ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 4.8 - NOVEMBER 1999
Songs In Animated Features
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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.
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, "There must be more than this provincial life." © The Walt Disney Company.
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.
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.
The Lion King's "The Circle Of Life " is one of the most incredible openings in the history of animated features.
© The Walt Disney Company.
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.
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.
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