Disney Songwriter Richard Sherman Dishes on ‘Aristocats’

Richard Sherman (Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty)

In the wonderful world of Disney, Richard Sherman is nothing short of legendary.

In 1961, Richard and his brother Bob, who passed away in March, became the first and only staff songwriters hired by Walt Disney himself. During their nine-year stint on the Disney lot, the Sherman brothers created some of the studio’s greatest film soundtracks, including “Mary Poppins,” “The Jungle Book” and “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.” The duo is also responsible for Disney theme park songs such as “It’s a Small World.”

In 1966, the Shermans began work on “The Aristocats,” the first animated film produced after the death of Walt Disney and, ultimately, the Oscar-winning brothers’ final project with the company.

“The Aristocats,” which is now available for the first time on Blu-ray, is the story of three well-to-do kittens – Toulouse, Marie and Berlioz – who are kidnapped by the family butler when the man discovers he will inherit his boss’ fortune if he can eliminate the cats. Meanwhile, the kittens’ mother Duchess teams up with a cat from the wrong side of the tracks in hopes of rescuing her missing brood. The Shermans contributed three songs to this Disney favorite: “The Aristocats” (the title song), “Pourquoi?” and “Scales and Arpeggios.”

I recently spoke with Richard Sherman about his work on “The Aristocats,” the return of the film’s “Lost Open” on Blu-ray and the origin of one of the world’s most famous (and lengthy) words.

David Onda: How did your work on “The Aristocats” start?

Richard Sherman: My brother Bob and I… we were the staff songwriters. It was coming to the end of our nine years that we were on the staff at the studio. And so, luckily, we were assigned to do the title song. They wanted an ultra-French title song. And so we knew we had to set the scene, and set the feel of turn-of-the-century France. And I remember we had this big discussion about who was the perfect person to sing it. And all of a sudden I said, “It’s too bad Chevalier is retired.” We had done songs with Maurice Chevalier in the past, and Wolfgang Reitherman, the director, said, “Why don’t you do that imitation you do of Chevalier and sing it and see if we can get him out of retirement.” And sure enough, Maurice – more or less of an homage to Walt Disney – said, “Sure, I’ll do it.” And he came out and sang it in French and English so beautifully. And that became his very last performance. He died shortly after that.

Onda: What was it like to work on this film without Walt Disney?

Sherman: It’s an interesting question. First of all, I don’t want to say anything bad. I say this: It’s a wonderful, entertaining movie and it worked beautifully. There’s a whole sequence which explains in detail who the Aristocats were and, also, why Edgar the butler wants all that money. It was all sort of laid out very carefully, and [the filmmakers], for some reason or another, said, “We don’t need this opening.” And I’m so glad they discovered this series of storyboards and this lost demo that Bob and I had done, because this, to me, was very special. And at least now, 40 years later, we have it [on the Blu-ray] so that the whole world can see what it originally was.

Bob (left) and Richard (right) with Debbie Reynolds (Photo: AP)

Onda: And you feel like Walt would have possibly kept that in?

Sherman: I know he would have kept it in.

Onda: What was the best advice Walt ever gave you?

Sherman: I think the best advice was, “Write what you think is the right thing for this – don’t let anybody else tell you what to write.” And he meant himself, too. “And then I’ll tell you if I can use it.”

Onda: What would surprise people about Walt Disney?

Sherman: He was a sweet, gentle soul. He was the greatest storyteller I’ve ever seen. He was a marvelous actor. His face would explain any situation, any character – from the villains to the good guys to the sweet little innocent maidens – he did it with his face and his eyes and he hypnotized you. The staff loved him. He was a wonderful man full of heart, full of feelings and what you saw on television – that was Walt. He was just a sweet guy. He didn’t have any pretensions. He had great self-confidence, but not ego.

Onda: Your “Mary Poppins” song “Feed the Birds” was Walt’s favorite. What was his connection to that song?

Sherman: His life was feed the birds. “It doesn’t take much to give love.” He gave love to everybody, and that’s what the song says. It doesn’t have to do with the price of birdseed, and he knew that right away. That was the door to “Mary Poppins.” We said, “Why does she come in?” To give the family some life lessons. The father was too busy making money to pay any attention to the kids.  What they needed was that tuppence – they needed a little love from you. And she teaches them that lesson. It was the doorway into that story. And Walt loved it because it said everything without saying a word about it. It didn’t say, “You’ve gotta pay attention to your children!” It said, “Feed the birds, tuppence a bag. It doesn’t take much to give love.”

Onda: You and Bob are famous for is creating new words. Do you have a favorite?

Sherman: Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. It’s now in all the better dictionaries, I’ll have you know. It’s just a fun word and it was kind of a gift we wanted to give to the Poppins kids. When they come out of this make-believe world, you can’t give them a tangible gift – so give them a big double-talk word.

Onda: What’s the story behind the creation of that word?

Sherman: Bob and I used to make double-talk words up when we were kids, and he said, “Let’s give [the Poppins kids] the biggest doubletalk word in the world. And so we said, “It’s gotta be super-colossal.” And everybody and his Uncle Harry would say super-colossal, so we had to change that. And we wanted to have a big obnoxious word, and obnoxious is an ugly word, so we said, “Atrocious sounds more British.” So we had “superatrocious” – and you see where it’s going now. And we said, “Well, you want to sound smart when you say it, so you could be precocious.  So, super, atrocious, precocious… why not ‘docious’ at the end?” Then we started at the beginning and we said, “Now we have cabble, flabble, fraggle, flaggle … cabble fragilistic.” I’m boiling down two weeks of arguments to “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” So that’s how we did it.

Toulouse, Marie and Berlioz (Photo: Disney)

Onda: In terms of your legacy with Walt Disney, where does “The Aristocats” stand?

Sherman: It marked a change in our lives, because “Aristocats” was the last song we did under salary, under contract to Walt and to his company. He was gone by that time. I’m thrilled now with the DVD because of the fact that they resurrected several of the songs that were lost and I’m so happy about that. And if you haven’t seen them yet, you’ll get a kick out of it. The extras are wonderful. And, in fact, I’m the one who tells the story of “The Lost Open.” I tell about it and show the storyboards – the whole thing. It’s fun.

“The Aristocats” is now available on the two-disc Blu-ray/DVD Special Edition.


The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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