Disney's 'The Aristocats': EW talks to songwriter Richard Sherman
Before The Princess and the Frog dazzled a generation of Justin Bieber- and Miley Cyrus-loving kids with New Orleans jazz, Disney’s The Aristocats introduced kids of the 1970s to jazz of the circa 1910 French variety.
Tuesday Disney released The Aristocats on Blu-ray, and to commemorate the release, EW chatted with Richard Sherman, who wrote some of the film’s music along with his late brother, Robert Sherman. (In the photo below, that’s Richard on the left, Robert on the right.) The duo composed two songs for the 1970 film about a collection of musically gifted cats: the title song and “Scales and Arpeggios,” along with deleted song “Pourquoi?” sung by Hermione Baddeley as Madame Bonfamille, and its reprise, “She Never Felt Alone,” sung by Robie Lester as Duchess.
Sherman appears in a special feature about those deleted songs on the Blu-ray release, which edited together storyboards from the planned scenes with original recordings of the songs.
“It was a big kick seeing those storyboards again after 40 years and telling the story of how it was supposed to have started,” Sherman said.
The Sherman Brothers’ long career with Disney also included such hits as The Jungle Book and Mary Poppins (they invented the word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”), as well as music for many of the theme park rides in Disneyworld, Disneyland and Epcot.
Sherman talked with EW about his work for The Aristocats, which singer brought his songs to a level he never expected and what’s next in the legacy of Disney animated musicals – a format that the House of Mouse departed from for 12 years between Mulan and The Princess and the Frog.
On writing The Aristocats’ title song for famed French jazz singer Maurice Chevalier:
We’re very particularly proud of that song because we got him to come out of retirement to do it. It was quite a job to get him to do it. We had done a number of songs for Chevalier, and our dad who was a songwriter wrote songs for Chevalier back in the ’30s and so it was like a family thing. He was very sweet, and we’d done songs [sung by Chevalier] for In Search of the Castaways and Monkeys Go Home, and then when The Aristocats came up, they said, “Who’s the perfect guy for the title song to set the style and feel?” There was only one Maurice Chevalier, and unfortunately he was retired. So that’s when Woolie Reitherman, the director of The Aristocats, said, “Sherman, you can do a demo, but make it sound like Chevalier, and we’ll send it to him.” And so I made a demo where I made my voice sound like Chevalier’s. He came out of retirement, which was marvelous.
On writing “Scales and Arpeggios,” a song that was limited to the reach of a kitten’s paws on a piano:
It had to stay within the range of a little pussycat, and also it had to feel very real. We wanted to have something that sounded like you’re drilling into the homework that you had to do and at the same time something that’s story-wise entertaining. This was the challenge to do “Scales and Arpeggios.” It was a lesson song. Actually, that’s what it was going to be called. We didn’t know quite what we were going to write yet, and then we said, “Well you have to lay it in on the things that you learn as a young student.” You learn how to do your scales and arpeggios. And then we looked at each other, my brother Bob and I, and said, “There’s your title, wow.” And that’s how it happened.
On writing music for one of Disneyland’s most famed rides:
[My brother and I] were like troubleshooters sometimes. Walt would call us to pull him out of a problem. He had this marvelous exhibit called “The Children of the World,” and it was audio animatronic dolls all dressed as the children of the various countries of the world singing national anthems, and on paper it’s a brilliant idea, but many times a brilliant idea on paper is horrible in practice, and what happened was when they put the soundtracks together, it became a jumble. It became a cacophony because you couldn’t hear any of the songs of the various groups of dolls singing the various national anthems as you went through it. So we were called in to write a song that could stand for all the children of the world. So we wrote the biggest hit we ever had, and that was It’s a Small World, and it worked.
On the most talented singer who’s performed his music:
I’d have to say this one in particular, and that’s the wonderful Julie Andrews. She just was incredible, and when she sang the songs in Mary Poppins, she just put it in a new orbit. In fact, the incredible success of Mary Poppins was the door that opened to us so we could get to write so many song scores after that. It was really a very big jump forward. Between Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke doing the incredible jobs they did on our songs, we became established.
On the music of Disney animated musicals reaching new generations:
It is extremely heartwarming and thrilling to see new generations of people singing and enjoying the Winnie the Poohs that we wrote so many years ago, things like that. They’re very, very special to us. And of course any writer who has had the good fortune of being involved in some great work like a movie that was made by Walt Disney – he’s a lucky guy because they never die. They keep being renewed and being put into Blu-ray and God knows what else in the future. New generations are seeing them. I get a kick out of my granchildren glued to the TV watching The Aristocats, for example. They just love to watch it. They say, “Grandpa, you wrote that, didn’t you?” And I say, “Yeah, I did!”
On the future of Disney musicals:
They are always coming up with new ones. There’s a very exciting roster of new projects that are in the works right now that are gonna be great. I’m of course not at liberty to tell you what they are. They have to wait until their moment, but I’m privy to know a few of them, and they’re very exciting projects.