In September 2009, I was at the D23 Expo and deciding between two events happening at the same time. In the end, I showed up just in time for the screening of the wonderful movie The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story – which was punctuated by an unforgettable performance by songwriter Richard Sherman.
I've now seen The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story three or four times, and discover something new each time. The film is about the distant relationship between songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman, who worked together for 50 years but had little in common past that – and in the process, their families didn't have contact with each other (even though they lived just blocks apart).
The merging of their talents professionally was their dad's idea (songwriter Al Sherman). And in the case of Richard and Robert Sherman, "the whole is greater than the sum of it's parts" is a very true statement. They were the only songwriters ever signed to a contract by Walt Disney, who would have them come to his office to play music each week. They were prolific songwriters, with hundreds of published songs – and even more never published. For any Disney fan, the music of the Shermans is a huge part of our life. So many Disney movies were scored by the Richard and Robert Sherman, many of my personal favorite songs come from the film The Happiest Millionaire. And theme park attractions – from it's a small world to The Enchanted Tiki Room, you can't go to a Disney theme park and not hear the music of the Sherman Brothers. (and I enjoyed hearing many Sherman Brother's songs as I ran around the Disney Dream cruise ship as well!)
The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story is a movie that alternates between sadness, happiness, joy, and so many other emotions – all with the soundtrack of the Shermans. There are interviews with Roy E. Disney, John Lasseter, Julie Andrews, and more as the film traces the lives of the Sherman Brothers from childhood to present day, in the capable hands of Jeff (Robert's son) and Gregg (Richard's son). They have inherited the storytelling gene from each of their dads, and it makes for a moving film experience. I highly recommend The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story to any Disney fan (and to anyone who just enjoys a good film about human emotion). There are some terrific bonus features as well!
My interview with Jeff and Gregg Sherman, who were a complete delight to speak with:
Gregg: The Boys came about because my cousin Jeff and I got together after decades of being estranged, and tried to understand why our dads had written all this beautiful music together but we never knew each other at all growing up. We decided to take a journey cinematically to find out how our dads had written all this fantastic music together even though our families were estranged from one another.
MS: You two met for the first time in 2002?
Jeff: It was at the opening of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the stage version in London – and I guess we were both in our forties. What happened was, as usual, we were led into the theater and my family – Bob’s family, we sat on one side of the balcony and Dick’s family sat on the other side. That was very common for us, we didn’t sit at the same table at functions, we didn’t sit together at screenings or premieres – any of that. And afterwards, there was a lovely party that the Broccoli family threw at the In and Out Club in London – Gregg and I found each other at this party, and we sat down for the first time and we tried to figure out what went wrong, what happened – and we talked all night long, and started this journey together.
MS: So previously, you had seen each other but not had too much contact?
Gregg – Right, we knew who the other family members were – but it was kind of an unspoken rule that you'd wave hello from across the room and go to your assigned seat and not have any formal discussions. We respected those rules, because they were put in place when we were very little.
Jeff – In the film, there is actually Super 8 footage of… I think it's Gregg's birthday party, and we're in a backyard. I'm 7 years older than Gregg, and he was just a little kid then. That was probably the last time we hung out until we were in our forties.
Gregg – It was my second birthday party.
MS: That was pretty amazing that you lived about six blocks apart and your parents worked together every day. Did your parents ever take you to work at the lot, did you know the other parent at all?
Jeff – Yes, but remember I'm seven years older. I used to go with my dad quite a bit, I remember my first vivid memories were when they were doing Mary Poppins on the Disney lot, and all these sound stages were committed to Mary Poppins. On Stage 2, the big stage was Cherry Tree Lane, which is kind of funny since years later I was a producer/writer on the show Boy Meets World and we were shooting in there. But then in one stage would be the carousel with the green screen behind it, and another was the rooftops of London. I remember that really vividly.
Gregg: I think I was able to go on the Disney lot when I was a little boy, and then I showed up to my dad and uncle's office often to get a ride home because it was on my way home from high school. I would wave hello to my uncle, but we never really engaged each other in conversation and I didn't know him very well. It was just a place where my dad worked. I didn't really put it in the same context where all this memorable music was coming out of that same room that I'd walk into – it was just the place where I'd get a ride home from my dad.
Jeff: I did have an opportunity years later in '84 and '85, I produced a show for the Disney Channel, which had just started. The way I got my show on the air was that I had promised to bring in the Sherman Brothers to write the songs, so I did get to spend time with Richard Sherman, my uncle – but it was more business related and less interpersonal.
MS: Once you connected with each other, did that change the family dynamics at all?
Gregg: We have kids, we each have our own set of Sherman brothers – two boys, and they know each other now. Our families have gotten closer, slowly but surely the icicles have melted a bit – and we were really hoping for a dramatic shift in our dads dynamic, and that didn't happen the way we hoped it would.
Jeff: It's a lovely thing that did happen for both Gregg and me. It was always sort of a mystery… the relationship – I mean, here is an uncle who lives seven blocks away from you, and doing these interviews (for the movie), we were able to ask them anything we wanted to know. They were pretty up front with their answers, so we did get to know each other's dad a lot better than we did before, so that was a lovely thing.
Gregg: And probably the greatest joy for me was that I truly got to know my uncle, not just through the interview process but through spending time in London with him and the time between the interviews, when we were just sitting and going to dinner, or hanging out together at his place and talking. That was, for me, probably the best thing to come out of putting this film together.
MS: That is great, I think that most of us have had family estrangements. It's nice when you can get two sides of the family, to any extent, to talk to each other – and especially when you can get to know each other. It seems like you two are pretty good friends now.
Jeff: It's also interesting, we've been in about 12 international film festivals with this film, and pretty much universally, somebody will walk up to us and say that seeing this movie has made them rethink an estrangement with their brother, their sister, their parents – whoever…it does have an effect. In the same way the Sherman Brother's songs brought people together, we're hoping that this film does the same thing.
MS: You've said before that your dad's could write the music of bringing families together, but they couldn't do it with their own. Do you think it was their wish that they could have done that?
Jeff: It's really clear that they love each other very much, I hope that comes across in the film. They completely respect each other as artists, and they really love each other, but they're just so different that as A.J. Carothers says in the film – he was one of their only mutual friends – that if they hadn't been brothers or partners, they just wouldn't have spent any time together because they had different lifestyles and different wants and needs. That's truly what it comes down to. We've tried to show in the film that it's not unusual for siblings to fight, especially brothers who are in business together. To be able to do that for over fifty years and create this beautiful body of lovely, uplifting and optimistic work about charity and love and family – that's pretty amazing, and that was the miracle, that was the magic that we wanted to show.
MS: We first saw The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story at the D23 Expo – I actually nearly missed it. The film and Richard Sherman being part of that event were the highlight of the Expo for me. I'm glad The Boys is on DVD now, I really love the film and had been looking forward to seeing it again for over a year.
Gregg: Thank you, that was an enjoyable experience for us too. It was obviously the most people we've every seen in a room watching this film together. There was such a collective experience there, people who truly appreciate the work that the Walt Disney Company did – who were there to see this film and appreciate it as it was intended, this was one of the greatest joys we had in screening it.
MS: How hard was it getting The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story from concept to film?
Jeff: The hardest thing is this: my initial thought, and I think Gregg's too, was that our dads were never really published singers. We didn't think there would be enough material. But when we started doing this, there was so much material coming in, it was crazy. The hardest part was, how do you choose what songs from Mary Poppins to put into this? You can't tell everything, people would be sitting there for fifty years. We had to boil down the story. For Gregg and I, that was the hardest, longest period for us – really mapping out what we were going to tell. We had 88 interviews, over 1000 songs to choose from.
Gregg: There was also the production aspect of it too – lining up the interviews and then clearing the footage and the songs and getting the rights to some of our grandfather's music and things like that. There was a lot of challenge involved in the production aspect. Once we did decide on something that we liked, oftentimes for some unknown reason there'd be… that it'd changed hands so many times over forty, fifty, sometimes eighty years that we when we finally got to the rights holders, it got denied. It was a very frustrating experience because we built a section around a piece of footage or a song, and then we found out that we didn't have the rights to it.
Jeff: It doesn't take much to knock it out. We have this scene from Toot Sweets, which is a big production number with a bunch of dancers, singers, a huge orchestra playing and all this stuff…and what we didn't realize… we loved it, it was great and exciting to watch – but you have to find every dancer in that shot. You have to find the writer, the director…
Gregg: The musicians that played in it….
Jeff: And the company – because that was a United Artists song, you have to associate all those things individually. That is why we didn't put a whole bunch of the big numbers in there, it was crazy – it was nuts to try and do that. But hopefully we did get a good sampling of everything.
MS: You really did. Was there a lot that you left out that you wished you could have put in?
Gregg: Not a lot. I think we really ultimately wanted to tell a story that showed why these guys were successful for so long, and we were able to tell that story both personally and professionally. Sure, there were little sections we might have liked to put in, and some of them did make their way into the bonus features.
MS: After you were done making the film, did your dad's watch and say "that is how I remember it"? Did they find it a very accurate portrayal of how they saw themselves?
Jeff: I think so. It's like when you hear your own voice on a recording..it's like this foreign voice that you can't imagine is yours. In the same regard, somebody else looks at your life and sums it up…these guys are in their eighties and we had to tell two stories plus in 100 minutes. There are things that are streamlined.
Gregg: As Jeff said, the core story for us was these two guys, this magic, these two opposites that came together and had this chemical change when they would work together. And this magic would come from the two of them that neither one of them could do alone. We showed the high points of it, and the low points of it. But that was really the main story for us. And I think my dad (Richard) thought we got it factually correct, in terms of highlighting the most important elements of his professional career. But I think he learned a lot personally – about his relationship with his brother, and who is brother was, because they're so immersed in it. You see this guy every day, you work with him, there's no one closer to you, that you don't have any distance from it to kind of objectively look at that relationship. How many lives are put on screen like that, where you really get the opportunity to look at the differences between you? And so…I think that took him aback a little bit. He learned a lot. I found that part of it interesting too, because you'd assume he'd know everything, but he really did say he learned quite a bit about his relationship.
Jeff: For us, it was just a little section at the end – just before we end the film, when we go back to those pictures of them getting younger. There were pieces that they said to us that they'd probably never say to each other. I always am moved when I watch that part, because…to me that is the part where you see the things they couldn't tell each other, the love for each other, the respect for each other. They are proud of what they've done, both of them, and that they did it together.
MS: It is a beautiful love story. Jeffrey, what is it like having been the inspiration for "A Spoonful of Sugar" and were there any other songs that were based on family experiences?
Jeffrey: Well, it's funny because – the "Spoonful of Sugar" story, people always go "wow, you came up with that!" and I say "no, I really didn't". All I did was get a vaccine and a sugar cube, and I came out and told my dad when he needed a line like that. That was his genius, Dick's genius, that turned it into a song. There are several songs that mean a lot to me. "Feed the Birds" certainly, because it's the first song ever written about charity. The song that always comes to mind is, when I was in high school (Beverly Hills High School), our dads were doing Tom Sawyer over at 20th Century Fox. They were working with John Williams and a 120 piece orchestra. I would go every day after school because I just loved sitting in the sections, and I loved watching John Williams work. Then, one day Charlie Pride was there – he was a big country singer, and he sang a song called "River Song". It's a beautiful song about a boy growing into a man, the basic theme of the Tom Sawyer movie. And at the end of the vocal, after they finished with the orchestra and everything, my dad turned to me and said "I wrote that for you".
MS: That is really sweet! My last question, what is it that you'd like audiences to take away from The Boys?
Gregg: Well, I think first and foremost, we'd like to connect our dads to their legacy; the body of work that they came up with. That's the most important thing that we'd want people to know, that these two men sat in a room together and a fountain of creativity came out of this. And if people could be more respectful of each other as siblings and their differences as a result of looking at this, and if they have an estrangement….maybe reach out to that person as a result of seeing the film and have their own healing, that would be a bonus.
Jeff: The other thing that I'd add to that is that a lot of people have looked at the Sherman Brothers' songs as kiddie songs, simplistic. The thing is, when you get to know who these two gentlemen are, and what they went through with each other, I hope that people would go back and really listen to the words and listen to the music, and appreciate it.
Gregg: That everyone would understand that these songs are simple, but deceptively simple – and that is why they've lasted for generations.
MS: I think that their music is the songbook of all of our lives. I've not only heard their music from the time I first started going to Walt Disney World (when I was 10), but from the time I was born. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.