I was at a bit of a loss as to what I wanted to write about this week, but then Disney released the new teaser trailer for their live-action Beauty and the Beast (the next in their line of live-action fairy tales) and one particular element in it went straight to the core of my being and gave me giddy chills.
It uses a magical restatement of the original film’s prologue underscoring to spectacular effect. The trailer doesn’t tell us anything about the plot or characters, but we don’t care because hearing that music transports us back to the first time we heard it.
Because he is most well known for scoring Disney (read: children’s) movies, composer Alan Menken’s name isn’t usually brought up among the likes of the film composer giants like John Williams or Ennio Morricone. He’s more associated with musicals like Little Shop of Horrors, or the film and stage versions of Beauty and the Beast, Little Mermaid, Newsies, and Aladdin (and others), rather than orchestral works.
He’s won a million Oscars and other awards, so obviously he’s respected in the industry, but many fans still think of him as “the ‘Under the Sea’ guy.” He composed the music of my childhood and the overwhelmingly positive response to that new trailer owes a lot to his gorgeous music. And so I want to showcase the hidden orchestral gems that often get lost among the vocal hits on which he collaborated like “Out There” or “Colors of the Wind.” His lyricist collaborators deserve praise,too (especially the late Howard Ashman who was not only a creative genius, but the man who single-handedly saved Disney after a slump in the 80’s), but for now it’s time to step behind the songs and look at the music itself. Menken’s top 5 greatest orchestral (Disney) moments are as follows:
5. “Tour of the Kingdom” from The Little Mermaid
Menken really likes the “exploring new sights” moments. In this one it’s the mute Ariel who’s doing the exploring with Eric (clearly the hunkiest Disney prince ever) who’s showing her around, barely keeping up with her enthusiasm for everything she sees. One of the cutest moments is when she sees people dancing and grabs Eric and basically just forces him to dance with her because she’s always dreamed of what dancing would be like (and he very sweetly obliges). The scene is carried by the music and so it doesn’t hold back. It has a Baroque-style pageantry about it along with a galloping rhythm that perfectly sums up Ariel’s overwhelming glee at getting to see what life is like on land.
Other great moments: I love the “Opening Titles” as well as the quiet peace of “Bedtime” which takes place just before Ursula shows up and ruins everything.
4. “The West Wing” from Beauty and the Beast
This piece is actually two parts since it covers both Belle’s exploration of the forbidden west wing and her flight following the Beast’s discovery of her (in which a pack of wolves factors in). The second part is certainly fast and thrilling, but the part that really gets me is that first section that’s a sort of quieter version of the prologue music that opens the film. It definitely pulls some inspiration from the“Aquarium” movement of Camille Saint-saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, which is another big favorite of mine. What makes this piece so wonderful is how effectively it conveys the sorrow of the Beast’s existence while also setting an eerie mood.
Other great moments: the “Prologue” is a great musical setting, accompanied by David Ogden Stiers’ gorgeous narration. And then, of course, there’s the “Transformation” sequence which uses the melody of the song “Home” which appears in the Broadway version of the story.
3. “Kingdom Dance” from Tangled
This joyous piece of music accompanies Rapunzel’s entry into her kingdom’s capital. Her infectious joy is such that she inspires a flash mob of dancing while she soaks in the colors and sights of the world around her. I like the style of this because it’s a beautiful blend of ethnic styles. It has Celtic roots and Middle Eastern flourishes, all surrounded by the textures of Elizabethan folk music. If it doesn’t make you want to dance, you’re dead inside.
Other great moments: “Waiting for the Lights” is soaring and romantic and all around lovely. I also love the moment when “The Tear Heals” which outlines Flynn’s (SPOILER) death and resurrection.
2. “Farewell” from Pocahontas
The whole score for this film is full out outstanding moments, but this is the one that always gets me. This is the music that closes the film and it’s such an emotional roller coaster. The first two thirds of it are slow and romantic as Pocahontas and John Smith say their goodbyes (built around the tune of the song “If I Ever Knew You” which was cut from the film, but restored to the special edition), but then as the ship departs, it builds to a soaring crescendo as she runs to watch the ship sail into the horizon. In the final moments, a choir joins the orchestra and the film ends with an explosive wordless restatement of “The Colors of the Wind.” It gives me chills every time I hear it (I’m listening to it as I write this, actually).
Other great moments: There are a lot. “Skirmish” is a standout moment because it’s when Pocahontas and John Smith share their first kiss…and Kocoum sees them. It’s big and dramatic, but there’s such an ominous undertone to it because of the tragedy that it foreshadows. I also like the underscoring for Grandmother Willow’s introduction, which is haunting and multi-layered.
1. “Sanctuary” from The Hunchback of Notre Dame
I think of this entire score as Menken’s Requiem in D minor. It’s as devastating as Mozart’s and as thunderous as Verdi’s. When it’s quiet and tender, it’s beautiful, and when it’s huge and explosive, it’s just so flipping cool. The “Sanctuary” sequence follows the chaos that ensues as Quasimodo tries to save Esmeralda from being burned at the stake. The chanting of the choir coalesces around a thundering run up the scales that finally explodes into what can only be called a quadruple fortissimo as Quasimodo hoists Esmeralda’s senseless form above his head screaming “sanctuary” repeatedly at the gathered crowds below him. It’s such a moment of triumph for Quasi since he’s been such a sweet, tender person for the rest of the film, but in this sequence, we see him get really angry and stand up for himself, and it’s just magnificent. When I picture them recording this, I picture the orchestra and choir literally exploding as they hit that musical climax with the instruments and people just spontaneously bursting into flames, immolating the whole building (I’m glad that didn’t ACTUALLY happen since I’m sure they were very nice people). It’s probably one of Menken’s biggest and most powerful musical moments and I just adore it completely. The new stage version of the show takes this sequence and makes it ten times bigger, musically, which makes me immeasurably happy (but no one explodes, thankfully).
Other great moments: “Paris Burning” is another choir-led sequence that centers around Frollo’s mounting insanity and Phoebus’ betrayal of his employer. “The Bell Tower” is a lovely moment that underscores Quasi and Esmeralda getting to know one another as she explores his home with him.
There are lots of other great moments from Aladdin, Hercules, Enchanted, and his other non-Disney projects, but they’re too numerous to mention here.
So the next time you talk about Disney music, remember that it goes beyond the songs that your kids sing ad nauseum in the car. If you’re a fan of film scores, you definitely need to revisit these ones because there’s a lot of magic to be found.
See you next week! It’ll be a busy one because apparently every movie on earth is coming out at that point, so that’ll be fun.