If ever a birthday were an occasion ripe for bursting into song, it would be that of Richard M. Sherman, who turns 89 today and collaborated with brother Robert B. Sherman (1925-2012) on tunes – from a stage and screen repertoire that includes Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Charlotte’s Web, The Happiest Millionaire, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Snoopy Come Home, Over Here!, The Slipper and the Rose and on and on and on – that have touched generations of fans for more than half a century. In honor of Richard and Robert, and frankly in stupified delight among Twilight Time personnel, the Academy Award®-winning popular song maestros will be saluted with a hi-def Blu-ray widescreen Panavision double-feature disc release of the two Mark Twain musical adaptations for which they not only wrote the tunes but also the scripts: Tom Sawyer (1973) and Huckleberry Finn (1974). At liberty following their astoundingly prolific decade on staff at Walt Disney Studios, the siblings were approached to inventively musicalize an American literary classic,a process that took five years, a shift from one studio to another, and a fortuitous teaming with veteran producer Arthur P. Jacobs (Doctor Dolittle, Planet of the Apes, Goodbye, Mr. Chips). As the brothers wrote in their lovely 1998 pictorial scrapbook memoir Walt’s Time: From Before to Beyond, “We had each read Tom Sawyer a couple of times, and summarized the story onto dozens of 3x5 index cards. We used black ink for the storyline, green for the dialog and red for the script. Before long, we had completed our first screenplay!” Their color-coded efforts resulted in an exuberantly effective refashioning in which, they assessed, “we were able to be true to ourselves and, we hope, at least the spirit of Mark Twain.” Starring Johnny Whitaker in the title role, Jodie Foster as Becky Thatcher, Jeff East as Huck Finn, Celeste Holm as respectable but ultimately loving Aunt Polly and Warren Oates as rascally Muff Potter, Tom Sawyer was filmed on location in and around Arrow Rock, Missouri, (substituting for Twain’s Hannibal, which had become a bit too modernized to play its 19th-century self) under the helm of the capable actor-turned-director Don Taylor. Their song score, which included How Come?, Gratifaction, A Man’s Gotta Be (What He’s Born to Be), If’n I Was Good, Freebootin’ and the aspirational River Song (authoritatively performed by the great Charley Pride), was beautifully served by musical director John Williams in what would be the final time the now-legendary composer would orchestrate a film score written by others.
Jumping next into what seemed like a natural progression after Tom Sawyer’s success, the brothers next tackled the more daunting Huckleberry Finn (1974). “We approached the great book – quite possibly the greatest in the English language – with much respect, and feel that our script is a good adaptation of the story.” It also would prove a less happy experience. They recalled: “Above all, we sadly missed the talents of our mentor, Arthur P. Jacobs, who had been our producer on Tom Sawyer. Tragically, Arthur passed away during the preproduction, just two weeks before we began filming [under the direction of J. Lee Thompson]. We sorely needed his endless supply of wonderful ideas, his ability to ride herd over the production and his enormous editing skills, which would have helped us immeasurably in focusing the story and cutting the film to a far tighter pace. However, we are pleased with the film’s strong delineation of Huck’s moral conflict over Jim (What’s Right, What’s Wrong?), and of Jim’s simple – but absolutely basic – desire to have his God-given rights (Freedom, sung beautifully by Roberta Flack over the main and end titles). Jeff East, as Huck, successfully conveyed the difficult balance of a sensitive but worldly-wise street-smart kid, and Paul Winfield, as Jim, gave us a beautifully delineated portrait of a strong, enslaved yet independent man. And last but far from least, solid comic performances by David Wayne and Harvey Korman spiked the adventures as the King and Duke, and were a definite asset to the film’s otherwise somber tone.” Their song score, orchestrated by Fred Werner, also includes Cairo, Illinois, Rotten Luck, A Rose in a Bible, Someday, Honey Darlin’ and Into His Hands. Other cast notables include Arthur O’Connell, Gary Merrill, Natalie Trundy and Lucille Benson as the Widder Douglas. Featuring Isolated Music Tracks on both films, TT’s Blu-ray also boasts several terrific extras on Tom Sawyer, including newly mixed 5.1 stereo audio as well as 4.0 and 2.0, two Audio Commentaries [a recently recorded duet of birthday honoree Richard M. Sherman and music producer/historian Bruce Kimmel in addition to a vintage team-up of Robert B. Sherman with director Don Taylor], a 1973 River Song production featurette and a short rehearsal clip of John Williams and the Shermans at work. Celebrate musical Americana with intense Gratifaction when Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn rafts downriver July 18. Preorders open July 5.