08 Aug On the Phone with Two Disney Music Legends
When you think of Disney, you almost immediately remember a song. That song could be from an attraction at the parks or from a favorite childhood movie. No matter what that song is from, I would bet my bottom dollar that you always humming a tune when thinking of Disney. More than likely, you have Disney Music Legends Richard Sherman or Alan Menken to thank for that tune as between the two of them, they really have written most of the Disney songbook.
I had the chance to listen to these two legends speak about their experiences in working with the Disney company and how much their experiences meant to them. When getting on the call, I was ready to hear two people reference a lot of technical music terms that I didn’t understand. I had my google search tab open so that I could try to follow along with a conversation that was way over my head. I didn’t use that tab at all because the conversation that ensued wasn’t about anything technical or about referencing their numerous awards accolades, it was about their love for their work and their respect for not only Disney and what it stands for, but each other.
Alan Menken opened the call. If you don’t know him by name, you know him by his work in classic Disney movies like Aladdin, Hercules, Enchanted, Tangled, and Newsies. He had so much to say about Disney and the unique experience of working with them. “The great thing about Disney songs is that they live in a context.” All of the songs are tied to specific movies. “The Disney audience….is an audience that will embrace what you do. You have to cherish the audience when you write these songs.” Menken feels lucky to have the “unique opportunity” to work for the Disney studio that is so supportive of “non-cynical material.” He would like to see a broadway production of Hercules or Enchanted. Menken let it slip that there is a cruise line version of Tangled currently in the works, so keep your ears open for more news on that.
When asked if there was a song that took off in popularity by surprise, Menken said that “Under the Sea” was clearly the one that took off from The Little Mermaid when they thought that “Kiss the Girl” was going to be the big one. They also almost lost the song “Part of Your World” to the cutting room floor. Some of the more obscure Disney songs that he is the most proud of are “Will the Sun Ever Shine Again” from Home on the Range (as it was written closely following the 9-11 tragedy,) “The Gospel Truth” from Hercules and “If I Never Knew You” from Pocahontas. It was difficult for him to select which of the more unknown songs to put into the concert. While Sherman and Menken both want the song set from the concert to be a surprise, Menken did say that he will be performing a snippet of a song that didn’t make it into the movie Pocahontas and “Human Again” from Beauty and the Beast for the first time at the D23 Expo. Menken told us that it was a fun and powerful experience to perform in front of Disney fans. He also admitted that it was a “pleasant ego trip” to have the fans so excited to hear his music.
Disney legend, Richard Sherman, was next up. Richard and his brother Robert Sherman, “The Sherman Brothers” as they are well known, composed some of the most classic and beloved songs in Disney’s song book. This includes songs from Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks along with Disney theme park songs “It’s a Small World (After All)” and “The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room.” During his interview, he dove right in by sharing some amazing memories. He said that his brother, Robert, was sure that “Stay Awake” from Mary Poppins would be the song that caught on because he loved it so much. Neither of them thought that “Chim Chim Cherr-ee” would really catch on since it was just a song about a chimney sweep. Mary Poppins is his favorite picture, and his favorite song is “Feed the Birds,” because it was Walt Disney’s favorite. “He just thought it said so much. It doesn’t take much to give love: a kind deed, a smile, to take your kids out and show them a good time.” When asked about which song was the most challenging to develop he immediately answered that it was a song from Mary Poppins. They were trying to come up with a slogan that Mary could sing that would say that if you had a positive attitude that a job becomes easier. “Robert’s son came home from school one day and told his dad that he had to take a vaccine at school but the school nurse put the medicine on a cube of sugar and it tasted great.” After that, Robert came up with the slogan “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Richard didn’t like it at first, but then after thinking it over, decided it was perfect. It was clear from talking to Sherman that Mary Poppins holds a large part of his heart, as it did for Walt Disney as well.
About working for Walt Disney’s company, Sherman says “I always felt honored that I was working for his company, when he was with us. Walt set high standards for the both of us when he had the great songwriters of the past. Wholesome, beautiful entertainment that lifts the spirit.” You could really just hear the pride and fulfillment in his voice when he was speaking about working for the Disney company and how much it meant to him. He noted that 90% of the songs that he and his brother wrote for Disney were written for characters in the movie, but there were 5-10% that were written for a specific actor who had been cast. Two examples of their casting surprises were Angela Lansbury in Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins. When asked about the secret to his longevity, Sherman responded, “I have a good time…I was always blessed with doing my hobby. My hobby was writing songs.” He loves the challenge of writing different things. “It keeps me going. I am 85 years old, but I don’t feel it!” Sherman is excited that the Jungle Book musical is currently in Chicago and let on that there are a few more movies that are in the works for being made into musicals! He said that doing the song selection for the concert was difficult, much “like looking at all my children, deciding which one I am taking on the outing!” In closing, Sherman noted that “people get joy out of my work. They have a good time and feel happy about it. That is truly my reward.”