'Aladdin' Composer Alan Menken on Updating Music and Adding Power Ballad "Speechless"

"It was obvious that Jasmine needed to move from being a Disney animated princess to a three-dimensional young woman who wants to be heard and respected," says Menken of the new addition to the musical’s song list.
Courtesy of Disney
'Aladdin'

As audiences returned to Agrabah in Disney’s live-action remake of its 1992 animated classic Aladdin — which earned $113 million stateside over Memorial Day weekend — they were introduced to a new power ballad, "Speechless," performed by Naomi Scott as Jasmine, and some rearrangements of the original Oscar-winning score and songs. These were originally written by eight-time Academy Award-winning composer Alan Menken and Oscar-winning lyricists Tim Rice and the late Howard Ashman.

"I had to look at all the material in terms of storytelling, arrangements and style in a way that would cater to the style of the movie," Menken said of returning to his music while working with director Guy Ritchie on the live-action adaptation. This included making some of the music more contemporary and poppy, with less of a "Broadway" arrangement, he said, noting that extra heat and swagger was given to the relationship of Aladdin and Jasmine. 

The lyrics, penned by Oscar-winning songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land), addressed cultural sensitivities. 

Some may remember that in 1993, the animated film’s opening song, "Arabian Nights," offered a lyric change in the home video release, following complaints of racism by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

In the original theatrical release, the song opens:

Oh I come from a land, from a faraway place

Where the caravan camels roam 

Where they cut off your ear

 if they don't like your face

It's barbaric, but hey, it's home

to

Oh I come from a land, from a faraway place

Where the caravan camels roam 

Where it’s flat and immense

and the heat is intense

It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.

Menken says that when they approached the song for the 2019 film, "We went further. You know, ‘barbaric,’ we need to get that out of there, too." The line in the film is "It’s chaotic, but hey, it’s home."

Using an example from "Prince Ali," Meken explains that another change involved revising the lyric, "Now try your best to stay calm. Brush up your Sunday salaam." This was changed to "Friday salaam."

There were additional reasons for these changes. For instance, Menken relates that in "Arabian Nights," some of the new lyrics more closely match the visual as the camera invites viewers through Agrabah for the first time. 

The production number "Prince Ali" is performed by Will Smith, who stepped into the role of the genie, famously voiced by Robin Williams in the animated film. "I wanted to step back and let [Smith] make it his own," Menken said.

"I have to give all the credit to Will," the composer added of Smith’s renditions of "Prince Ali" as well as "Friend Like Me." "He came to London, did scratch tracks with my music team — I was in New York — and I said, 'Hey this is great.' Much of what he did was in the movie. He gave it more of a hip-hop styling and attitude that was more fitting for Will Smith as well as the Genie."

Menken relates that this process was not unlike the way he and Williams approached the songs in the animated version. "It was the same kind of morphing of a personality with the Genie. [For the earlier version] I had Robin sing it exactly as I wanted it. Then we let Robin have fun and Robin did his thing, and [the final performance] became a mixture of those."

"Speechless" is the new addition to the song list, presenting Jasmine as a strong woman who has a voice. "It was obvious that Jasmine needed to move from being a Disney animated princess to a three-dimensional young woman who wants to be heard and respected," Menken explains. "We knew we wanted it to be a song that states her desire to be heard.

"The first [new] song we wrote actually was a duet for Aladdin and Jasmine," he admits. "It was called ‘Desert Moon.' It was a lovely song (though it wasn't used in the final film). Then we wrote "Speechless," and that really created a new agenda to make sure story-wise we were supporting that aspect of the plot and also stylistically we were playing the appropriate themes in the score."

The song also had to land at the right point in the movie, and it actually appears twice, with the second part being the film’s climax. "If it came too early it wasn’t earned, and if we placed the whole song late, it was too late for it. We found it was best to do it in two parts," Meken explains.

"I’m really proud of the way we have woven it into the picture," Menken said, adding that he was thrilled with his first collaboration with Pasek and Paul. "I loved working with them. We came up with this piano-driven pop sound and they came up with a stunning lyric."