Friday, March 9, 2012

Friday Dance Party: The Birdwoman, The Mancub, and Tall Paul

A wooden performance by Sally Ann Howes.
Robert Sherman
I had to check Wikipedia to learn if he was the composer or the lyricist, as everybody knows him and his brother simply as The Sherman Brothers. 
Poppins shoved her charges up the chimney,
then allowed dancing on the rooftop.
Child endangerment charges are pending.
Anyone who grew up in the 60s has a fond familiarity with his song catalogue;  his best known score was probably for Mary Poppins, for which he won both his Oscars. 
The Shermans' careers were inexorably linked to Disney, beginning with one of their hit songs written before their film career took off, "Tall Paul."
Annette was the first female vocalist to crack
the Top Ten with a rock-and-roll tune.
The song was a hit for Annette Funicello, and launched the brothers' long association with the Disney factory.  It was because of this association that I'm afraid I did not have a huge respect for Robert Sherman's work back in the day.  (For a while there, I thought his other big hit, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, actually was a Disney film, there were so many similarities in the look, sound and even casting of the film).  Yeah, I'm that stupid. 
This car did everything but tapdance.
Anyway, as soon as I reached my teen-aged years, I dismissed Robert Sherman's work as childish and simplistic. 
The Shermans were tasked with writing
songs for Greer Garson and Geraldine Page.
Though I've changed my mind about that nowadays, it can't be denied that there is a Sherman Sound which connects most of their film scores (here's a fun fact: Wiki tells me that the Sherman Brothers scored more feature films than any other songwriting team). 
They wrote the title song.
Even today, I have to think carefully when I hear one of the guys' standards;  I'm often unable to determine which film the song is from.  Come on, you have to admit that many of the songs from Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Bednobs and Broomsticks, and others, have a very similar sound.   
The Slipper and the Rose
featured Richard Chamberlain as
Cinderella's Prince.
He really wanted her shoes.
Once I discovered Sondheim, and examined Porter, Gershwin, and Berlin, I was no longer interested in somebody who routinely wrapped songs around invented words.

Of course, I was wrong to dismiss the Shermans' work.  Robert's melodies stand the test of time, and in particular, his ballads such as "Feed the Birds" and "Hushabye Mountain" delivered emotion which was simple and clean.  Simple, but not simplistic.  And those ballads, melodically, are unforgettable and even a bit haunting.
She never spoke, but was at the center of one of Sherman's
most beautiful ballads. Jane Darwell won the Oscar for
Grapes of Wrath. Mary Poppins was her final film.
The Shermans work usually did not play well on the stage, unless they were adapting one of their preexisting films. 
Tommy broke his foot. Investors
fled, and Busker Alley died
on the road.
Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty both had substantial runs onstage (at least in London), but their Busker Alley did not survive star Tommy Tune's broken foot, and never made it to Broadway.  You may be detecting a reticent tone to this obit, and it's true, I still don't consider the Sherman Brothers  one (or two) of my favorites.  That having been confessed, it's telling that their work has appeared twice in these pages already.

Lionel Jeffries was younger than
Dick Van Dyke, who played his son.
When character actor Lionel Jeffries died, his watery solo number from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was featured.  And I had almost forgotten that the Shermans scored one of my favorite live-action musicals from my childhood, The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band.  That clip is definitely worth watching, as it includes a dozen stars to be glimpsed, as well as a swell dance-off between Lesley Ann Warren and Goldie Hawn.
Goldie Hawn is on the far left, in mustard. A year later, she
was swiping sketches on Laugh-In.
But what about this week's Dance Party?  Nothing with flying nannies or flying cars, thank you, let's go to the Brothers' animation portfolio.
Before Walt Disney died, the Shermans were the go-to guys to provide songs for the animated features which made all the money for the studio.  After Walt died, the team left the studio, and there was a drought of strong cartoon features from Disney.  It wasn't until 1989 that Disney animation experienced a revival, with The Little Mermaid.  By then, the Shermans were passe, and the so-called renaissance of the animated movie musical fell into the hands of Alan Menken and his collaborators.

Swing music great Louis Prima
as King Louis
Menken and his partners will just have to wait for their own Dance Party, this week's can feature no one but the Shermans.  Robert and his brother provided the score to one of my favorite Disney animated features, The Jungle Book
Ron Howard's little brother Clint voiced Hathi, Jr.
Listening to this music this week, and in particular this week's clip, I was surprised to realize that the Shermans could actually write in a style different from the perky, generic one which permeates Poppins and her brethren.  For The Jungle Book, the brothers created a song which sounds right out of the beat generation.  This clip encourages me to investigate the Shermans' only musical to be created for the stage and to become a hit, Over Here.  That show was a tribute, in a way, to the Big Band era, and starred two of the three Andrews Sisters (the third had already died), and I bet the score contains some wonderful swing numbers.
Over Here had a swell ensemble.
Anyhoo, The Jungle Book, as I said, was probably my favorite animated movie to be produced by Disney himself.  It's important for another reason, as several of the voice cast were stars in their own right. 

Though common (and even required) today, back then, it was fairly unusual for an established star to lend his voice to a cartoon.  Here, though, we have George Sanders, Phil Harris, and Sebastian Cabot joining forces with Disney standbys Sterling Holloway and J. Pat O'Malley. 
The Vultures were to be voiced by The Beatles.
But nobody told them. They declined; one of their replacements
was Chad Stewart, of pop group Chad & Jeremy.
And of course, the Dance Party clip showcases an exuberant vocal performance from Louis Prima.  (He is playing a role, by the way, which does not appear in the Kipling stories which formed the film's source material.  But King Louis fits right into the swing of things).

The catchy song below almost makes up for the fact that Robert and Richard Sherman are responsible for one of the most irritating tunes ever to embed itself in your brain. 
A trip on this ride infects your brain with its
theme song. Your brain does not recover.
If you have ever visited Disneyland, and taken that slow boat ride through the tunnel which takes you around the world as seen through the eyes of children, you know exactly which song I mean.

Robert Sherman died this week, at the age of 86.