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When Walt Disney stopped the car

Posted by Laura Collins-Hughes  February 24, 2011 07:38 PM

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The words have a paternal ring to them: "Good night, boys. Drive carefully," Walt Disney used to tell his staff songwriters, Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, when he sent them on their way at the end of the workweek.

But Disney himself was at the wheel, the Sherman brothers his passengers, on the day his fatherliness really came to the fore. It was shortly after they'd written the song "It's a Small World" for the Disney Company-designed Unicef pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair.

"We had just finished it," Richard Sherman recalled recently, "and we were driving back from this meeting where we had played it for the Imagineers, the people that create the rides" at Disney. "And we said, 'Walt, Bob and I were talking and we were thinking ... if we ever make a record or something, we'd donate our royalties to Unicef.'

"He slammed the brakes on," Sherman said, then switched into strict-dad tones to imitate Disney. "He said, 'You're not gonna give your royalties of that song away. It's gonna send your kids through college. You can give a donation to Unicef anytime you want.'

"And then he drove away again," Sherman said, his voice restored to storytelling gentleness. "He wouldn't let us do it. He said, 'No. You don't do that.' And it did send our kids through college. It's the most powerful song we have. Amazing man. He knew."

Sherman was reminiscing about Disney because of "Mary Poppins," the musical, which is running through March 20 at the Boston Opera House. He and his brother wrote the music -- and won two Academy Awards -- for Disney's 1964 "Mary Poppins" movie. The stage adaptation, based on both P.L. Travers's "Mary Poppins" stories and the film, adds new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe to some of the Shermans' originals.

But however much Disney knew, the Sherman brothers' own father, Tin Pan Alley songwriter Al Sherman, knew a thing or two, too. As a lyricist, he taught his sons to look beyond the lexicon.

"Dad was a foreign-born kid," Sherman said, "but he loved the sound of the language, so he used to write songs that had word sounds in them: 'What Do We Do on a Dew-Dew-Dewy Day,' '(Ho Ho Ha Ha) Me Too.' He played with the words: 'If you saw what I saw swingin' on a seesaw in Nassau by the sea,'" Sherman said, speaking the lyrics in a rhythm approaching patter. "I mean, he came up with these things, and that's how he could set the music. The music came easy to him, but the words -- he dug for words.

"Bob and I learned that. That's how we could play with words. That's how we came up with 'supercalifragilistic,'" he said, leaving the last six syllables of the famous "Mary Poppins" term unuttered for the sake of brevity. "We wanted to say a special word, something to give the kids a gift. Something crazy. And we kept developing it. We said, 'It has to be supercolossal,' and it started with that. 'OK, that sucks.' 'Supercollo -- ecchh.' And then we wanted to sound really obnoxious, and we said 'obnoxious.' 'That's not a good word.' 'Atrocious,' that sounds English. So we started with 'superatrocious.' 'Oh, good. Now let's fill it in.' ... Well, you want to sound smart, if you're precocious: 'atrocious,' 'precocious.' We just played with it. And at the beginning it's just doubletalk, garbledygoop. We just made up the kind of onomatopoeia that you do."

At last they concocted their word, "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," but they didn't use it as the song's title. Instead, they named the tune for the cockneys who appear in the song's scene in the movie, their clothing richly paved with mother of pearl buttons.

Then they played their creation for Walt Disney.

"He said, 'Yeah, yeah, uh-huh. Why do you call it "The Pearly Song"?' "

They didn't think anyone would bother to utter their doubletalk word, they explained. Nonsense, replied Disney.

" 'Your song is "Super-duper" whatever the heck -- that. That. That's your title. Put that on the title. It's gonna be in the dictionaries.' So we said, 'Whaa-ah? OK, Walt, you're the boss,' " Sherman laughed. "And it is in the dictionaries. It's everywhere."

Well, not quite everywhere. As it turns out, converting the movie into a stage musical isn't the last transformation for "Mary Poppins." There's also the matter of translating the musical, invented terms included, for productions in non-English-speaking countries.

As lyricist Anthony Drewe explained, the Shermans' made-up word proved unexpectedly problematic for the Dutch version of the show -- not on its own but because the lines of the song rhyme.

"Apparently, 'supercalifragilisticexpialidocious' sounds like it's going to rhyme with a rude word in Holland," Drewe said.

So when the translator asked him if she could change the last syllable, he consented. That way, Drewe said, they could perform the song "without putting dirty words in people's heads."

For more on "Mary Poppins," see the Boston Globe feature story and review.

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