When thinking about the songs that capture the essence of Disney attractions, “it’s a small world” immediately comes to mind. It has been said that, once you hear the melody, you can never forget it. Where does the magic of this enchanting musical score come from?
A family story
Robert and Richard Sherman – two brothers with a unique talent for songwriting coming from a long line of musicians – are behind the song dedicated to the children of the world. Their grandfather Samuel left Russia in 1903 to join the court of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria as concertmaster and first chair before moving to the United States. Their father Albert was a self-taught pianist and one of the most prominent figures during the Tin Pan Alley era of influential American songwriters in New York. Building on this prestigious family tradition, Robert and Richard became the Disney Legends we all know today. Walt particularly appreciated their special ability to tackle serious subjects in a light and easy fashion, and so decided to assign them to one of his most iconic projects, Mary Poppins (1964).
A feeling of harmony
Luck played a big part in the creation of “it’s a small world.” In 1964, Disney Studios created several pavilions at the New York World’s Fair. The Sherman brothers were only expected to write a song for the Carousel of Progress, when a problem suddenly arose in the Children of the World pavilion. Originally, animated dolls from around the world were supposed to sing their national anthems. However, all the different anthems being played at the same time resulted in a feeling of utter chaos instead of inspiring harmony. Walt then called upon the Sherman Brothers to find a solution. Inviting them onto Stage 2 back at the studios, he showed them a model of the attraction and asked them to create a seemingly simple melody which could be reprised by all the dolls at once, in their mother tongue. To describe what he envisioned, Walt used words like “small world,” “after all,” which gave the songwriters an idea…
The easiest way…
The Sherman brothers immediately set to work with Walt’s directions in mind: “What we need here is a simple little roundelay… you know, like ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” To that effect, they composed a melody in two parts, simple enough to be arranged in counterpoint. This blend of unity and diversity also happened to perfectly capture the spirit of the attraction. Nevertheless, the brothers found the melody too simple and decided to write two more intricate songs, not knowing which one they would present to Walt. After two weeks of reflection, they decided to go back to their initial idea, which immediately earned praise from Walt. Although the melody is the same, the version in the attraction differs quite significantly from the slow and delicate ballad – a “prayer for peace” – initially presented to Walt, who wanted to speed up the tempo and use different languages. As the two brothers only knew English, they started improvising imaginary languages, which resulted in an audience roaring with laughter. In the end, the song was such a success that the pavilion had the same name.
The concert of nations
For the original version of the attraction, American musician Bobby Hammack created 29 orchestrations of the famous score in six different languages. At Disneyland Paris, John Debney (The Jungle Book, 2016) created a symphonic orchestration of the song performed by 60 musicians from the London Chamber Orchestra. He notably added traditional instruments from the countries represented throughout the attraction, from the Scottish bagpipes and the marimba of Latin America to the Indian sitar and Japanese taiko. The various choirs perform in English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Danish, Portuguese, Arabic and Hebrew – some of which were recorded by children in their home countries.
To think that John Debney used to come and listen to the Sherman brothers work in their office when he was just a child (his father, Lou Debney, was a well-known Disney producer), and that he grew up to become the arranger for one of their masterpieces, will no doubt make you believe it’s a small world after all!