Visionaries: Menken, Disney Sherman Brothers

Visionaries: Three Men and the Modern Disney Songbook

Visionaries” examines those who have made significant impacts on their industry with innovative approaches, unique style or just pure mastery of their medium.  

Walt Disney Studios’ films have always been at the forefront of imagination and pure entertainment for all ages. Whether it’s the characters, bright colors, or timeless appeal Disney’s films remain classic for a reason. And part of the reason is the great catalog of music and songs so essentially attached to so many of its celebrated titles. Though numerous composers have worked on these cherished films, it is the work of The Sherman Brothers and Alan Menken respectively, who have left the greatest visionary musical legacy in the Studio’s long history. These three men have exemplified the very best in musical song scores and who have left an indelible mark on all those touched by their melodies.

The musical score is an essential component of any successful film; indeed without an accompanying soundtrack, the emotions, thrills, and soul of a motion picture can be considerably lacking. But to be a truly great score and composer behind it, it takes more than just simply adding background sound, but the ability to create through melody a character and accentuation that enhances the viewing experience. Greats like John Williams (profiled as a Visionary here), to Bernard Hermann, to James Horner and many others have mastered this ever-important ability. In the case of Disney Studios, the talents of many musicians have passed through the doors, but only Menken and The Sherman Brothers can be rightfully called truly visionary.

The team of Robert B. (1925-2012) and Richard M. Sherman would prove to be so vital to the success of Walt Disney’s constantly growing vision of his films and commercial empire. Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, The Sherman Brothers not only created delightful melodies and songs but were integral parts of the production process for many projects (even after Disney’s death in 1966). Indeed beyond songwriting, the brothers served as screenwriters and producers for films like Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book. But of course, their genius was at it its highest point in bringing music to the screen and creating songs that everyone loved to sing.

As emerging songwriters in the 1950s, The Shermans had perfected their partnership and created a working formula that stuck with them for the rest of their careers. Though Robert mostly focused on the lyrics and Richard on the musical composition, they helped each other out and the final results were always because of their combined efforts. A Sherman Brothers song/score is indeed the work of both to achieve the highest possible quality. And so when they caught the attention of Walt Disney in 1961 there was no turning back for these very talented brothers!

Thus began a very fruitful relationship with Disney and the Studio that would result in some of the greatest film songs to ever be composed. Beginning with “The Parent Trap” (1961) and “The Sword in the Stone”(1963), The Shermans quickly became one of Disney’s personal favorites. And so when the time came to adapt the PL Travers books of Mary Poppins to the big screen, there was no question as to who would score it (Check out the 2013 film Saving Mr. Banks).

Undoubtedly their best-known score and their most successful, the songs and music to “Mary Poppins” (1964) cemented their brilliance. The songs “A Spoonful of Sugar”, “Feed The Birds”(Walt Disney’s favorite song), “Let’s go Fly a Kite”, and of course “Chim Chim Cher-ee” became instant classics and remain continuously popular to this day. The duo won two Academy Awards: Best Original Song (Chim Chim Cher-ee) and Best Original Score.

Though they wouldn’t win any further Oscars, their wonderful output continued with scores including “Winnie the Pooh“, “The Jungle Book” (1967) and “The Aristocats” (1970), and of course “It’s a Small World After All” for the theme park attraction of the same name. They would eventually leave Disney Studios and compose other scores,  but it will always be their time spent in that Magical Kingdom that leaves the greatest lasting impression. True visionary talents that helped the films they worked on reach new zeniths of greatness. For the Disney Studio, there would be no other musical equivalent like The Shermans until the arrival of another visionary: Alan Menken.

Alan Menken Visionaries Disney Movies

After a period of critical decline, producers at Disney were determined to return the Studio’s standing in the eyes of the public. The subsequent return to glory would be known as The Disney Renaissance. Much like The Shermans had done, a new composer emerged whose musical output would be a key ingredient into the sustained success of this rebirth for the Studio.

“I’ve loved the whole sensibility of the Disney Company since I was a child—the stories, the movies, and the books. It is so universal and so supremely American. I never dreamed I would be a part of it, much less an important part of it.”

Alan Menken

Menken’s musical genius flourished under the Disney banner, and many of the quintessential Disney songs most audiences sing today are his compositions.  Whether it’s “Under The Sea”, “Beauty and the Beast”, or “A Whole New World”, the music of Alan Menken is an integral part of many of the Disney Renaissance films. Indeed for his efforts, he has won 8 Academy Awards (4 in Best Song and 4 in Best Score), the second most all-time behind Alfred Newman!

Composer Alan Menken arrived at Disney with lyricist Howard Ashman(1950-1991) in the late ’80s, coming off a series of successful Broadway productions including “Little Shop of Horrors”. Together Menken and Ashman devised a plan to score upcoming films in the style of stage musicals, in ways similar to the earlier works of The Shermans. And it began with “The Little Mermaid” (1989), the first of the string of critically acclaimed hits that would constitute The Disney Renaissance.

Initially working with Howard Ashman on The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, Menken has showcased his ability to work well with a variety of lyricists. Upon Ashman’s untimely death, Menken has worked with the likes of Tim Rice, Stephen Schwartz, and David Zippel. Like a true master, he has showcased his malleable talents and consistently provided scores and songs that live on years after their debuts.

It is without a doubt that without Alan Menken’s musical gifts the level of critical esteem enjoyed by the Renaissance films would not be as high. Like The Sherman Brothers before him, Alan Menken crafted essential musical scores/songs that enhanced the movie viewing experience and a found a special spot in the hearts of millions, adults and children alike.

And so with the talents of Richard and Robert Sherman, and Alan Menken the music of the Disney films found a way to stick with us, and move us deeply. While many talented musicians have served the Disney Studios (Leigh Harline, Frank Churchill etc.) what was accomplished by The Sherman Brothers and Alan Menken went beyond what was expected of mere songwriters.

Through their visionary work and gifts, audiences didn’t just get a pleasant tune here or there or one memorable song. We received a Songbook as rich as the output of great films by Disney; coupled with the work of other composers, the enduring mark of Alan Menken and The Sherman Brothers will lie always with their exquisite musical masterpieces and a truly special film studio.

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