”
The decision to make the movie was, in part, to answer that question. “That’s true,” Greg Sherman explains. “It was a minefield that we were walking into and we had inherited a lot of our dad’s issues.”
What exactly happened isn’t made clear in the movie, but The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story does take us deep into the dynamic of their troubled partnership so that we understand how they did work together.
“It’s like adjusting your separate hot and cold water so that it comes out of one faucet just the way you want it,” Richard Sherman asserts. “Bob and I looked at things coming from different directions, so the songs never got too sugary, or too caustic.”
There was no better example of that than A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down from Mary Poppins, where the original title had included the word “makes” rather than “helps.”
“As we were perfecting the song, I said to Bob that the word ‘makes’ is like forcing something,” Richard Sherman explains. “I thought it should be ‘helps’ because it’s softer and easier. Then we added, ‘in the most delightful way’ because that’s how Mary Poppins would say it.”
Although The Boys doesn’t bring any final resolution to the conflicts between the Sherman Brothers, the picture did plenty to bring their sons together. “Having done this film, we now have a tremendous appreciation for each other,” explains Greg.