Not a week goes by where a Disney song (or five) get stuck in my head. Alan Menken, Oscar, Grammy, and Tony winner and one of the musical geniuses behind many of our favorite Disney tunes, talked to Entertainment Weekly about some fun facts about working on these catchy and seemingly inescapable ditties.
Here are a few of the bigger takeaways from his interview:
1. Robin Williams' Genie in Aladdin was inspired by Fats Waller
In retrospect, it seems strange that anyone else had even been considered for the role of Aladdin's genie. Who else but the inimitable Robin Williams could fill those shoes, or lamp? Apparently, Menken wasn't positive Williams would be able to pull off the genie, but later changed his mind.
We didn’t know who was going to play the genie when we wrote the song. We were looking at the character as black, a hipster, and I suggested a Fats Waller, Harlem stride-piano style from the ’40s. When Robin Williams was suggested, my first thought was ‘Can he sing like Fats Waller?’ Robin learned every note.
Of course he did! That famously hard-working man not only met expectations, but exceeded them. While Fats Waller's influence is clear, Williams ended up really making the character his own.
He was working on Hook at the time, and he would come in after being stuck in a harness all day and sit at the piano and learn. When we went into the studio, we got exactly the Fats Waller performance we wanted, and then everyone said, ‘Okay, but now can we let Robin do his thing?’
He was amazing. That trumpet wah-wah-wah was supposed to be from an instrument, and he made it vocal. He took ahold of the creative process, both on that and ‘Prince Ali’ especially. My God, he went crazy on ‘Prince Ali.’ He was doing the Thanksgiving Day Parade, Arab-style.
Check out the two songs below to compare!
2. Grandmother Willow almost had a funny song in Pocahontas
I loved Pocahontas growing up, but it was a bit serious given Disney's past body of work. Menken and his team originally tried to add some more levity into the songs, but to no avail. This movie was just meant to be more serious, so they kept it that way. He was really able to set the tone of the movie with one of his most famous songs, "Colors of the Wind."
It really is one of the most important songs I’ve ever written. The grand, slow elegance. It’s a very serious song, but there was no getting humor into Pocahontas. God knows we tried.
We wrote a song for Grandmother Willow to try to add some comedy, but we just couldn’t. The only other option would have been to give a song to the pug and the raccoon, and they don’t even speak!
The movie is great as is, although I will admit that a song for Grandmother Willow or a duet between Meeko and Percy would have been pretty great.
3. Sebastian from The Little Mermaid was inspired by Harry Belafonte
Not only did The Little Mermaid include one of Disney's first "I want" songs, that had Ariel singing about living on land, which we know ends up being the whole plot of the film, but is also has one of the most memorable sidekicks.
Before reading this interview, I had given little to no thought to the influences behind Sebastian the crab. Now that i know it was Harry Belafonte (trust me, you know his music), I'll never look at his character the same way again.
We knew the whole score was going to a Caribbean place, so we toyed with the idea of reggae [for the rest], but we landed on calypso because it’s poppier and more interesting. Sebastian is more of a Trinidadian crab than Jamaican, certainly more of a Harry Belafonte type.
How did I not put this together? Granted, I wasn't really looking for the answer, but still! Talk about some spot-on voice acting.
4. "Out There" wasn’t written for Hunchback of Notre Dame
Yes, it wasn't written for Hunchback of Notre Dame, but it also wasn't really written for anything in the beginning. In Menken's own words:
I had written this before Hunchback, but I didn’t know what it was for, and then Stephen Schwartz was over for dinner and we talked about Hunchback a little bit. I said I have this piece of music I’m working on, and I played it for him, and he’s like, “That’s it. That’s ‘Out There.'” We literally used that piece of music.
I guess it must have been fate that led Menken's musical skills and unclaimed song into the loving arms of Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Side note: "Out There" has some of the strangest, most insulting lyrics that make me feel really bad for poor Quasimodo. These lyrics in particular really make me empathize with the guy:
Frollo: You are deformed
Quasimodo: I am deformed
Frollo: And you are ugly
Quasimodo: And I am ugly
Yo, Frollo, back off! The man already lives in a bell tower for crying out loud!
5. Enchanted's Giselle was inspired by Walt Disney
Given the anthropomorphic animals, as opposed to household items, I definitely get the sense that Giselle is more Cinderella than Belle. Her character is a kind parody of the days of Disney past when Walt was in charge. But it was tricky for Menken and his peers to come to a conclusion over how Walt would have treated this character.
Giselle is very much a Walt-era Disney heroine, more of a Cinderella than a Belle. We needed a ‘classic Walt’ sound, but no one could agree on what that was because we weren’t around for it! Everyone had an opinion.
We had to fly [the Director] to my studio in New York and sit him down and not let him leave until he had agreed on a piece of music because otherwise it was just going to go on forever.
I can imagine it can get a bit intense trying to discuss a Disney character while drawing from the perspective of Walt Disney himself. But in true Disney fashion, the team pulled it off seamlessly and created a newer, but equally adorable, princess.
It's always nice to hear just exactly what's going on at Disney. Though I'm hardly convinced that they're not using magic to create such incredible and memorable movies. And where would we be without Menken's hard work? We would be lacking some of the most integral songs in Disney's musical collection and I would definitely have less songs to sing in the shower.
Alan Menken is currently setting aside his work composing for Disney to write the score for ABC's new medieval musical comedy [Galavant](series:1203589) which concludes on Sunday at 8 p.m.
To read the rest of his fascinating interview, head over to Entertainment Weekly.