Monday, June 30, 2008

6/30/08 - On Disney & Musicals

I saw Wall-E on opening weekend, and predictably enjoyed it. I would rank it under the Brad Bird Pixar movies, but it definitely keeps to the ridiculously high quality bar that Pixar has set. In the ramp-up to the movie, as I was expressing to various people I knew how excited I was to see it, I had a long conversation with a friend of mine about Pixar and Disney and the way that the baton was passed sometime around Toy Story.

One thing that we discussed, which is one of the few lamentable results of the Pixar ascendancy and Disney decline, is the loss of having a mass-market musical released every year. One thing that I always really liked about Disney is that they maintained the musical model even as it fell out of favor just about everywhere in the marketplace. Granted, toward the end of Eisner's tenure their musicals became bloated and mediocre, but the Ashman/Mencken collaborations in the early '90s really benefited from such a well-accomplished songwriting team.

In fact, I think that the death of Howard Ashman really marked the decline of Disney's most recent golden age of animated movies. The lyricist to Mencken's melodist, Ashman was exceptionally talented at clever and (often darkly) humorous lyrics that captured character and delivered narrative with swift economy. The idiosyncratic nature of Ashman's lyrics really lent a particular and recognizable intelligence to the 3 musicals that he worked on: Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid.

For an idea of what kind of artistic worldview powered the Ashman/Menken duo, note that it was they who transformed the sub-B-grade Roger Corman movie Little Shop of Horrors into a hit off-Broadway play. Little Shop is a triumphantly successful musical, and much of the appeal is the wedding of such dark source material with the pop stylings that Ashman/Menken bring. It's the oldest trick in the book- marrying sweet, even bouncy melodies to dark lyrics, and they pull it off with aplomb.

"Dentist" stretches this tension to the breaking point - the song is, like most of the songs in the movie, an energetic doo-wop '60s style raver that sticks in the brain before it's even over (credit to Menken). The lyrics, though, are a loving depiction of successful channeling sadistic impulses into a modern career option. Steve Martin rampaging through the office as the greaser Orin Scrivella is hilarious but terrifying - the genius of the song and sequence is they way it plays grotesquely on power imbalance that exists in the dentist's chair - power equivalent to the S&M dynamic, according to the connect-the-dots line that Ashman draws in the lyrics.

Little Shop keeps its finger on the pop pulse, but just a short list of some of its plot developments show just what a trick it is to keep it on the line of mainstream accessibility (something that falls mostly on the songs and performances):
domestic abuse
murder ("Suppertime", "Feed Me")
sadism ("Dentist")
man-eating plants ("Grow For Me", "Feed Me"
drug abuse ("Now, It's Just The Gas" - stage version only)

So this is who Disney tapped for The Little Mermaid? Granted, Menken & Ashman are professionals, and it's not like they set out to sabotage the Mouse's artistic rationale, but the prankster spirit comes through in multiple places, even if there's nothing quite like the tour de force of "Dentist".

Oh, wait:

The Menken/Ashman fingerprints are all over this one - a queasy intermingling of violence and comedy, all set to a jaunty, hummable tune with clever lyrics like "Then I stuff you with bread/it won't hurt 'cause you're dead/and you're certainly lucky you are".

More than in hilarious trifles like "Les Poissons", though, Ashman's lyrical dexterity really reveals itself as crucial in the more serious songs, where his cleverness as a lyricist enable him and Menken to reach for genuine emotion without descending into the gooey, shapeless generalities of contemporary Broadway. In "Kiss The Girl", the swooning romanticism of the song's message is cleverly counterpointed with Sebastian the Crab's titanic ego - when he designates his instrument as "Words" with a proud bow, he announces his intention to seduce (by proxy), and then does so, with a vengeance. "Boy you better do it soon/no time will be better" perfectly captures Sebastian's bossy nature, while at the same time working with the reggae lilt of the melody to propel the scene's action.

It is this marrying of image, song, and narrative drive that makes good musicals so powerful. It is a mark of the difficulty involved that it's so rarely pulled off. After Ashman died, Disney had one last home run in the Lion King, but even though the soundtrack was successful and the movie absolutely destroyed the box office, it was clear that Tim Rice was no match for Ashman in the lyric department. Where "Kiss the Girl" is expertly and subtly voiced, "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" is ham-handed and cheesy, the mark of bad musicals since the form first sprang into being. Menken worked with a succession of lyricists after, but none gelled with his compositions like Ashman did for their astonishing run from Little Shop through Aladdin.

When Toy Story was released, it seemed blessedly free of bloat thanks to its non-musical nature. By that point, Disney musicals had ossified into a hard formula - you could pick the spots where you knew each type of song would show up. But now that Pixar's owned summer animation (with Dreamworks cravenly riding the bandwagon) for a number of years, I find myself mourning the loss of the Ashman/Menken musicals. A talent for causing things pain, indeed.

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