Songs In Animated Features

by Donald Alan Siegal

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.

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