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‘Poppins’ Author a Pill No Spoonful of Sugar Could Sweeten

Tunesmith Richard Sherman recalls studio’s battles with Travers to bring Disney classic to life

In the movie “Saving Mr. Banks,” about the making of the 1964 Disney classic “Mary Poppins,” Emma Thompson portrays the book’s author, P.L. Travers, as an abrasive, unyielding, dour woman.

In reality, says composer Richard Sherman, she was even worse.

“Mrs. Travers was very, very difficult,” says Sherman, sitting in a bungalow on the Disney lot. It’s not far from Office 3C11 in the Animation Building, where he and his late brother, Robert, and writer Don DaGradi battled with Travers over a two-week period in 1961 to come up with a story line that she would approve and finally sign over to Walt Disney the film rights he’d been chasing for nearly 20 years. “I never had such trouble,” Sherman says. “It was a joy to work on after we finally got the rights. It was a dream cast. But those two weeks I would hate to go through again.”

Saving Mr. Banks,” which opens theatrically Dec. 20, spans that fortnight, as well as examines Travers’ past and why she was so overly protective of the English nanny who comes and saves a family. Jason Schwartzman portrays Sherman, while B.J. Novak plays his brother, Robert.

Sherman tolerated Travers better than his brother: “I was always trying to butter things up and placate, and Bob didn’t want to have any nonsense.” Most of the tales in the “Saving Mr. Banks” are true, including Travers’ disdain for their songs. “She hated everything,” he says, recalling her insistence that they not make up words, such as Bert the chimney sweep rhyming “responstable” with “constable.” “She said, ‘Unmake it up.’ Oh God, it killed us.” (The Sherman Bros. ultimately won that fight.)

Despite Travers unpleasantness, Sherman says “Mary Poppins” is his favorite of the Disney films he worked on, in part, because it led to the Sherman Bros. becoming Disney staff writers. They were working on the “Mary Poppins” songs on spec and after Walt Disney heard the hauntingly beautiful “Feed the Birds,” Sherman recalls, “He said, ‘You guys really think story. How’d you like to work here?’ That’s the day we got our contract.”

That hiring led to the composing of some of the most beloved melodies in the Disney canon. In addition to all the “Mary Poppins” classics (among them, the Oscar-winning “Chim Chim Cher-ee”), the Sherman Bros. also wrote “Trust in Me” from “The Jungle Book”; “The Age of Not Believing” from “Bedknobs & Broomsticks”; “Winnie the Pooh”; and the granddaddy of them all, “It’s a Small World,” one of the best-known songs on the planet.

“I think (people) want to either kiss us or kill us for having written ‘It’s a Small World’,” says Sherman of the Disneyland theme song. “I’ve been in India, I’ve been in Brussels, all over the world, people know that song.”

The Sherman Bros. and Walt shared a bond until Disney’s death in 1966, with one memory especially dear to Sherman. “Every once in a while on a Friday afternoon, he’d call us into his office and he’d ask up what we were working on. He’d know what we were working on, but we’d tell him anyway and then he’d look out the north window, looking at the mountains up there and say, ‘Play it.’ Just like that. And I’d play ‘Feed the Birds’ for him on a Friday afternoon. He’d say, ‘Have a good weekend, boys,’ and send us home.”

At 85, Sherman remains busy. He wrote a new song for a theatrical version of “The Jungle Book” and is working on a stage adaptation of “Bedknobs and Broomsticks.” Though he often writes alone these days, his brother’s spirit still remains by his side: “Bob and I collaborated for years. Many times I feel like he’s sitting in the room with me.”

That notion makes Sherman smile, as does the knowledge that his brother’s and his music has brought great joy to so many millions of people for decades.

““Let me say this we were lucky guys. We were in the right place at the right time. Walt needed us and we were ripe and ready for it. It was just beautiful. The timing was pluperfect.”

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