Disney goes 'On the Record' with celebration of movie songs

Friday, December 31, 2004

NEW YORK -- It's quite a collection. More than 70 years of popular song -- from a little ditty called "Minnie's Yoo-Hoo," co-authored by the big man himself, Walt Disney, to the works of such present-day maestros as Alan Menken, Elton John, Phil Collins, Randy Newman and more.

"It is like an American songbook, and they are the standards," said Thomas Schumacher, head of Disney Theatrical Productions, the folks who brought you the stage versions of "Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King," "Aida" and the recently opened London smash "Mary Poppins."

Schumacher was describing the musical numbers that make up "On the Record," Disney's new theater venture, designed to play around the country -- but not necessarily on Broadway.

You grew up with these songs. So did your children. "When You Wish Upon a Star." "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo." "Someday My Prince Will Come." "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" Some 60 numbers in all, from all the classic Disney films such as "Snow White," "Pinocchio," "Lady and the Tramp" and "The Little Mermaid" to a few movies you may not have thought about in years, such as "The Parent Trap" or "So Dear to My Heart."

"On the Record," now on an extended national tour, was designed with travel in mind, able to be dismantled and then reassembled quickly, although its setting of gleaming panels by Robert Brill is still lavish-looking.

"The simple fact is everything you send out on the road can't be huge," said Schumacher, a man who should know since he has two tours of "The Lion King" currently traipsing the country. "A lot of theaters can't accommodate them for long runs. So if you can't accommodate a long run, but you can accommodate a week or even a split (half) week, what can we send out?"

"On the Record" would appear to be the answer, with bookings through much of 2005 already set. It was born when Schumacher decided to mine the musical gold that is in the Disney song catalog. But how do you present the material in an evening of entertainment that would be tour-friendly and appeal to a wide variety of people?

Complicating matters, according to Schumacher, was the fact that most of these songs are not pop songs. They are story songs, written for very specific moments in these films. They could not easily be inserted into a new story (such as was done with the ABBA songs in "Mamma Mia!")

The solution came from director Robert Longbottom, best known for his work on such Broadway musicals as "Side Show" and the 2002 revival of "Flower Drum Song." Longbottom devised an entertainment that is not quite a revue and not quite a musical with a fully developed plot. He set the show, which has eight performers, in a recording studio.

Its slight story involves two older, more experienced singers (who had a past and perhaps a complicated history), two young performers and six backup singers and dancers. The cast is not well-known although its two leads, Kaitlin Hopkins and Brian Sutherland, have extensive theater credits.

"And if the studio were a certain kind of recording studio, we could have magic appear," Longbottom explained, a place where the actors could burst into dancing during the show's song segments.

"On the Record" is built around more than a dozen of these sessions, presided over by a recording engineer (the voice of actor Richard Easton). Each segment has a theme, with the songs carefully linked.

The story line is slight and the characters mostly communicate through these songs, which are used to express their feelings, among other things. But this being Disney, the stage also comes alive with fantasy sequences that take off from the recording sessions.

Assisting Longbottom in his research was David Chase, music adapter, supervisor and arranger for "On the Record." They watched all the Disney movies. Chase checked the Disney archives and pored over pop recordings of the songs by such singers as Doris Day, Louis Armstrong, Barbara Cook and others.

Chase found forgotten lyrics from certain songs, lyrics that didn't make it into the films but were recorded in pop versions of these numbers. Among his favorites: a verse from "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" that went "If your mind is in a dither and your heart is in a haze, I'll haze your dither and dither your haze with a magic phrase."

The duo were helped in their research by Chris Montan, who runs Walt Disney Music and who has worked on all the Disney animated movies since "The Little Mermaid" in 1989.

"We had a master list, maybe 90 or 100 songs, and we identified the ones that certainly were our priorities that we wanted to get into the show," Montan said. "And we started to create categories -- flying songs or silly songs, for example -- and whether we wanted to do a segment that was from a movie, such as 'The Little Mermaid.'

"Then we would check each other's work to make sure we hadn't left out any of the really key songs, such as 'Colors of the Wind' (from 'Pocohontas'), which wasn't in the show for a while," he said. "And 'Beauty and the Beast' kept coming and going, just by the nature of the way the segments were coming together. Part of my job was to make sure that nothing of real importance got left behind."

"It was like setting a table for dinner," Longbottom added. "You really had to plan a musical menu. We did a lot of shifting around with all of the song titles laid out on index cards."

The collaborators had a lot of numbers from which to choose. Disney songs were the pop songs of their day in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, and then had a renaissance in the 1990s when Menken and major pop artists began writing for Disney's animated films.

"In the early days, Walt was much more in tune with using songs to advance the story elements in his films than the theater was," Montan said. "There weren't many coherent book musicals being written in the 1930s on Broadway. He was ahead of the curve on that."

Disney was already using music to enhance the storytelling in the late '30s with such films as "Snow White" and "Pinocchio," Montan said.

And the use of pop artists to write for Disney is continuing. Right now, Rufus Wainwright is writing songs for a new animated film based on the children's book "A Day With Wilbur Robinson" by William Joyce, about a boy genius who time travels. Expected release date: summer 2006.

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