ROBERT ‘ROBBIE’ J. SHERMAN is the son of Robert B. Sherman (1925–2012), one half of the Academy-Award-winning songwriting partnership (with brother Richard) responsible for the unforgettable numbers in classic movie musicals such as Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Jungle Book, The Aristocats and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. His grandfather Al Sherman also enjoyed a successful career as a writer on the vaudeville circuit, so if there’s a songwriter currently feeling the weight of familial giants on his shoulders, it’s Robbie, who’s new show Love Birds is due for a month-long run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August.
Love Birds tells the story of a pandemonium of parrots and penguins plying their trade on the vaudeville stage, and will preview in London today and tomorrow before heading to the Pleasance Courtyard in Edinburgh from 5 to 31 August. Directed and choreographed by Stewart Nicholls, it will feature the talents of Ruth Betteridge, Greg Castiglioni, John Guerrasio, George Knapper, Jonny Purchase, Joanna Sawyer, Anna Stolli, Rafe Watts and Ryan Willis.
London audiences who were lucky enough to catch A Spoonful of Sherman last year at the St James Theatre in Victoria will remember Robert J. as the narrator of this Sherman Brothers-inspired cabaret, and his warm, comforting tones can be heard on the recent recording of the show. This cabaret and recording was the topic first under discussion when Sherman Jr talked with Craig Glenday about his upcoming musical.
The idea had been floating around for a while but it took a long time to happen. There was an Al Sherman and Sherman Brothers show back in the early 1980s at the Variety Arts Center in Los Angeles, and it was performed by a couple. Act I was my grandfather Al’s songs and Act II was the Sherman Brothers’ stuff. I thought, wouldn’t it be great if one day I was a songwriter and I could join that cavalcade of great songs and continue the tradition? Always in my mind was the idea that one day I’d want to do a show like this.
The big problem with this type of show – and the reason that nobody had done it successfully before – is because if you’re going to do a concert or cabaret, it’s very different to the type of music that my father and uncle became famous for. Most of the stuff they became famous for were movie scores – Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Aristocrats – and they have million-dollar songs like ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’, but if you take your girlfriend or boyfriend out for a night at the cabaret, you want something a little more sophisticated.
Are you saying that the Sherman Brothers didn’t write sophisticated stuff?
No, they did. But what we did with Spoonful of Sherman was to still do ‘Supercal’ and ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’, but also do songs like ‘Suddenly it Happens’ or ‘Tell HIm Anything’ from [the 1976 movie] The Slipper and the Rose, or songs from Busker Alley [the Sherman Brothers’ 1995 stage musical based on the 1938 film St Martin’s Lane].
We wanted to make the songs lyrical and tell a story that was interesting and intriguing. We had the most intriguing story in my father’s life. In fact, the show was a tribute to my father, who passed away in 2012, so we talked about him being a Second World War veteran, and played songs by my grandfather, like ‘There’s a Harbor of Dreamboats’, which was originally sung by Frank Sinatra, and in our show was sung by Emma Williams. It became a very personal show, which worked perfectly in cabaret. Songs that never worked in the movies, like ‘Lovely Lonely Man’ [which is often cut from the movie and stage versions of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang], also sung by Emma, was too intimate for the screen but worked brilliantly in cabaret. It just sparkled.
Wow, you’re the first person to say that I have a nice voice – thank you! I have to give a lot of credit to Nick Lloyd Webber, who was our producer, and the engineer and mixer Matt Weir. They really gave me a roundness to my voice that I’ve never really heard before, and I was stunned. Most people notoriously don’t like the sound of their own voice – and I’m one of them – but this time I actually liked it!
You’ve now written a own show of your own – Love Birds. Is this your first show as the creator of book, lyrics and music?
I spent my life looking for collaborators but I’ve always worked by myself as a writer. What I want to write about – and where my head is at at any given year – is usually far from any of the other writers I’ve encountered. My subjects can be very esoteric, and themes often don’t crystallise for me until a draft or two in. Then suddenly I’ll have a eureka moment – that’s suddenly what I’ve been looking for, that’s what this show’s about – and I can happily throw away half of the stuff I’ve written, which can be very frustrating for a collaborator. But this moment of crystallisation is a magical feeling for a single writer. Most writers like to do an outline then another outline and then work with note cards and want to know what they’ll be writing on page 100 before they write what’s on page three.
I learned that way too, by the way – I went to writing school and my major at university was screenwriting – but I don’t do it that way. I tend to take a journey of self exploration. I’m not very good at this kind of psychoanalysis with other people in the room. I don’t think that most people are. The closest I’ve ever come to having a collaborator is on this show, Love Birds, and on A Spoonful of Sherman, because of the fantastic director Stewart Nicholls. It comes down to trust. We both do a lot of homework on a subject – we’re not afraid to get our hands dirty in that regard – but ultimately he respects my area as the writer and I respect his area as a director. In the end we speak with one voice.
Is the show still taking shape?
The show has taken shape all the way through the rehearsals. Especially with Edinburgh, because you only get one hour, which is a strange format for me. It’s not what we’re used to for telling a musical-themed story, and my sense is that there’s going to be a lot of cutting, nipping and tucking all over the place. Stewart and I know that we’ve both got a great script right now and it’s very hard to find a cut. But I’m very comfortable with him making those cuts and I’ll just have to live with them. I hope that when we get back to London for our big opening we’ll be able to expand it in all kinds of nice ways.
Your background is from a well-known line of songwriters and there must be a lot of pressure on you to deliver. How do you deal with that?
Yes, I feel that pressure. My father was such a sweet and gentle guy, and an extremely sensitive person too. A lot of people don’t realise this about him. Because he was also the son of a prominent songwriter, he knew better than anyone how that kind of pressure can become oppressive, so he was very careful not to put me under that kind of pressure. That said, I feel a very strong inclination to do my best, and every song should have a purpose. Every line should have a direct and immediate purpose, every song should receive thunderous applause. That’s what I strive for.
Is this what you learned from your father? If there was one piece of advice you could take from him, what would it be?
I owe him so many lessons. If there was one piece of advice… It’s hard to pinpoint a single thing, but one that comes to mind is that a song should be very clear in its perspective and should be borne from a great desire. A person doesn’t sing unless he has a deep craving for something, so there has to be a gap, something with an immediate sense of urgency. So you need to know who your character is and where they’re coming from and these are things I write first, my characters and the scenario they’re in. These are lessons I’ve learned from my father, but it’s not something you learn in an afternoon, you learn it over years.
Tell us about the premise of Love Birds. What can we expect?
The premise is that penguins and parrots are singing and dancing on the vaudeville stage, but at a deeper level it’s about future shock. Although it’s a fantasy, the year the show takes place is significant: it’s 1923. And why is that significant? It’s around the time that the ‘The Charleston’ [by James P. Johnson] was popularised and that ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ [George Gershwin] came into the world. When we think of that period we think of flappers, decadence, and The Great Gatsby.
It was also when jazz was formalised and legitimised, quite literally, because with ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, jazz was finally considered a legitimate form of music. In my story, the Love Birds’ impresario, Armitage Shanks – I know, it’s an unfortunate name, as it turns out, but he likes it! – is a very old-fashioned guy and very resistant to change. He’s actually a plesiosaur! Turns out he’s actually the Loch Ness Monster, and he’s taking a couple of decades out to become an impresario in vaudeville! Come on, it’s a fantasy!
Anyways, when two of the cast members – a parrot and a penguin – fall in love and kiss on stage, all hell breaks loose. What starts as a very light theme and story quickly deals with current issues such as equality and addiction. But it’s all done with a sense of humour, obviously – we’re talking about parrots and penguins! For example, the addicted party is not a person, he’s a parrot. And he’s not addicted to cocaine or crack, he’s addicted to crackers! We have fun with it.
How would you describe the show’s musical style?
You know the American Songbook? The very structured songs of the 1920s and 30s? That’s the flavour of the songs you’ll hear. They’re simple-structured songs; not simplistic but simple, back-to-basics.
Is this simplicity – or apparent simplicity – the secret of a Sherman-style song? What makes your father’s songs stand the test of time?
There’s a school of thought among writers of my age that they’re part of the ‘new school’ of songwriting. And there is a new school: it’s stream-of-consciousness, it’s meandering, musically nothing repeats. So the question is, what is ‘old school’? Well, I’m old school for sure, because I learned from my father and he learned from his father. Old school songwriters like my grandfather started off, like George Gershwin, like Vincent Youmans, like Richard Rodgers, like a lot of these guys, working as song ‘pluggers’ on Tin Pan Alley.
It’s not a real place – well, it was a real place, 27th Street in New York City – but the reason they called it Tin Pan Alley is because all the music publishers had offices up and down the street, and it sounded like a bunch of tin pans because you had the song pluggers – piano players – pushing the songs. The song that got sold to the publisher was the song that had a lot of musical repetition, singable melodies, hummable, catchy lyrics. So three or four years later, when these guys graduated to become songwriters in their own right, they understood that you had to have melodies that repeated.
Why did your father’s shows not translate to the stage until very recently?
There’s long history to this. First of all, my father and uncle were in Hollywood, California. Hollywood basically stopped making musicals in the early 1960s, with one or two exceptions. One exceptional exception was Disney, because they were still making non-ironic, family films; they weren’t as caught up in the Age of Aquarius as other studios like MGM and Warner Bros and all of these studios trying to modernise. So you had some wonderful Hollywood musicals coming out of Hollywood but the only songwriters writing them consistently were my father and uncle. What they weren’t doing was writing shows for Broadway.
Did they ever write for Broadway?
They did one or two. They did one in 1974, which was Broadway’s biggest grossing original show of the year, called Over Here!, and it was terrific. It had the Andrews Sisters – they’d never done a Broadway show before – and a lot of new talent like John Travola and Marilu Henner. But they really were LA guys, and LA was not a place you start a musical from.
And stage shows weren’t created from movies back then…
Exactly. That only really started with Disney, when CEO Michael Eisner wanted to do a stage version of Mary Poppins. He couldn’t get the rights from the author, Pamela Travers – she was very prickly about it – so they ended up doing Beauty and the Beast, then A Little Mermaid eventually, and of course The Lion King, which went on to be enormous.
Then, only with a lot of cajoling and massaging – and with Cameron Mackintosh and my lawyer John Cohen coming into the picture – all the parties were brought together and we had a shotgun wedding to make Mary Poppins happen. By the time this happened in 2004, my father was nearly 80 years old. It’s not like he was going to go out and start writing new musicals! He occasionally did write new lyrics for things, but doing a whole new show is a very intense thing. You don’t see Stephen Sondheim doing this, and I don’t blame him… it’s an athletic exercise. I’m in my 40s and I’m exhausted, running around getting scores ready, and when people need something they need it now. “We need a dance break and we need it yesterday!”
Good luck with the show. With monsters, penguins and cracker-addicted parrots, it sounds so crazy it might just work…
Well, the first line of the script will give you a feeling of what to expect. It starts: “It was a magical, musical time. The age of vaudeville, when birds and monsters could put on a show that would fill a theatre.” It’s going to be a great show. I believe in it firmly and I really do think it’s something that people will be able to identify with it. I think you’ll find the music is fun and, as I said, old school. It’s meant for you to walk out whistling the tunes.
* Love Birds previews at the Lost Theatre in Wandsworth, London, today and tomorrow (28 and 29 July) before running at the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh from 5 to 31 August (no performance on 19 July).
* At 16 Robert J. Sherman became one of the youngest songwriters ever invited to join Broadcast Music Incorporated and is an alumni of their Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. At 18 he wrote songs for the musical, A Christmas Held Captive (Beverly Hills Playhouse). Current projects include Inkas the Ramferinkas (an animation musical film) and Bumblescratch the Musical (workshop).
* Readers may also be interested in:
CD Review – A Spoonful of Sherman
A Spoonful of Sherman – St James Studio – Review