The composer and songwriter talks about the classic animated film, his career and working with Walt Disney

Richard Sherman has quite a storied career as a composer and songwriter for the movies. He's won two Oscars (Best Original Song and Best Score for Mary Poppins) and he's been nominated for seven others. One of his other notable films was the Disney animated film, The Aristocats, which is coming to DVD with a special edition on February 5. We had a chance to talk to the musician and here's what he had to say.

How critical is music - and specifically songs - to the success of classic animation? Especially at Disney?

Richard Sherman: Walt Disney was a great believer in the use of song to convey story. He was primarily a storyman & story-driven songs were his 'pets.' He always asked what was going on with the song - he hated 'singing heads.' He loved learning about character & motivation thru music & lyrics.

How excited were you to have Maurice Chevalier record this title track?

Richard Sherman: It was an extremely gratifying day when Maurice Chevalier agreed to come out of retirement to record our title song for The Aristocats. My brother Robert & I actually had written songs for Maurice in In Search of the Castaways, and Monkey's Go Home prior to this, but our history with Maurice Chevalier goes much further back then that. Maurice had introduced a song our father - Al Sherman wrote in the 1930 film The Big Pond. The name of that song was - "Living in the Sunlight - Loving in the Moonlight." It was a hit - twice. The first time w/ Maurice Chevalier, the second time with Tiny Tim revived it with his ukulele - Yes! A very big thrill!

What made The Aristocats a musical challenge as opposed to other Disney scores?

Richard Sherman: The challenge in writing the songs for The Aristocats truly fell on the animators & director of the film. Robert & I wrote the initial songs for the film, just prior to leaving full-time employment at the Walt Disney Studios. Therefore, some of the songs we wrote for The Aristocats were never used. I believe, therefore, the challenge fell upon the makers of the film to select what songs made the final cut.

Q: Have you managed to write a song in just one day? How is your composing process?

Richard Sherman: My brother & I have always said that to write a song, it takes all the experiences of your life, plus the time it takes to write it! To be specific, yes, sometimes a song takes place in one session - together in one day. Sometimes, months elapse before we've completed the song completely. There's no set rule. Something inside of you says - 'now you can present it!' If one of us feels it's not quite right, lyrically or melodically, we don't present it.

What is your favorite song of The Aristocats?

Richard Sherman: I love the title song. It's a mood & scene setter & accomplishes many things. First of all it's very French - very period... In words, this title song describes these very pampered pussy-cats...so it accomplishes what we set for it.

What is your favorite character in The Aristocats film?

Richard Sherman: I think the two country hounds out in the country - Lafayette (voiced by George Lindsey) & Napoleon (voiced by Pat Buttram) - really got to me! They were hilarious! They were extraordinarily well voiced & beautifully animated.

Could you talk about some of the individual songs for The Aristocats and how they came about, and also, some of the songs that were to have been in the film but were discarded and why?

Richard Sherman: All films created by Walt Disney at the time of his major outpouring of work were carefully crafted to fit scenes, characters, moods and situations. If these elements changed in any way, songs - no matter how good they were - were discarded. Others were written for the new scenes. Many times, character songs were dropped because characters were dropped...sequences were dropped etc., Naturally, in the course of creation of The Aristocats, some songs were eliminated. Robert & I had written a number of pieces that we were very fond of, but either the song was replaced by another song that the director & producers felt was more appropriate, or, as I said, the sequence was dropped. Specifically, in the case of a song that was retained in the film, the creation of 'Scales of Arpeggios' was written to a sequence where Duchess is instructing her young kittens to practice their music & art lessons. It seemed a natural for Bob & myself to create this piece to cover this situation. There was a song called 'We Can't Leave Her Alone,' which in point of fact, was a reprise of 'Pourquois' a song which was to be sung early in the film by Madame Bonfamille to express her love for her kittens. It was a tender ballad which added a great deal of heart, but unfortunately, only a a few lines of the lyric were recited by Eva Gabor in the final film...You'll see it on the bonus feature which explains the purpose of the song fully.

How is the collaboration with your brother? Do you

both write on the same songs, shifting it to each other to keep improving it, or do you have your own 'projects'?

Richard Sherman: For over half a century, Robert & I have collaborated on hundreds & hundreds of songs, for many, many film, TV and stage projects, as well as special songs for Disney Theme Parks. Our process has always been to write story-driven songs. Therefore, we've always thoroughly discussed the period, the purpose, the character who sings it, the reason...before jumping into any lyric or melody ideas. We always feel there are 3 parts to the song. The most important part is the reason it should exist. Our process usually consists of me sitting at the piano & Bob hovering over it. We throw ideas out...I start to play something...he'll hum something to make it better. He'll throw a line to me, I'll twist it to make it better and we scramble around like that for sometimes hours and days, 'til we both agree we've got something to show! That's how it works!

How early into preproduction of a film like The Aristocats do you come in - after the script is written and insert songs, or at the scripting stage and do you contribute to the overall process?

Richard Sherman: With each film, there's a different process. In The Jungle Book, we worked sequence to sequence. In Sword in the Stone, we worked from an overall storyline. In the Winnie the Pooh featurettes, we worked with situations & character developments. Each project has its own scenario.

Aside from writing the title song for Maurice Chevalier, did you write for actor's voices, or for the character, or both?

A: In all cases, including the title song for The Aristocats, we wrote for the picture and the character in the picture. It just had the lucky coincidence that Maurice Chevalier, agreed to sing our title song. We did not write the song for Maurice, but as he always did, he made it his own. Rarely have we ever written songs for the actors portraying our work. All the songs in Mary Poppins were written for Mary Poppins, not Julie Andrews. All the songs in The Jungle Book, were written for the various animals who sang them, not for the likes of Louis Prima or Sterling Holloway.

What's your fondest memory of your work with Walt Disney?

Richard Sherman: Playing & singing 'Feed the Bird,' (Tuppence a Bag) for Walt on Friday afternoons after a busy week. We'd always talk about what we were working on and then Walt would look at me and say 'Play it!' He'd look out the North window of his office and when I was through playing he'd say, "Have a good weekend boys' and send us home. I'll cherish that memory forever.

How many arguments did you have with Walt Disney, concerning the songs and the way they were sung and played?

Richard Sherman: Arguments? You don't argue with Walt Disney! You take another stab at it!

How involved was Walt when it came to composing the songs and music to those films? How was the nature of your collaboration with him and washe very critical, sending you back to the 'drawing board' more than once?

Richard Sherman: Walt had a seat-of-the-pants approach on what he wanted musically. We kind of 'read' the boss and had a very high batting average, but there were occasions when he felt we had just written the wrong piece for the situation he wanted. We invariably listened to what he wanted - he was very descriptive in what he wanted and we could read him. We'd go back to the drawing board and work out what he wanted. He was a great inspiration, but a tough taskmaster.

The animation genre in Hollywood evolved a great deal over the last decade. With the huge success of computer-animated movies, it was said that traditional animation was dead. What is your opinion on that?

Richard Sherman: First of all, computer animation is certainly a tremendous and viable medium today. But the warmth and personality derived from 2-D animation, in my opinion, cannot be surpassed. Certain stories lend themselves well to 3-D animation and I won't labor this with naming them, but in my bones, I still respond more emotionally to the artists feel in 2-D. You feel the 'actor' in the animator more personally...it's hard to explain.

Can you tell us something about Inkas The Ramferinkas?

Richard Sherman:Inkas The Ramferinkas - is the story of a prehistoric bird, and is a pet-project of Bob's & mine that his youngest son, Robbie, is producing.

How do you feel about modern Disney...where the music element is disappearing?

Richard Sherman: Depending on the story, I don't feel that the music is disappearing. I feel if the story demands songs, they'll have songs. If it doesn't demand songs, you'll have underscore.

We've said so many things about the Disney product, how do you feel about your time at the Walt Disney Studios?

Richard Sherman: I consider every one of the Disney films that Bob & I worked on, to have been the luckiest break any two songwriters could have ever had. They all aimed at quality and timelessness. That's why they live over the years.

The Aristocats will be on the DVD shelves in a special edition on February 5.

Cinemark Movie Club