The Vacation Kingdom of the World: A Sherman Brothers Souvenirby Tom Richards, contributing writer
My favorite souvenirs are the ones that help re-create the "feeling" of a vacation, and among my most treasured purchases include musical ones. And nothing captures that elusive feeling of being at Walt Disney World quite like music.
During a recent visit to a good old-fashioned record store, I managed to discover a wonderful title that has somehow escaped my notice when it was released in 2009. While strictly not a theme park soundtrack, this particular title captures that elusive magic of Disney in a memorable, unique, and truly unforgettable collection.
The title? Poppin' Guitars: A Tuneful of Sherman. This collection, produced by Bernadette Bowman and James Jensen, features many of today's top acoustic guitars players tackling their favorite Sherman Brothers compositions.
For the uninitiated, Richard and Robert Sherman are among the most prolific, and beloved, composers of film, television, pop, Broadway, and theme park music in the world. And it just so happens that much of their careers were spent at Walt Disney Productions. There, they created scores for Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, It's a Small World, Winnie the Pooh, and countless other Disney productions. This album features an inspired mix of selections from the classic Disney films and attractions, and includes selections from a few non-Disney films as well. What follows is a track-by-track commentary that I sincerely hope inspires you to seek out this wonderful work of art
Track 1 – "Winnie the Pooh" from The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
Beginning with an iconic song from one of Disney's most beloved film adaptations, this charming version played by Tommy Emanuel captures the innocence and charm of the original and adds a little bit of light-hearted jazziness. This particular cover works; while there's a playful originality to the interpretation, the guitarist stays true to the original spirit and the original melody of the song. A charming, all-too-brief visit to the Hundred Acre Woods.
Track 2 – "A Spoonful of Sugar" from Mary Poppins
Guitarist Laurence Juber offers an upbeat, fresh interpretation of one of Disney's most memorable songs from one of his greatest films. Near the end of the song, there is an extended riff during which the melody is lost and all but unrecognizable, but just in the nick of time, the familiar refrain returns. It's hard not to whistle along to this sprightly version, and listeners will agree that it is a "most delightful way" to spend a few minutes.
Track 3 – "Hushabye Mountain" from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
A purely straightforward version of this all-time classic from one of the Sherman Brothers' best non-Disney films is presented with such tenderness and meaning that it is one of the highlights of this remarkable album. The Shermans were gifted composers, managing to blend sentiment, whimsy, melancholy, and joy in their music. Nothing represents them better than this lovely song, originally sung by Dick van Dyke to console and to thank his children in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. This all-too-often overlooked song deserves the loving attention guitarist Al Petteway devotes to it here, and this rendition is moving, meaningful, and important.
Track 4 – "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" from Walt Disney's Carrousel of Progress
A unexpectedly spirited, bouncy, and fresh approach to this theme park favorite captures the optimistic spirit that so epitomized Walt Disney's vision of the future. Guitarist Kenny Sultan joyfully plays this happy little melody that was featured in the very first version of the Carrousel of Progress features at the 1964 World's Fair, then at Disneyland, and currently at the Magic Kingdom. Fans of Epcot's much-loved Horizons may recognize this song as well, for it was featured prominently in the soundtrack to this much-missed classic Future World attraction. As Disney historian and artist Stacia Martin once observed, the joyous optimism of the World's Fair pavilions—and of the original attractions during EPCOT Center's early years—keeps this music so appealing today.
Track 5 "You're Sixteen"
A nostalgic feel permeates the spritely rendition by Doug Smith. There's a sense of innocent joy in this song, and the version here is lots of fun. A great representation of the Sherman Brothers' many pop/rock songs and one of their biggest hits.
Track 6 – "Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag)" from Mary Poppins
It seems that everything about the 1964 classic Disney film Mary Poppins inspires greatness, from its successful reinterpretation as a Broadway musical to this breathtaking interpretation of one of its most memorable songs by Doug Smith.
The haunting melody of "Feed the Birds" is timeless, and those who might dismiss it as overly sentimental or saccharine need to hear it in its purest form on this album. Even without the tender, meaningful lyrics, even without the one-of-a-kind magic of Julie Andrews' voice, even without the soaring orchestrations of musical arranger Irwin Kostal, this heart-wrenching song is a masterpiece of meaningful composition. As the music soars, the chorus repeats, and the emotional builds, Doug Smith meaningfully interprets what has long been believed to have been Walt Disney's favorite song. The last few notes are a killer. All in all, a masterpiece of musical interpretation worthy of the film that inspired it.
Track 7 – "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Guitarist Mark Hanson offers a jaunty version of one of everyone's favorite sing-along songs. A joyful driving song, this little ditty will have you smiling and singing along every time you hear it.
Track 8 – "Let's Get Together from The Parent Trap
This song, originally sung by Hayley Mills in the Disney comedy The Parent Trap, is one of the numbers that inspired Walt Disney to hire Richard and Robert Sherman as full-time songwriters at the Disney Studios. One listen will explain Walt's admiration of this song-writing duo. Reminiscent of many of the early rock-and-roll songs the Shermans wrote for another Disney favorite, Annette Funicello, "Let's Get Together" offers a catchy, infectious melody that never leaves you. Pat Donohue's version captures the cleverness and fun of the original—there will be visions of two Hayley Mills dancing in your head after just one listen. One of my favorite tracks on this album.
Track 9 – "The Slipper and the Rose Waltz" from The Slipper and the Rose
Like Rodgers and Hammerstein and Walt Disney before them, the Sherman Brothers tackled the familiar fairy tale, Cinderella, transforming it into a live-action film in 1976 starring Richard Chamberlain and Gemma Craven. This lovely waltz, performed with great tenderness by Jim Tozier, is suitably cozy and dreamy.
Track 10 – "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" from The Mary Poppins
Eltjo Haselhoff's interpretation of the ultimate tongue-twister is fun at times, but ultimately tedious. While it captures the fast and furious fun of the original, this acoustic version doesn't seem to hold up as well as the others on this disc.
Track 11 – "The Age of Not Believing" from Bedknobs and Broomsticks
A classic from one of the Walt Disney Studios most underrated films, "The Age of Not Believing," sung by Angela Lansbury in the film, captures that hard-to-define in-between transition from childhood to adolescence. Eliot Easton's version remains true to the melody of the original, and even manages to capture the excitement of flying on the big brass bed. He is able to ring genuine sentiment from his guitar as well as genuine joy.
Track 12 – "I Wan'na Be Like You" from The Jungle Book
A straightforward rendition of the zany classic from Walt's last animated feature by Mike Dowling captures the fun and humor of the original toe-tapper.
Track 13 – "Chim Chim Cher-ee" from Mary Poppins
The opening of this Nick Charles interpretation captures the mystery and romance of Bert, the Chimney Sweep, and his London adventures with Mary Poppins. As this version continues, however, the melody is lost here and there. This much-too-jazzy version of the Sherman Brothers' classic dilutes much of the magic, and meaning, of this Academy Award-winning song. One of the only disappointments on the disc.
Track 14 – "Stay Awake" from Mary Poppins
A charming take on one of the Sherman Brother's more memorable lullabies. Tim Pacheco replicates the simplicity and tenderness of this timeless melody. In a word, lovely
Track 15 – "It's a Small World"
Most people either love or hate this little ditty; I happen to love it. I'm sorry to say that I do not love this interpretation by Mark Hanson and Doug Smith. It is overly long, annoyingly repetitive, and unmemorable. There is charming part (around the 2-minute mark), but it's not enough to earn a recommendation. It's not horrible, but it's the only track on this disc that I consistently skip.
In the liner notes, James Jenson writes, "The truest test of a great song is that you should be able to bring it down to a single voice or instrument and it should still have all the impact that it does with a full orchestra. This project shows just how potent… these melodies still are today." How very true. While "it's easy to dismiss the Sherman Brothers as writers of children's songs or simple melodies," this idea "is as ignorant as it is insulting." Their music stands proudly alongside that of other great American composers from Irving Berlin to Henry Mancini. This album is a tribute to their immense talents, and one that belongs in the musical collections of all true Disney fans.