The songs of Walt Disney are embedded so deeply in the average person’s cortex that trying to analyze them is like trying to figure out if your mom is pretty or not. Most weren’t Disney’s songs per se, but the work of a team of sibling songwritersRobert and Richard Sherman.
Robert’s son, Robert J. Sherman has organized a selection of these tunes in the theatrical production A Spoonful of Sherman, which garnered strong reviews during its original run in London. It is now making its U.S. debut at 3Below.
It’s conclusive evidence that the Shermans’ tunes were often far better than the movies they were in. Some were appealing sugar-frosted pop with nonsensical sesquipedalian words. Others, like the somber Mary Poppins hit “Feed the Birds,” as powerfully sung by Susan Gundunas, are a spear right through the heart.
This 3Below production features a five person cast, with Barry Koron on piano making it six. They’re dressed in Main Street U.S.A. raiment, with Stephen Guggenheim and F. James Raasch in checkered suits, straw boaters and black sleeve garters. The three female vocalistsTheresa Swain, Shannon Guggenheim and Gundunaswent Eisenhower-era in polka dots and crinoline.
Spoonful of Sherman covers the family’s three generations of songwriting talent, looking back to Al Sherman, father of Robert and Richard. The tradition continues up through three of Robert J. Sherman’s songs from 2015’s Love Birds. The show starts with some of Al Sherman’s 1920s tunes; top of the heap is the exuberant “Best of Buddies,” performed by Guggenheim and Rasch.
The team of Richard and Robert Sherman began when these college boys were challenged by their father Al to write a tune the kids would pay a nickel for at the jukebox. Together, they did “You’re Sixteen” which charted twice, first by Johnny Burnette (1961) and then by Ringo (1973). The Shermans spent the JFK years coming up with upbeat pop for Annette Funicello and Hayley Mills. Employed for years as Disney house songwriters, responsible for all the catchiest tunes at Disneyland, Robert and Richard scored Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and also a new musical of Cinderella, The Slipper and the Rose. The latter is the source for some retrieved treasure: Shannon Guggenheim’s peak here is a song of renunciation, “Tell Him Anything,” and there’s a robustly morbid tune “What a Comforting Thing to Know” about the denizens of a royal mausoleum.
Moods of hilarity and sadness, ably segued, reflect the contrasting personalities of the brothers. The 2009 documentary The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story told of the alienation underneath the partnership. In an after-show appearance, Sherman said he didn’t even think that “the boys” was a way Disney referred to the Shermans”These were all big men. They’d been vets, and Walt was a vet, too.”
The younger Richard never left the states in his Army uniform. The elder Robert Sherman had a bad war. He was with, I think, the Rainbow Division when they liberated Dachau, before getting shot in the kneecap by the Nazis. Robert was a novelist and a painter and an anglophile whose time in England helped his work on Mary Poppins.
Props recalling Poppins are on the stage at 3Below, such as a paper kite and the magic nanny’s macaw-headed bumbershoot. Certainly, a “Spoonful of Sugar” is a delight, staged with Raasch whistling and pantomiming the part of Julie Andrews’ partner, the mechanical bluebird.
Jungle Book (1967) was the last cartoon Walt Disney supervised, and it’s surprising how much texture even the obscurer tunes have. Everyone knows the orangutang’s song “I Wanna Be Like You,” and it works its customary delight here. The less known “My Own Home” is sung in the movie during a scene that’s like a cute animated version of Pather Panchali. As performed by Swain, it takes inflections of Gershwin-like poignancy. Similarly, Jungle Book‘s venue of vultures warbling “That’s What Friends Are For” is a highlight here, with the ensemble enfolding even the pianist Koron in the musical group-hug.
With more than 50 songs, either complete or in snatches, it runs long; the book repeats points. It plays for Disneyish enthusiasm, which could use a curbing. Clearly Robert J. Sherman has gold here, and a little polishing could make it shine even more.
A Spoonful of Sherman
Thru May 5
3Below Theaters & Lounge, San Jose