Amidst his very busy schedule, we were able to chat to Robbie Sherman before the UK tour of ‘A Spoonful of Sherman’ gets into full swing. We had a lovely chat about his early life and his discovery of music as well as his family who have touched millions and millions of lives over the past decade. Robbie has definitely given ‘Ginger in the Theatre’ a very unique, all access insight into the creation of such a beautiful show which is currently touring the UK. You are in for a treat!
To start off with, coming from a musically gifted family, has music always been a part of your life?
Absolutely, it has. My earliest memories always seem to be connected to listening to my dad and uncles’s songs and they were really in the top of their careers in in those years so when I was first born and the first couple of years after that and so I always had music around and I always knew that I wanted to be a songwriter.
Was it something which you actively pursued at school considering you had it so present at home?
Its a funny thing but not so much in school. I pursued music in the high school marching band. I played the glockenspiel, the tuber and then became the drum major of the band. And then I was also in the ‘Magical Singers’ and I was the student conductor of that group. But my songwriting really was something that I did more extracurricularly.
Obviously your parents and family had a big influence on your career choice but were there any external factors or people who also inspired you over the years?
Certainly on a broader sense there were always external people because it wasn’t just the people in my family who were my favourites. I was a Beetles fan from very early on and they are still my favourite band. In the musical theatre realm everyone from Gilbert and Sullivan to Rodgers and Hammerstein to Stephen Sondheim and even the modern songwriters of today, some of whom are younger than I am are influential to me and I think in order to be a writer you have to open to everything that is going on and not to just close yourself to one period of time. You have to know your history but also know where you are in the present.
So, a little one to put you on the spot, is there any particular piece that you are most proud of? Or is that like asking a parent who their favourite child is?
As far as a single song, I have the same answers that my father does that is, exactly what you just said, being a parent and you can’t just pick one. However, there are three projects that I am most proud of. I would say that the writing I did on a musical I did a few years ago at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, called LoveBirds. It’s a musical that I wrote the script and songs for. Thats the work I’m most proud of and I feel is my best work. Probably second and third would be this current script for ‘A Spoonful of Sherman’ where I’ve done something kind of interesting where you get the story of the songwriters in my family and I’ve made the idea of the Sherman brothers, the idea of my dad and uncle into a protagonist. I am very proud because it wasn’t an idea that necessarily worked but from what the critics have said it seems to have. I am very pleased with that and the fact that they are getting that kind of recognition. And then there was another script that I wrote with my father, actually, for an animated project called ‘Inkas The Ramfriankas’ and this is a project that I have worked on the last 20 years. I was in my early 20s and my dad and I took a story of his and made it into a picture animated script about a flying dinosaur. And that script is one of the best things I’ve done. Those three are the ones that I’m most proud of.
Would you be able to divulge any methods in how you compose to our readers? Is there a standard method you use or does it vary?
For me, generally speaking, it is that first moment of inspiration and finding something inspiring. That could be a line, often times its the title of the song, it’s the idea of the song that comes first. Then it’s that idea even though its not fully formed and as the writer you can imagine what the whole thing will look like. And I’m sure you’re the same way when you write an article, you know what its going to look like. Now you have to roll up you sleeves and do the work and chisel away. As my father use to say, there are three parts to a song – there’s the music and the lyrics but there is also the third part which is the idea. I know that they [father and uncle] spent a tremendous amount of time just discussing ideas and thinking about what would be a fresh idea for a song. This remains true for a song or a show itself. Does the show lend itself to being told in a musical manner and not every story does. You wouldn’t necessarily want to do ‘death of a Salesman’ as a musical or ‘Angles in America’ as a musical. You could. I think they could both be very good musicals but it may be that the script or the poetry can stand alone. You have to ask yourself ‘does music aid the telling of this story or does it get in the way?’
On to the show now, back in 2014 ‘A Spoonful of Sherman’ opened. How did the idea for this show come about?
It’s a good question because this show has evolved so much since 2014. When I originally conceived the show with my music director, Colin Villing, he and I said that what we wanted to do is tell three generations of songwriters in the same family. And my concept was that it would be a great musical family tribute to my father who suddenly passed away and year and a half earlier in 2012 and it fell on the heels of the movie ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ and most significantly on the heels of the release on my dad’s autobiography which is called ‘Moose: Chapters from my Life’. That was his nickname, Moose. But he wasn’t around, sadly, to see the release of his book which he worked on so hard. We were going to do a UK book launch and rather than having me signing the book as the book editor as my name is rather similar to my father’s, I am also Robert Sherman. People might have gotten the wrong idea and might have thought that I was passing myself off as my father. They might have been sadly surprised that my father had passed away and they didn’t know. We thought that we can’t just do a traditional book signing. We’ll do a musical tribute. So we created this piece that I was the narrator of and I wrote it. We had four singers, piano player and myself. And it was very different to what we have now. This show is like watching a west end show. It’s like looking at a musical. There’s dancing, there’s movement, there’s a lot of backstory and a lot of history but you don’t feel like you’re watching a cabaret. You feel like you are watching a proper musical and that’s how its evolved. It’s also not so much of a tribute to my father but both my father and uncle and my grandfather and a little bit about me. That’s what the story is and it builds up the myth of the Sherman Brothers. It gives you the story that a lot of people don’t know. These are the people who created the songbook of our childhoods. You construct that in the second act and realise that tremendous gift they gave us. We take human beings who had struggles and triumphs in life and the world is richer for it from the great musicals they created. Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, Winnie The Pooh, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, these are things that everybody knows the words to.
That is beautiful. They have truly given so much to the world. Looking back on my own childhood, there are song many songs that come to mind from those movies which your family have written and it is wonderful.
Thank you. I agree and its a funny thing for me because when I was young I would hear the songs and it was just me and I didn’t realise so many kids around the world were listening to these songs to. When creating the show we had to make the serious decision of whether it was possible to do this show without me as the narrator as its personal when I do it but the conclusion that we all came to was as long as we get actors and performers who love this music then its not just personal for me, its personal for everyone who loves this music. If you grew up with Mary Poppins then Mary Poppins was in your DVD player or VHS and you watched it over and over again. This was your baby sitter. A personal friend to you. Like so much of TV and music is. And for that reason we create this family on stage. It’s just as personal as it is to me as it is to you. Yes, its a little different but it doesn’t make it any less personal.
With your family having created so many wonderful songs, how did you create the set list for the show to showcase the best of the best?
I’ve got to compliments you, thats a great question. It really is because its the heart of why this show works. This show is an intimate show. It’s meant to be an intimate show. It was when it was a cabaret and it is now that its more of a musical stage show. The idea because it goes to the heart of us as children and the secret is that we don’t just do big hits. We don’t just do ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, ‘The old Bamboo’. We also do songs that you maybe haven’t heard of. Songs from my grandfather. He was a hit songwriter in the 30s and 40s. We used songs that specifically accented points in the lives of the Sherman Brothers which is very much like the lives of everybody. Like I said, this is a universal story, not just my family’s. The 1960s happened to be a very optimistic time for Americans but it was a great time for my dad and uncle as well. So, that’s how we chose the songs. There’s a song called ‘A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow’ that my father and uncle wrote for The World’s Fair so we include that song because it accents that time and tells the audience the story of that moment in history. You have a grandparent and they remember that time very well and how positive that was and they say “you know, it was a great big beautiful tomorrow. We did most of that”. With this show we really suffer an embarrassment of riches with this show because there are so many really amazing songs that my dad and uncle wrote and my grandfather wrote, I would have loved to have more of mine in there but there just isn’t room. Ultimately you have to serve the story, you can’t have a five hour show. But that’s how we chose it. It was basically what helps us accent the story and make it come alive for people so its not just a little bit of narration and a song or why I love the song. No, this was how does this universally appeal to the world?
Do you feel any pressure keeping this legacy going?
Yes but its all self-imposed. Nobody ever said to me that I must keep this legacy going or you’ll bring shame to our family. My father was very happy that I wanted to follow in his footsteps but didn’t ever pressure me to do so. There are many things we do to keep the legacy going. One thing besides my writing aspirations is that I am also the trustee of my family’s archives. There is literally over a hundred years of songwriting that is being digitised as we speak and fifty thousands photographs that have been digitised already. That aspect of the legacy is also being maintained.There are odd arrangements of musicals that you have never heard of like this musical called ‘The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band’ that came out in 1968 and there are marching band arrangements for this. Somebody thought it was a worth while thing.The movie wasn’t a big success. If we don’t archive this, they’ll disappear. They’ll just go away. But you know for that one instance where someone might want to use that matching band arrangement it could be a fantastic thing. So, we’re preserving the legacy for the next generation. As far as my own work, if I could do even a fraction of what my father and uncle accomplished. If I could write a musical a year that makes people happy and puts a smile on their face and gives them a better way of looking at life. If I do ten or twenty of those I’ll feel great.
From your point of view, why should people come and see ‘A Spoonful of Sherman’?
I think people should see ‘A Spoonful of Sherman’ because, although they don’t realise it until they see it, it’s the song book of their childhoods. And people have a deep emotional connection. I see this night after night. People will come up to me literally in tears saying ‘you don’t know what such and such song meant to me. I didn’t realise your father and uncle wrote that song’. Its a very heart warming and deep personal reaction. Children are riveted throughout the piece. Five year olds. Seven years olds sit there and they don’t fidget. They just watch and they are mesmerised because tis a very visual show. Our cabaret wasn’t as visual but this is very visual. But then you have 75 year olds and 80 year olds who know the music because like I said my grandfather wrote for all these famous singers: Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Al Jolson. He wrote for all of these people. You don’t realise that you know these songs. I think that that is really the reasons people should see it. It’s a lot of fun and its a lot of memories. Its very moving in a way that surprises people. I should also add that we have a tremendously talented cast. We have five performers. There is a certain rawness to this because we have two pianos and five singers and you can’t hide. You don’t have five tenors singing this one part. You have one tenor, one soprano, one alto and one base. If a note or a voice cracks you hear it but it make it very real. You get the real thing. You have these vocal harmonies that are so true to the times and we wanted to stay true to the decades these were written. So we are not just giving the feeling of the time but also giving the authenticity and its something that you just don’t hear in a west end scenario. Its heartfelt music.
And finally, have you got any new ventures planned for the future?
Oh lots! Too many. There are so many wonderful things. So, my biggest thing right now is to make sure that this tour seems to be successful and then to expand the tour to other places. We could play all over the world: Australia, Canada, even Germany and South Africa. Theres a lot of places the show could play and would have a tremendous appeal. But then my show ‘Love Birds’ which I was telling you was a big hit both critically and with the audience alike in the Edinburgh Fringe. I am way overdue to deliver a two act version of this. With fringe shows, it is alway a one hour piece which isn’t really a conventional way to introduce a musical to the west end. I would love nothing more than to see this make it to the west end and broadway. I have two or three other shows that I am very eager to begin. I have bits and pieces of songs, scenes but before I go any further on that I need to get the first things done. There is also all my dad’s stuff. There’s books, like I mentioned. There are books that have never seen the light of day. I would love to get those published. I personally recommend anyone who is a Sherman Brothers fan to read my dad’s autobiography ‘Moose: Chapters From My Life’. It really is tremendous. It is more than just, sort of, a Hollywood book. In fact, its almost not a Hollywood book in a way because it has the Hollywood stories but it doesn’t start with them. It starts with war stories. I also have my grandfathers autobiography that was never published and I’d loved to get that going. Theres a lot of things to keep me occupied over the next few years.
It’s great to hear we have plenty of wonderful things coming from Robbie Sherman and of his family legacy in the near future.
It was an absolute pleasure talking to Robbie and I urge you all to see ‘A Spoonful of Sherman’ at some point on it’s UK tour. A truly stunning show suitable for all.
For more information on the show, UK dates, venues and tickets head over to http://www.aspoonfulofsherman.com
Also follow Robbie Sherman on twitter for update on his latest projects and here’s hoping that ‘Love Birds’ comes back in full force with both acts!