You sang “Friend Like Me” with your bestie for your elementary school talent show. “Part of Your World” is your karaoke JAM (or, if you’re scared to death of singing in public like me, your shower JAM). The music of Disney is such a major part of our lives but did you ever stop to wonder what the stories were behind these beloved tunes?
Recently Alan Menken, the composer who wrote the music for so many of our Disney obsessions (“The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” “Pocahontas,” “Hercules,” “Tangled,” for real, the list goes on and on) sat down with Entertainment Weekly and talked about the origin stories of our favorite Disney songs.
“Part of Your World,” The Little Mermaid (1989) “There had never really been an ‘I want’ number before in a Disney film. Subsequently everybody at Disney would ask, ‘Where’s our “I want” moment?!’ But it’s that important moment where you engage the audience in the quest of the central character so you know what you’re rooting for. We jokingly used to call this one ‘Somewhere That’s Wet,’ like ‘Somewhere That’s Green’ [from Little Shop] but underwater. My favorite part is that motif [that sounds like] water flowing, which beautifully set up the tone and became the central theme. 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.”
“Belle,” Beauty and the Beast (1991) “The story behind this is that Howard Ashman was HIV-positive and wasn’t telling anybody—he had been very quiet. And here we had written this crazy seven-minute opening number that was much more ambitious than anybody had asked for, and I remember his fear [about everything] in that moment. I remember Howard was very, very reluctant to send it out, thinking that we were going to be laughed at. He delayed sending it for two days. Finally, of course, we sent it, and Disney loved it. You didn’t open an animated movie with a seven-minute number, but it redefined the form. We wanted to keep it very classical Mozart, very She Loves Me, with a quiet opening—’Little town, it’s a quiet village…’ And then it explodes. ‘Bonjour!’” [Beauty and the Beast was dedicated to Ashman, who died eight months before the film’s release.]
“Friend Like Me,” Aladdin (1992)
“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. 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.”