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Just how long has it been since the glory days of Ashman & Menken-composed Disney musicals? This long: When the Frozen soundtrack hit unexpectedly topped the Billboard 200 chart last week, it marked the first time an old-fashioned song score for an animated Disney picture had reached No. 1 since the Pocahontas album in 1995.
Clearly, the moviegoers who’ve flocked to Frozen loved the music, to the tune of 165,000 albums sold in the latest frame … tens of thousands more than for Beyonce’s latest, which got bumped to the No. 2 slot (early estimates point to a second week at No. 1 for Frozen). Ironically, though, part of the reason Disney was able to get so many patrons into theaters in the first place may have been because the marketing largely hid the fact that it’s a musical.
“Of course, when you tell people it’s a musical, some people make the assessment that it’s not for them — they don’t see musicals,” says Tom MacDougall, vp music at Disney and the film’s music supervisor. “So I don’t know if we exactly sat down and said, ‘We’re not gonna talk about the music.’ But we figured we’ll go out at least talking about the other things that are in the movie that are more broad, and let people discover the movie that way. And then if they felt tricked, they could talk about it online or whatever. We just knew that when people saw the movie, they liked it.”
Obviously, once characters burst into song in the opening frames of Frozen, viewers connected it more to heritage films like Beauty and the Beast than felt hoodwinked by the tune-free trailers, which is allowing MacDougall to finally fill some empty real estate in his office. “I started with Disney in 1995 and I’ve got a bunch of gold records dating back to Hercules, but the last one was for Cars,” says the executive. “So every now and then, I’d look at my wall and say, ‘Gosh, I wonder if I’ll ever get another one of those?’ We weren’t exactly sure if the market was still there. But Frozen has been certified gold, and, with any luck we’ll go platinum.”
Husband-and-wife co-songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez put it in even more astonished terms. “As a writer of musical theater and occasionally for the movies, the idea of seeing your album on the charts at all, let alone at No. 1, is not something that usually arises in your dreams,” says Lopez (best known for The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q). “We’ve been looking over our shoulder to see if Ashton Kutcher’s there and we’re being punked,” adds Anderson-Lopez.
Once upon a time, virtually all animated films were musicals, but Pixar studiously avoided them as that brand became the standard-bearer for toons, and rival studios like DreamWorks and Fox have also shunned musicals for their animated fare. Even Disney itself has gotten away from it in the 21st century, with rare exceptions like Home on the Range, Tangled, and Winnie the Pooh, none of which resulted in anything remotely resembling a hit soundtrack. Will the success of this album lead Disney to reclaim its musical heritage more often?
“It’s certainly our hope that it’s the beginning of a resurgence” in animated musicals, says Anderson-Lopez. “We won’t know till it all plays out. But we certainly have some projects on the horizon that we can’t yet talk about.… It’s not for the weak. It’s harder than non-musical storytelling. It involves bringing more people to row together.… But now I think that [John] Lasseter [the Pixar head-turned-Disney chief creative officer] has done it a couple times, he’s seen how it can be done and knows how to put production resources in place to help support it.”
MacDougall isn’t offering any solid promises for a Frozen-led tune/toon resurgence but offers cause for optimism. “We’ve got Big Hero 6 coming out this time next year, which is not a musical; it’s based on a Marvel character. And then the next movie, Zootopia, is not what you would describe as a musical. But I wouldn’t be surprised if you see a couple more musical ideas being announced in the near future.… Our directors come up with ideas for movies and then we rally around the best idea and make that movie. So we’re not necessarily prescriptive in saying, ‘Now you’re gonna make another musical.’ But knowing that it’s out there and popular, I think what’ll most likely happen is that directors will start to think more of making movies in those terms.”
One song in particular, “Let It Go” — widely considered the frontrunner for best song at the Oscars — is helping lead the way for soundtrack sales but also making an impact on the digital song chart. The version sung by Idina Menzel in the film rose to No. 12 on the latest SoundScan song sales chart; an end-credits “pop” version belted out by Demi Lovato was up to No. 25. (A third soundtrack song, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman,” featuring vocals by Kristen Bell, moved up to No 38.)
MacDougall credits a third version of “Let It Go” — an instrumental one — for helping fuel interest. “One thing we did was put a karaoke version on the deluxe edition,” he says, “and that’s why you’re seeing a lot of these Internet iterations of people singing along to it, because we gave them the tools to have a version that they could perform on their own.” On YouTube, some of the cover versions using the karaoke track have hundreds of thousands of views in their own right.
“We’re thrilled that seems to be the choice,” says Anderson-Lopez, “because it was the moment (in the film’s development) that Elsa (voiced by Menzel) became not a villain, and the moment we found our true north. That song represented a breakthrough for us. It was the first song we wrote that stayed in the movie. And it was the moment we realized the story we were telling was not a sister who was a villain versus a sister who was a good guy” — as it was in the Hans Christian Andersen story upon which the film is loosely based — “but a lot more.”
Although “Let It Go” would seem to be in the transformational tradition of another song Menzel made famous, “Defying Gravity” from Wicked, the songwriters say it was an attempt to break from the Broadway stylization of some of the rest of the score and do something more contemporary and singer-songwriter-ly.
“We tried to use the influences that the situation called for,” Anderson-Lopez says. “And it felt like Anna (voiced by Bell) was calling more on the traditional, classical Disney style, as defined so beautifully by Ashman and Menken. But Elsa was drawing on a different aesthetic. We were creating a character that’s not a villain and not a pure protagonist. She was complicated. And it felt like we needed to go into a different genre to find a musical language that captured her dichotomies.
Adds her husband, “As far as the influence on ‘Let It Go,’ we definitely listened to a lot of Adele, Aimee Mann, Lady Gaga, Avril Lavigne and the classic singer-songwriters like Carole King, people who sang about dealing with things that hold them back. We really put ourselves in the mindset of: How would you feel if you’d spent your whole life trying to be perfect, live up to other people’s expectations, and then you make one mistake, something abnormal happens, and everybody turns on you? Then that moment of relief when you’re like, ‘If I let all that go, I can let myself shine and do what I need to do.’ And we definitely wrote it to Idina’s strengths. She’s got this timid, fragile vulnerability in her lower range, so we put the beginning in that part of her voice. In the chorus when she finds her power and decides to let it out, we wrote it in that meatier, belt-ier part of her range, where she’s got that Idina Menzel power.”
Regardless of whether or not they get the Best Song Oscar, they’ve got that Billboard No. 1, an even rarer achievement for musical-theater types. There’s no trophy to go along with that, “but we’ve got the Billboard screenshot from my iPhone,” jokes Lopez.
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