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Songs In Animated Features

Donald Alan Siegal, accomplished writer and producer of songs, music and story, discusses the proper way of using musical numbers in animated features.

In real estate they say that three things matter...location, location and location. In writing songs for animated features there are also three things that matter...story/character, story/character and story/character. The songwriter's preeminent responsibility in animation is to advance the story and character development. Most successful songs in animated features somehow fulfill this function. Songs can function in other ways too. They can also create an ambiance, a mood, establish an overall theme, present the conflict, or give insight into character. Sometimes songs can provide great entertainment value as with large scale production numbers. Other times they can even provide a respite from the storytelling experience, though still connect to it in some way. In all of these circumstances, when it's working, story and character are being served in some way, though not always directly. When conceived and applied correctly, the songs appear seamless, fluid, not interrupting the flow of the story and animation. In animation we speak of the animation imperative. Why is a particular story better told and enhanced by animation? Similarly, there is what I will call, "the song imperative." Why should there be a song in a particular moment and what purpose does it serve? When the function of a song is not addressed and clearly thought through, the results can be catastrophic and totally extraneous. Unsuccessful animated musicals are replete with examples of this. Unnecessary songs that don't further anything can halt the action, storytelling and animation. Such numbers become an albatross, not a storytelling aid. The songwriter's role is that of a dramatist and animator. He is no longer just writing music and lyrics. Now he is a storyteller and animator, spinning his tale and painting his brush through song. He is always asking questions that relate to other areas: How am I developing the story/character with this number? What is happening visually while the song is being sung? He must think like an animator and writer, considering their needs, fulfilling them through song. The Process Good songs are a marriage between elements and collaborators. Simply put, music and lyrics are not written in a vacuum. The creative team of the director, animator, writer and songwriter needs to be on the same page. I never go off to write the first draft of a number until everybody brainstorms together about the song to be written. What is it about? What are we trying to say? What are we seeing? Is this best said through song or dialogue? How about some possible titles? Sheldon Harnick, a dear friend and mentor, and the great lyricist of Fiddler On The Roof and Fiorello, taught me an invaluable lesson many years ago. Try to get everybody in the room to verbalize in their own words what they think the song is about. Over the years I've added to that a musical touch, by inquiring about the style of music my collaborators are hearing. I tell my collaborators to forget about the lyrics and not to worry about the actual execution of writing the song...I'll take care of that. In all the years of doing this, I find this approach to be the most effective because it frees people up to say it simply in their own words. Discussing song concepts is not so daunting and mysterious anymore, as though it only comes from the muse. Sure, inspiration is wonderful. When it flows quickly and freely it's a very transcendent experience. Hard work, preparation and exploration with your collaborators are the fodder that invite the muse, embrace it, and nurture it. When this creative work is done ahead of time, it pays off later.


Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. Tim Rice.

Recent History

When Disney produced The Little Mermaid in 1989, it was the beginning of a resurgence of the great tradition of animated musicals, culminating today in Tarzan. Disney has been the most frequent and successful practitioner of what I like to think of as an art form.DreamWorks (The Prince of Egypt) and Fox (Anastasia) have both made a passionate commitment as well and have an impressive slate of upcoming projects. It is interesting to note that most of the songs from animated musicals in the last decade have been written by people who came from the theater. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (Little Shop of Horrors), along with Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (Ragtime), all came out of the BMI Musical Theater Workshop in New York of which I was a member as well. In the workshop we learned the craft of writing songs for characters and stories. Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita), Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin), and David Zippel (City of Angels) are also writers with extensive theater experience. These writers and their various collaborators are responsible for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Anastasia, Mulan, The Lion King, Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Prince of Egypt.

Writing songs for the stage has many of the same requirements as writing songs for an animated movie. This is why so many of the most successful animated musicals have been written by theater people. It is interesting to note that both Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King have become long running successes on both Broadway and worldwide, transferring animated musicals to the musical stage. Song Placement In analyzing the song placement in animated musicals of the last decade one detects a clear pattern. There is an opening number which usually establishes the theme and/or conflict, frequently identifying the lead character/characters set against a larger community. Beauty and the Beast, The Prince of Egypt, The Lion King and Tarzan are excellent examples of this. In almost all animated musicals there is a big ballad early on where a lead character expresses a desire for something more. "Part Of That World" from The Little Mermaid and "The Colors Of The Wind" from Pocahontas are perfect examples. Comic characters often have the big comedy number...the genie in Aladdin, Sebastian in The Little Mermaid, Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast. The villain has a song moment, revealing his/her treacherous ways and wicked plan to undermine the hero/heroes... Ursula ("Poor Unfortunate Souls") in The Little Mermaid, Gaston and the villagers ("Kill the Beast") in The Beauty and the Beast, Scar ("Be Prepared") in The Lion King. The big production number abounds with movement and choreography on the animated screen as in "Be Our Guest," "Under the Sea," and "The Circle of Life." In the third act one can usually find a finale, a resolution song. My personal favorite is the exquisite, haunting "Beauty and the Beast" sung by Mrs. Potts.

Some people in the industry feel that such utilization of songs has become too predictable, as though the audience has been conditioned to expect songs in the aforementioned slots. There is some truth to this, but when a song is working like gangbusters for the character/scene, I don't really believe anybody is truly thinking about song placement. Hopefully, the audience is transformed in such moments, transported.

When one considers that most animated musicals are less than an hour and half in length, it is crucial that the songwriter be very selective about where to place songs. With this said, it must be acknowledged that the song slots mentioned here are the logical candidates for songs because they allow the characters to express goals, desires and needs clearly. Still, the songwriter's challenge is to look for new and interesting ways to use song.

In the opening number of Beauty and the Beast, Belle sings,


As mentioned previously, most successful openings present the overall theme and/or conflict of the story, often contrasting the leading character/characters within the larger community. Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, The Prince of Egypt and Tarzan all accomplish this magnificently. In Beauty and the Beast the opening contrasts Belle with the townspeople. She sings, "There must be more than this provincial life." Her music is a wistful melody with lyrics that express a longing for something more, something that will take her away on an adventure. Ultimately her feelings are reflected visually on the screen as we see her in a wide open expanse in the fields, a visual metaphor for her dreams.

The Lion King's

In contrast, the music sung by the townspeople consists of a busy patter, having the feel of the workday. It sets up many of the characters, including the narcissistic Gaston and his desire for Belle. By the end of the opening an immense amount of storytelling has taken place through the splendid marriage of music, lyrics and animation.

In The Lion King, "The Circle Of Life " is one of the most incredible openings in the history of animated features. Not only is it stunning to look at visually, but it presents a new kind of sound with African rhythms and harmonies, unlike anything we've ever heard before in an animated musical. It establishes the theme of the movie which will become the center of the conflict. Mufasa (the king) will pass down the throne to his son Simba, but Scar (Mufasa's brother) will try to steal it away for himself, breaking the circle, upon which the tremendous opening has placed great importance. Not only is the sequence inspiring to look at and listen to, it immediately tells us what this story is going to be about.

In "Deliver Us To The Promised Land" from The Prince of Egypt the opening number instantly establishes the hierarchy of the two groups, the rulers and the slaves, the oppressors and the oppressed. Immediately we are thrust into the conflict and the theme of the movie.

In Tarzan ,"Two Worlds, One Heart" accomplishes a multitude of goals. Through the lyrics and visuals, an enormous amount of story is covered. Again the theme and conflict are established from the beginning. We are introduced to both the human and animal worlds right away. We see Tarzan's parents survive the sinking of the ship, and build a new home, only to be killed by a tiger. Tarzan is rescued and eventually adopted by Arla, the gorilla. All of this happens in the opening number to Phil Collins sensational song, full of the rhythmic, pulsating sounds of the jungle.

Lehman Engel, the esteemed teacher of the BMI Musical Theater Workshop and original conductor of Porgy and Bess, emphasized that an opening to a musical must clearly establish the primary theme and conflict of the evening. If you don't get it right and grab the audience at the top, it's hard to play catch up. This applies to animated musicals as well.

siegalsongs05.gif In "The Colors Of The Wind" from Pocahontas, Stephen Schwartz has written a beautifully poetic lyric. © The Walt Disney Company. siegalsongs05a.gif Mrs. Potts (off-screen) sings "Beauty and the Beast" as Belle and the Beast dance together. © The Walt Disney Company.

Ballads There shouldn't be too many of them. The musical theater convention of breaking into song is most exemplified by the ballad. Though it is a heightened reality, it is also a distorted one. People and animals don't typically break into song, expressing their innermost feelings. Ballads are by their very nature at a slower tempo and can be cumbersome for an audience to sit through, no matter how great the animation is. Most successful animated musicals tend to have only one or two, keeping the visuals moving so the song doesn't stop everything in its tracks.

Two of the most poignant ballads from animated musicals are "Part Of That World" from The Little Mermaid and "The Colors Of The Wind" from Pocahontas. These are quintessential "`I Want' Songs." In "Part of That World" Ariel is fascinated with worldly articles. Howard Ashman's genius was to use examining a fork and other wordly possessions as a metaphor for wanting something more...

"I've got gadgets and gizmos aplentyI've got oozits and thatsits galoreYou want thingamabobsI got twentyBut who cares no big dealI want more"

In "The Colors Of The Wind" from Pocahontas Stephen Schwartz has written a beautifully poetic lyric which deals with prejudice and intolerance and the lead character's desire to see it end. According to Pocahontas, every living thing is special...every "rock, tree and creature has a life, a spirit and a name."

"Sing with all the voices of the mountainPaint with all the colors of the wind"

Whose heart doesn't totally melt during Mrs. Potts' singing of "Beauty and the Beast" as Belle and the beast gloriously dance together in the ballroom with lines like, "both a little scared, neither one prepared, beauty and the beast" or "tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme"....

Equally compelling and moving ballads are "A Whole New World" from Aladdin, "You'll Be In My Heart" from Tarzan and"When You Believe" from The Prince of Egypt.It is not surprising that many of these songs are heard again over credits, sung by major pop artists with a different arrangement. These ballads represent the creative heart and soul of each of these stories.

Comedy and Production Numbers Secondary sidekick characters appear in just about every animated musical in the last decade. Typically they sing the comedy number or lead the big production number. In some cases their songs feel forced, only there for comic relief. It seems to be an obsession that comic characters must exist to sing a funny song or be front and center in a spectacular production number. Certainly this has a lot of entertainment value, but does it have story/character value? Not always. It's a paradox of sorts in that the creators want to be true to the story and yet also want to have lighter, entertaining moments, too. Sometimes these two desires are in conflict.

I contend that comic characters and songs must still somehow be in service of story/character or theme, even if it is oblique. In "Under The Sea" from The Little Mermaid which is incredibly entertaining, Sebastian advises Ariel against going up. He counsels Ariel to 'enjoy what you have.' Not only is it amazing to watch all the underwater creatures singing and dancing in this production number, but it serves a purpose as well, directly relating to the theme of the movie and the main character's conflict.


In the big production number "Under The Sea" from The Little Mermaid, Sebastian advises Ariel against going up top. © The Walt Disney Company. Lumiere's "Be Our Guest" from Beauty And The Beast is truly one of the greatest production numbers. © The Walt Disney Company.

Lumiere's"Be Our Guest" from Beauty And The Beast is truly one of the greatest production numbers where all the inanimate objects come to life, conspiring to feed Belle, violating their master's wishes. With the dishes, glasses, candles, forks and chandelier joining in, it's thrilling. Does the song actually further story/character? I think the answer is yes in that it bonds Belle with Lumiere and the others, cementing their relationships, guaranteeing they will somehow successfully get through this together.

Similarly, in The Lion King Timon and Pumbaa's singing of "Hakuna Matata" primarily bonds the characters with Simba, along with providing a philosophy of life that Simba adopts and later employs. So yes, there is a function here. The key is that comic and/or production numbers should relate in some fashion, even if it is just to reinforce the theme or conflict.

Villain Songs Every successful animated musical has a major song for the villain because it is necessary to the storytelling. The threat to the main characters must be clearly established. Otherwise, the conflict is not clear and the tension is dissipated. The jeopardy and what is at stake is vital in an animated musical. I know of no better way to accomplish this than through a song that makes the audience squirm in their seats. In most of these songs the music is threatening, sometimes scary, telling us something is awry.


Some argue that the single comedy musical number in Tarzan brings the story to a halt. © The Walt Disney Company. If Ursula inThe Little Mermaid realizes the plan she sings about in "Poor Unfortunate Souls," she will own Ariel's voice and soul forever. © The Walt Disney Company.

If Ursula (The Little Mermaid) realizes her wicked plan in "Poor Unfortunate Souls," she will own Ariel's voice and soul forever. If Gaston and the villagers (Beauty and the Beast) actually "Kill The Beast," Belle's dreams will never come true and she will end up leading a pedestrian life, probably with Gaston. When Scar sings "Be Prepared" from The Lion King, it sends a shiver up my spine. By pulling off his plan to become king, the entire kingdom will be irrevocably altered. All of these songs brilliantly accomplish their goal by presenting the villain, his malicious plan and the primary conflict of the movie. If the villain succeeds, the consequences will be dire for the characters we've come to know, love and root for. Villains come painstakingly close to realizing their evil ends, ultimately failing, getting their comeuppance.


Reprises can be very effective because the audience is already familiar with the melody and the emotion of the song. Only now, the character has traveled somewhere in their growth, reflected in the lyric and/or arrangement. When Ariel sings a reprise of "Part Of That World" after seeing Eric, she alters one word and it becomes "Part Of His World," taking on a whole new emotional context and meaning.

Music The predominant style of music over the last decade would fall into what I call theater/pop where the music has a contemporary sound to it but also sounds like it might be heard in a theater. Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz and Elton John's work would be excellent examples.

Phil Collins' songs in Tarzan represent a new sound and direction with its pulsating rhythms and percussion. © The Walt Disney Company.

Phil Collins' songs in Tarzan represent a new sound and direction with its pulsating rhythms and percussion. Currently, Sting is writing songs for Kingdom in the Sun at Disney. Both are marvelous songwriters and storytellers with unique styles, bringing fresh sounds to animation.

When music is heard apart from lyrics, it absolutely evokes a visceral, emotional response from the listener. The music may connote love, fear, danger, excitement. When words are added, the music typically mirrors what the lyric is saying. Occasionally, though, the words can say one thing while the music may transmit a contradictory feeling. When this happens, it is a clue that something unsettling is going on for the character...something they don't want to face, a lie, an inner conflict. (For example a woman might sing in a very high-spirited number about how much she cannot stand the company of her male counterpart...fully knowing that deep down she has fallen in love with him, but doesn't want to admit it.)

There is room for all kinds of music in animation, depending on the nature of the story and the look of the animation. I am a strong proponent of melody and believe that great melody will stand the test of time. Phenomenal production and arrangements are fantastic, but not to mask a weak melody. If you play it with one finger on the piano along with the harmony and it entices the listener before all the trappings of production, then there's something special going on.

Lyrics There are some basic tenets of lyric writing to which I subscribe. A lyricist should never repeat in lyrics what has already been stated in dialogue. It doesn't accomplish anything other than being redundant. Some emotions expressed in dialogue might be clumsy and onerous, and can actually be handled better in lyrics. "Love Songs" and "`I Want' Songs" would be good examples. Good songwriting can help lighten the storytelling experience. Can you imagine Pocahontas stating in dialogue the wonderfully crafted and sensitive lyrics to "The Colors Of The Wind?" It would be heavy-handed and ineffective. Something transcendent happens when such emotions are expressed in a terrific lyric sitting on a gorgeous tune. What might be sentimental or saccharine in dialogue can become airborne in song.

When creating lyrics for animated musicals, one can be very literate and intelligent, basically writing for adults. What is vital is that everyone from age four to eighty-four fully comprehend the overall theme and intent of the song. If a child doesn't understand every reference, that's okay as long as they get the essence, the big picture.

Due to time constrictions, many characters in animated musicals are instantly identifiable by necessity. They represent particular archetypes...the girl longing for something more, the villain, the comic characters, the traditional group, the impossible love couple who will miraculously work it out. Great lyric writing taps into this kind of universality. It's a type of collective unconscious that's primal, allowing the audience to empathize and hook in immediately.

The late Howard Ashman was absolutely one of the best lyricist in the history of theatre and animated musicals. Instinctively and intellectually he understood songs, their role in storytelling and the need to be entertaining. His work is compelling, passionate and humorous. If there was an interesting way of saying something, he would find it. Inventive lyric writing is hard to come by. His work is filled with wit, intelligence and double entendre. He wrote on two levels, one for adults and one for children.

On And Off-Camera Songs

In many of the animated musicals referenced here, most or all of the songs are sung by characters on camera. Recently, there seems to be a move away from this by having songs off camera describing action, providing exposition, expressing a character's feelings. The Prince Of Egypt has several songs sung off camera. In the last decade there are examples of this approach, but its seems to have culminated in Tarzan where all the songs are sung over action. Of course, live-action movies have been doing this for years over montages, scenes and the like.

In "Son of Man" and "Stranger Like Me" from Tarzan, there is an amazing amount of storytelling accomplished in these off-camera numbers, both visually and lyrically. In "Son of Man" Tarzan starts out as an inept young boy, ending up an adept young man in his environment, moving gracefully on the vines between the trees. Astonishingly, this enormous time passage is covered in the space of one song through lyrics and visuals. In "Stranger Like Me" Tarzan is exposed to a multitude of images and experiences related to being human. By the end of the number he has absorbed an immense amount of material, well on his way to becoming a creature who experiences and now understands human emotion.

There are so many factors and variables involved in whether a song should be on or off-camera. I believe there is room for both, dictated by the director's vision, the story, the animation, and the needs of the moment.

A songwriter in animation wears a number of different hats. He is a dramatist and animator, a veritable renaissance man. The more he knows about his collaborator's craft and concerns, the better able he is to fulfill the needs of the movie. In terms of songs, there is room for a wide diversity of styles and sounds. In the final analysis, there are no rules, just options.

Donald Alan Siegal just completed writing/producing songs for Trisha Yearwood for Hyperion Animation's The Tangerine Bear, Artisan Entertainment. For Warner Bros./Kid Rhino Records, he is currently writing songs and scripts for a Frosty The Snowman CD series. He is also writing songs/music/story for several animated projects including: The Corsair with Disney director Ralph Zondag (currently directing Dinosaurs); Shakespeare's Itch with director Dick Zondag, writer Ron Clark ( High Anxiety); Ms. Fortissimo's Christmas with Baer Animation; and Baby Looney Tunes at Warner Bros. With Avery Corman ( Kramer vs. Kramer) he is working on two live-action projects. He has worked closely with Jim Henson and his puppeteers, writing songs for all the major muppets. Roberta Flack, Randy Travis, Buffy Saint-Marie and Betty Buckley are among the artists who have recorded his songs. His musicals have been produced at The Manhattan Theatre Club, The Goodspeed Opera House and Town Hall, among others. Mr. Siegal is represented by Otto Vavrin II, SMC Artists, 818-505-9600.