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TGt Meets... Robert Sherman

Ahead of his show 'A Spoonful of Sherman' at the Wyvern Theatre on the 30th April, we spoke London-based songwriter and bookwriter to Robert Sherman about the show and why he's looking forward to coming to Swindon!

What can the Wyvern Theatre audience expect from your show A Spoonful of Sherman?

It will be two hours of what I like to call, “total entertainment”. By that I mean, five performers singing and dancing some 55 songs (Yes, 55 songs!) and covering a hundred years of my family’s story and its music. There are songs written by my Grandfather, Al Sherman (1897-1973) who wrote for such show business luminaries as Al Jolson, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, to name just a few. Of course highlighted are songs written by my father Robert B. Sherman (1925-2012) and my uncle, Richard M. Sherman (born: 1928). This is the duo is better known as “The Sherman Brothers”. Their songs include some of the most beloved music and lyrics ever written for family entertainment including the Academy Award winning song score of Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Aristocats, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Winnie the Pooh, The Slipper and the Rose and The Jungle Book. 

Rounding off the selection of musical numbers are a few songs which I wrote, from my 2015 Edinburgh Festival hit, Love Birds. So A Spoonful of Sherman quite literally includes three generations of my family’s music – a hundred years of my family’s songwriting – There’s no show (or showbusiness family) that can boast anything quite like it. We use these songs to help tell the Sherman Brothers’ story. It is an entertaining evening on many levels and the audience is deeply moved every night.  It’s really something to see! I think this is because the Sherman Brothers songs, in particular, represent the songbook of all our childhoods! It’s a very personal place we tap into – and make no mistake about it, it’s personal to me too. So to answer your question, I think people will be both entertained and deeply moved.  “Total Entertainment!”

What was your inspiration behind A Spoonful of Sherman?

So much of the Sherman Brothers’ story reflects the times in which they lived. The optimism of the early 1960s in America was equally a time of great personal optimism for the Sherman Brothers. They had gotten the dream job of working as Staff Songwriters for none other than Walt Disney, himself. In contrast, the mid-1970s was a time of self-doubt for the Sherman Brothers, just as it was for many people around the globe.In America it was the era of Richard Nixon and the calamitous end of the Vietnam War. That time of self-doubt was underlined in the Sherman Brothers’ writing as well. An example of this is their Academy Award nominated song, “The Age of Not Believing from Bedknobs and Broomsticks (sung in the movie by Angela Lansbury). So there was something that was universal appealing about the Sherman Brothers writing and this fascinated me.

The songs may have been written for specific musical films, but the Sherman Brothers’ songs always spoke to the times in which they were written as well. They had a relevance that transcended the silver screen. The songs were timely and timeless. This depth of content allowed for me, as a script writer, tell the Sherman Brothers’ story through their songs. Recognizing this was available to me, was a great inspiration to my writing.

With so many great songs to choose from, how did you pick which ones to include in the show?

First I created a list of songs that I knew we had to include: “It’s A Small World (After All)” from Disneyland and all the famous Mary Poppins, Winnie the Pooh, Chitty and Jungle Book songs. Without hearing these songs, the audience would leave disappointed. 

Once I incorporated those numbers, I then chose songs that would specifically help me tell the story I wanted to tell. So, for example, when telling how my father enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 17, I accent that story with a wonderful WWII ballad written by Grandfather, Al Sherman. The song we used is called, “There’s A Harbour of Dream Boats”.  It was originally sung by Frank Sinatra, week after week on the radio show, Your Hit Parade. By juxtaposing “There’s A Harbour of Dream Boats” with the story of my father’s courageous service, we garner a whole other dimension to both the story and the music that was inspired by it.

How has stemming from a long line of songwriters impacted your work, if at all?

I have learned lessons in writing and creativity from my father, that were once taught to him by his own Dad. The my Granddad learned from his father too. It goes back more than a hundred years, father to son. My writing method is very different from that of my peers and that’s a result of learning the old school methods to writing. When I realized how differently I approached songwriting, compared to my contemporaries, I was actually very surprised.

Another way my lineage has impacted my own work, is that it keeps me striving to be a better writer. For example, when it came time to include a few of my own songs in A Spoonful of Sherman, I was suddenly confronted with the fact that my work was going to be compared to my father and uncle’s and my grandfather’s songs – and not just any of their songs – the very best, and most famous of their respectively careers. That realization was daunting for me, and still is. It forced me to work harder, to examine my work and to always strive to up my game.

With so much to live up to, did you feel a lot of pressure to make the show perfect? How have the responses been so far?

I feel very fortunate to be in a position that I am able to write for a living. Not everyone who wants to do what I do, gets the opportunity. Because of that I feel a responsibility to give my audience the best show I can possibly provide. And I think A Spoonful of Sherman largely succeeds at giving its audience that level of entertainment.  Still, it doesn’t stop me from wanting to do rewrites. But there is a moment when you have to lock down your product and say, Ok. It’s good enough. Otherwise you’ll drive the cast and crew mad having to learn new lines of dialogue, choreography, etc.

Did you know anything about Swindon before a tour date was planned here?

I’m delighted to be coming to Swindon. You wouldn’t know this, but I am a student of history and because of Swindon’s fascinating past, I’m very much looking forward to my visit. But the first thing I actually want to see is your Magic Roundabout! It looks more scary than skydiving or bungi jumping.

Looking back, what would you say some of your career highlights have been?

Launching this UK/Ireland tour of A Spoonful of Sherman has definitely been a highlight. Premiering my show Bumblescratch at the Adelphi Theatre in 2016 was another great moment.  But I think my favorite overall experience in showbusiness was in the creation of Love Birds. There was something particularly magical about that show. Everyone in showbusiness should have a Love Birds experience in their library of memories. I think everyone involved in that show would agree.

What have been your main challenges surrounding this production and how have you overcome them?

The redrafting of this version of the script was particularly challenging but it was also deeply rewarding. You know, we demand so much from the performers, casting had to be spot on. We were extremely lucky to get the cast we did. All of them, Sophie-Louise Dann, Mark Read, Ben Stock, Glen Facey and Jenna Innes, each one is a star.  And they are all so talented in many areas: Dancing, Singing, Acting. Also, it should be said, they’re just all around excellent musicians. It’s a profound privilege to work with each of them. 

Are you going to be exploring much of the local area when you’re in Swindon for the show?

Yes. As I mentioned, I want to see the Magic Roundabout but I also am looking forward to checking out your world famous Steam Railroad Museum too. I’ve heard so much about it! 

What’s next for Robert J. Sherman after the A Spoonful of Sherman tour?

I’m currently in the middle of a rewrite on Love Birds. When it was performed in Edinburgh in 2015 it was done as a one-act show. In its new incarnation it will be a traditional two act show. The new structure conforms to the norms of the West End and of Broadway. There are some really fun new songs that I’ve written for it and a several new, colorful characters in this expanded version of the show. I’m pleased with where it’s heading! But there is a lot of pressure to get it right. The first time around with Love Birds, it was so well loved by audiences. I’ve got to be careful not to ruin a good thing. 

A Spoonful of Sherman comes to the Wyvern Theatre stage on April 30th. For further information or to get your tickets click here!

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Wyvern Theatre Swindon

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