The musician Robert B. Sherman, who died last week at 86, penned a ton of beloved songs with his brother Richard, including the Oscar-winning soundtrack to Mary Poppins and the music from Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang. But his most enduring accomplishment may be the most irritating song of all time: "It's a Small World (After All)."
No song has gotten on people's nerves as consistently as that theme-park paean to global unity, written in 1964 during the Sherman brothers' decade-long tenure at Walt Disney Studios.
The annoyingness of "It's a Small World (After All)" is so well-established that even Disney has acknowledged it with a self-referencing wink. In a scene from The Lion King, the movie's villain, Scar, asks Zazu, who he has captured, to "sing something with a little bounce in it." When his prisoner breaks into "It's a Small World (After All)," Scar quickly interrupts: "No! No. Anything but that."
The "anything but that" reaction was obviously not Walt Disney's original aim when he invited the Shermans to a factory in Glendale, California, to see the prototype of an attraction designed for the 1964-65 New York World's Fair.
Musically, the ride was a mess. It featured animatronic kids, representing countries all over the world, singing their respective national anthems simultaneously. The late Sherman described it as "one horrible cacophony" in a 1996 interview with Performing Songwriter magazine. "You see our problem," Disney told the Shermans. "We have the World's Fair pretty soon and we need a song that can be sung in every language."