As the Abu Dhabi Classics season pays tribute to the music of Disney, David Gritten looks at why so many of its songs have become embedded in our memory, and discovers the secrets of the soundtracks' enduring success.
What is it that makes the music of Disney films and stage shows so special? I pose the question to a man who should know. Chris Montan, president of Walt Disney Music, tells me he often gives talks about his job, and starts by saying: "Ask people to name their 10 favourite songs from Warner Bros movies, and they'll probably look at you blankly - even though there are great songs in Warner's films. But ask people their 10 favourite songs from Disney films, and chances are you'll get 20."
He's right, of course. Disney songs have a habit of seeping into our unconscious; we know them instinctively. It's been true since that first classic period of Disney animation films, from 1937 to 1942: Heigh-Ho and Whistle While You Work from Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs; Baby Mine from Dumbo; When You Wish Upon A Star from Pinocchio. The studio maintained this proud record into the 50s (Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo from Cinderella, He's A Tramp and The Siamese Cat Song from Lady And The Tramp) and the 60s (The Bare Necessities and I Wan'na Be Like You from The Jungle Book).
And this breathtaking musical tradition has enjoyed a new lease of life in the past 15 years. The title song from Beauty And The Beast has entered the canon, along with Circle Of Life and Can You Feel the Love Tonight from The Lion King. And just to clinch the argument about the memorable quality of Disney music, what's the longest word we can all remember without pausing to think how it's pronounced? That would be Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious from Mary Poppins.
All of which suggests that The Magical Music Of Walt Disney, an orchestral concert to be performed at the Abu Dhabi National Theatre on January 11, will be a rare treat. Said to be the first film-music concert in the capital, it will be performed by London's Philharmonia orchestra. The conductor for the evening will be film music specialist Allan Wilson. "Disney music is like modern opera," he says. "It's a mix of ballet and operetta. You can put on a concert like ours with no words and no voices. It's wonderfully orchestrated and arranged to compensate for the fact there are no words."
But to jog the audience's memories, a movie screen behind the orchestra in the National Theatre will be showing sequences from the relevant Disney film as the music plays. This additional element, says Philharmonia managing director David Whelton, makes a huge difference: "When people go out of the theatre and hear the music at a later date, they associate it with the visual images. That association is crucial."
The repertoire of the concert has been carefully selected to appeal to younger audiences. The films with music likely to be performed include the more recent hits: The Lion King, Aladdin, Beauty And The Beast, The Little Mermaid and Tarzan, and that timeless oldie, The Jungle Book. The tunes from these newer films show how far Disney music has come over the years.
Since the early Nineties, the studio has tapped the talents of veteran pop singer-songwriters to compose its music, including Elton John (The Lion King), Phil Collins (Tarzan) and Randy Newman (both Toy Story films, from Disney's subsidiary studio, Pixar). It's a far cry from the traditions set in Disney's early animated films. Walt Disney was a keen classical music fan, and his hugely ambitious Fantasia (1940), with a score including works by Stravinsky, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Schubert was "Uncle Walt" attempting not only to bring classical music to mass audiences but also to assert that, by association, animated motion pictures were to be taken seriously.
Quite apart from Fantasia, the music Disney commissioned for his films around that time hints at lofty ideals. Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (1937), his first full-length animated film, includes Someday My Prince Will Come, which, if not pure opera, is first-class operetta. In fact, entire scores of these early films sound tailor-made for symphony halls. "Snow White is all big choirs, orchestras with voices," says Allan Wilson. "It's true of Pinocchio, too: think of When You Wish Upon A Star. The studio started a tradition back in those days: wonderful songs, and film music in a tone-poem format."
Walt Disney earnestly wished for this high-minded tradition to continue; he had plans to turn his beloved Fantasia into a "living work", re-releasing it every three or four years, with new animated sequences, accompanying well-known classical music, to replace the original pieces. But the Second World War put paid to those plans. The studio's lucrative foreign markets dried up, and it was thrown into severe financial difficulties.
The 1950s proved to be a leaner decade for Disney animation. Cinderella failed to match up to its predecessors, and Walt turned his attention to other media: producing live-action movies, starting with Treasure Island in 1950, hosting the Disneyland television series from 1954, and opening the theme park of the same name the following year. Could it be that Uncle Walt's attempts to diversify his empire allowed Lady And The Tramp, released within months of Disneyland's opening, to sneak in, as it were, under the radar? It's the one undoubted Disney classic of that decade, yet it feels utterly different from anything Walt Disney might have conceived himself. Its songs, by Sonny Burke and Peggy Lee, were a genuine departure, fashioned as they were to Lee's jazzy, slinky, slightly breathy vocals. Its hugely appealing animated characters and such songs as He's A Tramp made it a beloved Disney classic.
Walt Disney refocused his attention on films with animation in the last years of his life, with two further classics, Mary Poppins (1964) and The Jungle Book (1967). If his animated films of the previous decade had been disappointing, these were the two films that finally sealed his legacy. Mary Poppins was a delightful idea: PL Travers' story of a children's nanny with magical powers in Edwardian London, told in a charming blend of live action and animation. Crucially, it was packed with terrific, memorable songs: Chim-Chim-Cheree, A Spoonful Of Sugar and Stay Awake - as well as that other one with the unfeasibly long one-word title.
All these songs made it feel like the film adaptation of a classic stage musical (it later became just that, making its theatrical debut in London's West End in 2004). But the music - from the prodigiously talented Sherman brothers, Robert and Richard - was all original. They were the driving creative force behind Mary Poppins, for which Julie Andrews became the first actor in a Disney film to win an Oscar. It was widely hailed as Walt Disney's finest achievement.
The Sherman brothers returned in top form to supply the songs for The Jungle Book, a funny, enchanting adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's story of Mowgli. Except for The Bare Necessities (credited to Terry Gilkyson), all the best tunes are theirs: Trust In Me (The Python's Song), Colonel Hathi's March (The Elephant Song) and of course, I Wan'na Be Like You, sung so brilliantly in scat vocalese by Louis Prima. Walt Disney was working enthusiastically on The Jungle Book at the time of his death in 1966. It's telling that the music of this film, some of it raucous and jazz-influenced, was far removed from the classical repertoire he had favoured in earlier days. Perhaps he had learned to move with the times - or possibly his increasingly diverse business interests had helped broaden his taste.
Still, the Disney studio then entered a period of decline that lasted for almost two decades. The dawn of a new era for Disney - and its music - came in 1984, with the arrival of Michael Eisner as its chief executive officer. Chris Montan arrived at Disney a month after Eisner took over: "The old Disney had run out of steam creatively after Walt died," he recalls. "By the time we got there, it was a fairly low-energy place looking for a new direction."
Musically, he says, the turning point came when Disney executives first met the song-writing team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, who had written Little Shop Of Horrors, a Broadway hit that became a successful film. Composer Menken and the lyricist Ashman virtually became in-house songwriters for Disney's animated division, starting with The Little Mermaid (1989). Beauty And The Beast and Aladdin followed in quick succession.
"Alan and Howard became our first rocket fuel," says Montan. "They brought us to a place where, I like to tell people, we may be the only company that has ever matched its original creative run. Disney first had that fabulous period that included Snow White, Pinocchio and Dumbo - and then we did it again, starting with Little Mermaid. I don't think MGM made those great Gene Kelly musicals again, or Warner Bros ever equalled those terrific gangster movies. It's what we're proudest of: that we were able to compete with the legacy before us."
After Ashman's death in 1991, Menken teamed up with lyricist Stephen Schwartz for Disney on Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1996) and more recently Enchanted (2007). Together with the various composers of The Lion King, Collins on Tarzan and Randy Newman on the Toy Story films, it genuinely looks like a second Golden Age for Disney. But it didn't happen by accident. "One of the reasons was that we made the music important to the film," Montan says.
"The music of animation was integral to our films, just like a Broadway show. Music is more valued at Disney than at some of the other great film companies," he adds. "When Alan and Howard wrote their songs for The Little Mermaid, the arrangements of the demos they recorded were exactly used in the film, four years later. At Disney, the music's in the soil of a film from the beginning." He rejects the notion that the studio made a conscious attempt to embrace pop music; as he tells it, he and Eisner decided to seek out melodic writers whose music would not date - an important factor, given the gap of three or four years between an animated film going into production and its release. Elton John, Phil Collins and Randy Newman all come into that category.
So if Disney films seemed to happen to lean towards pop, it was more because of the studio's desire not to compromise songwriters' individuality. "I didn't want Phil Collins not to be Phil," Montan recalls. "So we tailored Tarzan to his style, his drumming, his melody writing and singing." Melodic content became king: "I thought it was really important that our songs would not only be catchy in a film, but would live on and be played at school concerts, weddings and graduations," says Montan. "We wanted to reach people around the world, who can feel comfortable with the musical vocabulary we use. I think we've accomplished that pretty well."
It's hard to disagree. Though the Philharmonia usually performs music from the established classical repertoire, David Whelton has the highest regard for the musical legacy of Disney. "It's primarily drawn from the traditions of the best orchestral music and the best Broadway shows," he says. "What's so encouraging is that today the heart of Disney music is that of orchestral sounds." He might have added that people have an emotional relationship with these songs; it's hard to separate them from the films they saw them in. One thing you can guarantee about the concert in Abu Dhabi: the audience will come out humming the tunes.
The Magical Music Of Walt Disney is on Sunday, Jan 11 at the Abu Dhabi National Theatre. For tickets, call 800 4669 or visit the box office at Virgin Megastore.