It may be hard to believe, but this weekend marks the 30th anniversary of the release of “Aladdin”. The animated classic set the stage for multiple sequels, a live-action reimagining released in 2019, and even a Broadway musical. To mark the occasion, eight-time Academy Award-winning Disney score composer Alan Menken, who won two Academy Awards for his work on the film, spoke with CNN about his memories of making the classic.
While the film is beloved by many – not just for the way it showcases the late Robin Williams’ vocal prowess – Menken says none of this would have been possible without his late lyricist partner, Howard Ashman, whom he called “irreplaceable.”
The gifted songwriter also reflects on how Disney as a studio handled the representation of the Far East in the previous version in development that was in fact shelved due to concerns that predated cancel culture for decades.
CNN: When it comes to the development of “Aladdin”, was there a feeling of hesitation at Disney on how to tell this story?
Alan Menken: Aladdin” was started almost simultaneously with “[The Little] Mermaid”. While we were still working on that movie we started “Aladdin”, we did a complete approach and it was shelved. Part of the reason why it was shelved, it was very irreverent, even more irreverent than it has become, and there was a lot of concern about how it would affect the sensibilities of Arabs.
I remember when we were starting to make “Aladdin” we were thinking about how we really wanted it to be a fun wink in the Hollywood version of “Mysterious East” and all of that because it had that kind of, I wanted it to have that kind of road picture tone of Bob Hope/Bing Crosby, or Fleischer’s wacky and wacky drawings.
We knew we were walking a line. Wokeness didn’t come out of nowhere, and it’s not like it didn’t exist. Whenever you dealt with a stereotype in these photos, it was scrutinized very, very, very carefully.
Editor’s Note: Today, when viewers click on “Aladdin” on Disney+, a message appears that reads in part: “This show includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. Stereotypes were wrong then and they are wrong now. Rather than removing this content, we want to recognize its harmful impact, learn from it and start conversations to create a more inclusive future together.”
CNN 🇧🇷 I remember that, at the time, one of the first lyrics of the film’s opening song, “Arabian Nights” (“Where they cut your ears if they don’t like your face”), had to be changed for fear of being insensitive. Did that serve as a hint of things to come, in terms of current standards of political correctness, etc.?
Menken : That changed as soon as the photo came out.
And then we – Howard is gone – so I rewrote it to, “Where it’s hot and huge and the heat is intense, it’s wild, but hey, it’s home.” Now, even “barbaric” as an adjective for heat was still overly sensitive. So for the action movie, when Benj Pasek and Justin Paul were my lyricists, that was adjusted as well.
The really irreverent lyrics were on “Arabian Nights”. Because they were creating a world and we were saying, “This is our tone. We are winking at everything and making fun.” We were making fun of a genre, but making fun of a genre clearly can turn into making fun of a people.
There’s always a lot of back and forth about the stereotype, and whether it’s the right stereotype and whether it could possibly be offensive or something. But that (lyric change) was the first point where we really said, “Okay, we have to change this.”
CNN 🇧🇷 Specifically about making the movie and working with the actors. You’ve spoken about what it was like to work with the late Robin Williams. Any other memories you’d like to share?
Menken : In the (recording) room, Robin (was) a serious artist. He wanted to learn every note of “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali,” so we dutifully rehearsed. I think he was a little sore from being on (in the 1991 Steven Spielberg film) “Hook” all day.
So, of course, when we got to the recording sessions, and after he faithfully delivered exactly what I wanted from the song – that Fats Waller kind of singing the songs – then everybody said, “Okay, Robin, can you just amuse?”
And… that’s when you just freaked out, because it was Robin “on”. And Robin “on” was amazing. Robin was actually a very sensitive, nice and sweet man. He was amazing to work with.
CNN 🇧🇷 What about Gilbert Gottfried, who died this year?
Menken : Gilbert did not contribute musically (to the film). But ever since the movie’s press conference over the last 28 years, or 29 years, Gilbert has always[said]“Where’s my music? You never gave me a song!”
You know, there’s always a big gap between people’s personalities and who they are. He was a sweet guy and nice and unassuming and kind and sensitive and fun to talk to and a little nerdy and all things, and when he’s “on” you know, all those things would be “blaaaaaa!!!” out of it. And in animation there are many of these experiences. There are hilarious anecdotes about people when they are “on” and it’s just amazing.
CNN 🇧🇷 As you mentioned, you started work on this film with your longtime lyricist collaborator Howard Ashman, but continued working on it with Tim Rice after Ashman’s death in March 1991. How do you look back on that time now, working with Ashman?
Menken : He was brilliantly intelligent, intuitive, had an incredible understanding of how we mix styles and vocabularies from our culture, from other cultures in a really modern, exciting and fun way. And all the serious messages were kind of in the subtext, but brilliantly in the subtext. And that started with our stage shows, with “Little Shop of Horrors” in particular.
And Howard was a very, very developed jack of all trades – lyricist, book writer, director and producer. He really was just an amazing amalgamation of so many gifts and talents.
CNN : And how did the animated “Aladdin” form the basis for so many successful iterations that followed, including the long-running Broadway show and the billion-dollar box-office live-action film?
Menken : Well, in the case of the first one (2017’s live-action “Beauty and the Beast”), then “Aladdin” and now “Mermaid” (to be released next year), those really aren’t so much a progression… (film) animated is the Rosetta Stone, and it’s just the spokes of a wheel coming out of it – and that’s conceptually not on my part. It’s just the way the studio operates, the way each division operates. And it also allows the director of each iteration to have a greater influence on how it differs from the animated (version).
With Broadway, I knew my agenda was to want to include as many of the songs that Howard originally wrote as possible, and I leaned heavily on all of them to make sure the storyline reflected that. And I think it was a smart move. Not only was this a sentimental gesture to my late collaborator, but the mystique of Howard’s work and the brilliance of his work is one of the biggest draws to our projects.
(Posted by Carolina Farias)
Source: CNN Brasil
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