Robbie Sherman Explains: The attraction of penguins and other animals

Robbie Sherman doodles penguins
Rafe Watts, George Knapper, Ryan Willis and Jonny Purchase in costume for Love Birds

Rafe Watts, George Knapper, Ryan Willis and Jonny Purchase backstage at Love Birds during London previews

The stars of Love Birds are penguins and parrots. And this isn’t the first musical that Robbie Sherman has written featuring animals. What’s with the anthropomorphism? 

Love Birds creator Robbie Sherman (music, lyrics and book) explains:

“Anthropomorphism” is a long word which roughly means “the attribution of human characteristics into animals.” There should be a slightly longer word (with the same root) to describe a writer who employs this sort of attribution into his characters. If there were such a word, that would be used to describe me.

You see, I am an “anthropomorphisistic writer”. (“Anthropomorphisistic” isn’t in the dictionary, but it really should be). Anyhow, it’s me. So let’s leave it that “I like to write animals.”

“Writing Animals” allows you to convey a bevy of, actually heightened human traits. A writer can utilise all sorts of visual and phonic skulduggeries to get across the inner being. This is done in anthropomorphic animation. You can create a fantasy world where animals sing and dance and create larger-than-life characterisations that draw on the associations we have with that kind of animal in the real world.

One animal I’ve always been particularly fond of is the penguin. In fact I’ve got penguins doodled all over my notebooks! It’s the only animal I can draw, truth be known.

To me, penguins have inherently humorous mannerisms. As animals go, they’re very human-like, very proper. They resemble old school English gentlemen. [An idea which our designer Gabriella Slade and director Stewart Nicholls have run with in Love Birds.] Give a penguin a bowler hat and the picture’s complete.

More recently, I’ve gotten into parrots – but they’re much harder to draw for me. I love their colour, such magnificent, beautiful creatures – and because they can mimic speech, that makes them even more human-like! With their Technicolor feathers, they also seem far less “reserved” than do penguins (who are a bit uptight – everything being “in black and white” with them!). The juxtaposition between black and white and color becomes thematic as it relates to the Love Birds storyline.

“To me, penguins are very human-like, very proper. They resemble old school English gentlemen.”

Bumblescratch in workshop

Bumblescratch in workshop

Before Love Birds, I wrote a musical called Bumblescratch about rats during the Great Plague and Great Fire of London. It was a very dark piece. All the rats died in the fire! Gruesome, right? Rats can be edgy but they’re not a particularly easy sell. First I have to convince you to sit and watch the show.

I very much wanted to write a show using animal characters again, but this time I needed the characters to have a lighter quality. I thought: everyone likes birds, that would be nice and light. And then I remembered the penguin waiters in Mary Poppins.

What if those penguins (or penguins very similar to them) gave up working in the restaurant so that they could start up a barbershop quartet? They could sing that wonderful Nineteen-Teens sort of music and Dixieland. Throw in a little Jelly Roll Morton for kicks. Penguins, parrots oh, and of course one Loch Ness Monster for good measure. What’s not to love?