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Disney Songwriting Legends Reflect on Their Careers

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Every Disney fan knows Richard Sherman and Alan Menken. Even non-fans can’t help but know their songs practically through osmosis. You don’t have to be a Disneyphile to know the earworm “It’s a Small World” (Sherman) or hum along to “A Whole New World” (Menken).

The two songwriting legends are teaming up for a once-in-a-lifetime concert on Saturday as part of the D23 Expo in Anaheim. The show will consist of some greatest hits, a couple of lesser-known pieces, and a bit of conversation about their careers and friendship. Here’s a little taste of the kind of conversation we can expect. Check back next week for clips from what’s sure to be an amazing performance.

What’s your favorite song written by one another?

Alan Menken: You look at “Supercalifragilistic” and I know that’s so known, but that’s really—there could not have been an “Under the Sea” without a “Supercalifragilistic.” It’s a combination of the exuberance, the rhythm, the cleverness of the lyrics and the catchiness of it—it just gets into your system. It set the standard, set the bar for what Howard [Ashman, Menken’s songwriting partner] and I did.

Richard Sherman: [He has] so many gorgeous, gorgeous songs. He’s a great melody writer, wonderful harmonies. I fell in love with a song called “Suddenly Seymour,” [from Little Shop of Horrors] ... it's such a passionate song, a wonderful explosion of emotion. "Part of Your World” gets to me. It just does it. I just love that song. But if you try to pick one, it’s just impossible. We’re both fans of each other and I think that makes it kind of fun.

How did you choose which songs to perform together at the D23 Expo?

AM: It’s always a challenge picking out just the right material for an audience. We did have some requests from our hosts, and the way they've structured it made it somewhat easy to decide on songs.

RS: We try to do a potpourri, not a complete rundown of anything in one particular film, but kind of a sampling of things over the years. It was kind of a fun thing, looking at all my children and saying, "Which one am I going to take on the outing?"

Are there any songs that unexpectedly became hits?

RS: It’s a funny thing about when we did Poppins, I remember that Bob and I wondered which is the [song] that’s going to happen. Robert said, "I'm absolutely sure it's was going to be 'Stay Awake.'" It was just a little lullaby and he loved it, but it never stood out on its own. And I said “Chim Chim Cheree” will never be popular, it’s just a minor thing, you know, and it's about about a chimney sweep, and that became a giant thing.

AM: I had a similar thing with Little Mermaid: "Kiss the Girl" was really our single, and of course "Under the Sea" is the song that really emerged. "Part of Your World" was one we almost lost entirely. It wasn’t necessarily working at one point during the film.

What’s it like to perform for people who live and breathe Disney?

AM: It’s fun, it really is fun. It’s a really powerful, shared experience. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it wasn’t kind of a pleasant ego trip, because everything I’m doing up there, they’re reacting so exuberantly to. It’s just great fun, really.

Are there any Disney films you’re dying to have made into a theatrical production?

RS: Alan has certainly the record in this by far, but there’s a couple of things I’m kind of looking forward to seeing. The Jungle Book is now on its feet. And I have another couple of things, but I don’t want to talk too much.

AM: It will be neat to see Hercules. We’re working on a cruise ship version of Tangled. Who knows if it will find its way to the stage?

RS: So many factors have to take place before it’s a reality, so I don’t like to talk about too many things unless they’re really on the road to reality.

AM: I tend to be more of a blabbermouth.

On their Disney songwriting processes:

AM: The process for me is very much the process of writing a musical. Disney has been the studio that has been—especially in our lifetime—the most supportive of writing songs in that way. Where the difference comes in, in it being Disney, is a sense of responsibility, a sense of the message of the song and the approach to storytelling. You know that this is an audience that will embrace what you do and take it to heart entirely, so you have to cherish the audience as you write these songs. The Disney tradition—number one, it’s a great American classic tradition—and it’s something where you don’t want to go over certain lines. You want to poke fun but you don’t want to poke fun in a way that’s hurtful. The company is very sensitive to that, and once you've been associated with the company for a long time,  you become very sensitive to that. But you definitely want to skate as close to that line as possible because that’s where all the fun is.

RS: You have to either write for a character or the character of an experience like “Small World” or “Carousel of Progress.” When we first saw audio animatronic figures being featured in the Tiki room and we came up with a little calypso song called “The Tiki Tiki Room,” we weren’t writing for a person or a character or anything else. Everything is its own challenge, whether it be a building or a fictional character or a marvelous make-believe lady like Mary Poppins.

On meeting each other and developing a friendship:


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RS: I didn’t know Alan at all, but I felt I knew him in a sense through his wonderful songs and his melodies and I realized that this guy likes to write the way I like to write; this man can carry on a wonderful tradition.

AM: [There is a] graciousness and generosity in Richard that’s unique in our business. Truly unique. It’s something to my dying day that I will always appreciate, and it’s a very rare quality. You can sense that in his songs but it’s there in the man. The way he and his wife have treated me has been so generous—it’s had an immense effect.

What are you looking forward to seeing at the D23 Expo?

AM: There will be a lot of friends there. I think it’s mostly an experience that’s oriented toward being with people rather than exhibits for us.

RS: I think it's just experiencing the joy that's being exuberated by all of these people—

AM: Exuberated! I like that!

RS: You like that? I just made that up.

AM: I like that, I do! You just witnessed where the Sherman Brothers brilliance comes from.

RS: Make the word work for you.

On working with Walt:

RS: I always felt honored that I was working for his company, and for him, when he was with us ... Walt set a high standard for the both of us when he had these great songwriters of the past, who wrote the great scores for Pinocchio and all of these wonderful, wonderful pictures that came before our time. [They are] wholesome, beautiful entertainments that uplift the spirits. They're not depressing; they're uplifting. We’re lucky to have done that kind of work.

On his brother and songwriting partner Robert Sherman, who passed away last year:

RS: Bob never was much of a performer. He was always little bit on the shy side. But he would have joined me [at the D23 Expo] on a couple of little choruses and stuff. But I’m representing the both of us—that’s what I do.

Which of your songs was the most challenging to develop?

RS: We were trying to top a very pretty song we had written [for Mary Poppins] and we were told, "We want something with a little more pep in it." Say the same thing but say it in a very "up" way as opposed to this ballad we had just written. We wanted . . . kind of a little slogan that Mary Poppins could sing that would give the children the idea that if you have a happy attitude, a hard job becomes easier. My brother’s son Jeff came home from school one day and he had the Salk vaccine, and Bob said “Did it hurt?” And the little guy said, “No, they put the medicine on a cube of sugar, and then we took it like candy, it was easy.”
Bob came in the next day and said, "I got a title for us: 'A Spoonful of Sugar Makes the Medicine Go Down.'”

And I said, “Oh my god, it’s terrible. No, wait, it’s wonderful!” It became a really big smash hit for us, but that was a tough one.

On the secret to longevity:

RS: I have a good time. I never feel like I’m working. I was blessed from the time early on with doing my hobby, my hobby was writing songs. I’d be happy to do it without getting any money for it. I love writing songs and the challenge of writing different kinds of things, so it was always a fun thing for me. If I didn’t [have fun], I would have retired years ago. I’m 85, but I don’t feel it. I have my health and I have my enthusiasm.

On their favorite “obscure” songs:

AM: I’m very proud of “Will the Sun Ever Shine Again.” That was a song written very close to the 9/11 event. We were all, especially in New York, in a real state of trauma, and that was a song that very much captured the emotion of everyone at the studio.

You know, I love “The Gospel Truth,” the song that opened up Hercules. I thought that song was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed producing that and writing that. "If I Never Knew You” from Pocahontas. We lost it the first time around; we got it back when it was re-released. I think it was a very emotional song that I'm very proud of.

RS: [At the D23 Expo] I’m going to sing something that’s not thought of as one of my big hits, but I personally have a great deal of attachment to it. I don’t want to tell you because that’s going to be a surprise for everybody.

Is there a main message you’d like to get across to Disney fans?

Getty Images

RS: Disney fans already know, but I’ll just say it: There’s a wonderful thing called being positive in your life as opposed to being negative—being on the upside of the coin. Both Alan and myself have been blessed with the "chore" of writing things for very upbeat ideas. They’re not depressing. They’re not cynical. They’re positive; there are strong feelings of goodwill in them. And I think all of the Disney fans will recognize that immediately.

There’s nothing cynical about our work, none of us.

The biggest, wonderful gratification I get is the fact that people get joy out of my work. That they feel good about it and they have a good time and they feel happy about it, and that’s truly my reward.

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15 Fun Facts About Army of Darkness
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Universal Pictures

On February 19, 1993, Army of Darkness—the third installment in Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell's Evil Dead franchise—made its way into U.S. theaters. You probably know all about Ash’s boomstick, but on the occasion of the hilarious horror comedy's 25th anniversary, it's worth a closer look.

1. ARMY OF DARKNESS ISN'T THE ENTIRE TITLE.

The film’s title is stylized onscreen as Bruce Campbell vs. Army of Darkness. This phrasing was Sam Raimi’s homage to the defunct Hollywood tradition of putting stars’ names in movie titles (like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein)—but the studio feared the long title would confuse moviegoers, so it was shortened for official purposes to just Army of Darkness.

2. EVEN THE SHORTER TITLE WASN'T RAIMI'S FIRST CHOICE.

Army of Darkness is the third installment of the Evil Dead series and the first to take place during the Middle Ages. Raimi’s original title for Army of Darkness was The Medieval Dead.

3. BRIDGET FONDA FINALLY GOT TO WORK WITH RAIMI.

Bridget Fonda makes a cameoas Ash’s girlfriend Linda during the beginning flashback sequence. She is the third actress in three films to play Linda (following actresses Betsy Baker and Denise Bixler). Fonda—a huge Evil Dead II fan—had originally auditioned to be in Raimi’s previous film, Darkman, but didn’t get the part.

4. ASH'S CAR HAD A LOT OF SCREEN EXPERIENCE.

The 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 allegedly appears in all of Sam Raimi’s films.

5. DARKMAN MADE ARMY OF DARKNESS POSSIBLE.

Raimi wanted to make Army of Darkness immediately following 1987’s Evil Dead II, but he struggled to find funding to finish his trilogy. The financial success of Raimi’s 1990 film, Darkman, eventually convinced Universal Studios to split the $12 million budget with executive producer Dino De Laurentiis.

6. A SUBTLE SCIENCE FICTION REFERENCE PLAYS A KEY ROLE.

The words Ash must utter to safely retrieve the Necronomicon (“Klaatu verata nikto”) are actually a variation on a phrase from the original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still. In that film, “Klaatu barada nitko” is the phrase one must say to stop the robot Gort from destroying Earth.

7. THE SKELETON DEADITES WERE AN HOMAGE.

Their design is a tribute to visual effects legend Ray Harryhausen.

8. THE STAY PUFT MARSHMALLOW MAN MAKES AN APPEARANCE.

Billy Bryan, the actor who portrays the second monster in the medieval pit, also portrayed the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters.

9. SAM RAIMI'S BROTHER WORE A LOT OF HATS.

Ted Raimi—who makes cameos in all of his brother’s films—appears as three different background characters in Army of Darkness. He is first seen as a sympathetic villager, then as a dying soldier during the final battle, and, finally, as an S-Mart employee in the last scene.

10. RAIMI HAD TO FIGHT FOR AN R-RATING.

In keeping with the gory first two films in the series, Army of Darkness received an NC-17 rating from the MPAA. It was subsequently bumped down to an R rating after the filmmakers pointed out that the ostensible gore in the film was happening to skeletons.

11. PLAYING EVIL ASH WAS TOUGH FOR CAMPBELL.

It took makeup artists three hours to get Campbell ready for shooting.

12. RAIMI STORYBOARDED EVERY SINGLE SHOT IN THE MOVIE HIMSELF.

About 25 shots in the final battle are taken from storyboards originally used in the 1948 Victor Fleming film Joan of Arc, which were brought to Raimi’s attention by visual effects supervisor William Mesa. Mesa got them from a friend, who got them from Fleming himself.

13. THERE'S AN EASTER EGG FOR TREKKIES.

Star Trek fans will recognize the location where Ash learns the “Klaatu verata nikto” incantation. The scene was shot at the iconic Vasquez Rocks in Agua Dulce, California, where the famous “Arena” episode from Star Trek was also shot. The movie also shot in the Bronson Canyon area of Griffith Park in Los Angeles that served as the Batcave for the 1960s Batman television show.

14. THE STUDIO CHANGED THE ENDING.

Bruce Campbell stars in 'Army of Darkness' (1992)
Universal Pictures

The original conclusion of the film—which Universal Studios deemed too negative—featured Ash taking too much potion to get back to the present day and waking up in a future, post-apocalyptic London. The ending can be seen on subsequent director’s cuts of home video versions of Army of Darkness.

15. EVEN AFTER YEARS OF TRYING, A SEQUEL NEVER MATERIALIZED.

Beginning in 2015, Bruce Campbell reprised his role as Ash in the Ash vs Evil Dead TV series. While fans of the Evil Dead franchise love it, Raimi spent years trying to get a sequel to Army of Darkness off the ground. On the commentary track for the first season of Ash vs. Evil Dead, Raimi even shared a few of the discarded ideas he had for the film.

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6 Times There Were Ties at the Oscars
getty images (March and Beery)/ istock (oscar)
getty images (March and Beery)/ istock (oscar)

Only six ties have ever occurred during the Academy Awards' near-90-year history. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) members vote for nominees in their corresponding categories; here are the six times they have come to a split decision.

1. BEST ACTOR // 1932

Back in 1932, at the fifth annual Oscars ceremony, the voting rules were different than they are today. If a nominee received an achievement that came within three votes of the winner, then that achievement (or person) would also receive an award. Actor Fredric March had one more vote than competitor Wallace Beery, but because the votes were so close, the Academy honored both of them. (They beat the category’s only other nominee, Alfred Lunt.) March won for his performance in horror film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Beery won for The Champ (writer Frances Marion won Best Screenplay for the film), which was remade in 1979 with Ricky Schroder and Jon Voight. Both Beery and March were previous nominees: Beery was nominated for The Big House and March for The Royal Family of Broadway. March won another Oscar in 1947 for The Best Years of Our Lives, also a Best Picture winner. Fun fact: March was the first actor to win an Oscar for a horror film.

2. BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT // 1950

By 1950, the above rule had been changed, but there was still a tie at that year's Oscars. A Chance to Live, an 18-minute movie directed by James L. Shute, tied with animated film So Much for So Little. Shute’s film was a part of Time Inc.’s "The March of Time" newsreel series and chronicles Monsignor John Patrick Carroll-Abbing putting together a Boys’ Home in Italy. Directed by Bugs Bunny’s Chuck Jones, So Much for So Little was a 10-minute animated film about America’s troubling healthcare situation. The films were up against two other movies: a French film named 1848—about the French Revolution of 1848—and a Canadian film entitled The Rising Tide.

3. BEST ACTRESS // 1969

Probably the best-known Oscars tie, this was the second and last time an acting award was split. When presenter Ingrid Bergman opened up the envelope, she discovered a tie between newcomer Barbra Streisand and two-time Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn—both received 3030 votes. Streisand, who was 26 years old, tied with the 61-year-old The Lion in Winter star, who had already been nominated 10 times in her lengthy career, and won the Best Actress Oscar the previous year for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Hepburn was not in attendance, so all eyes fell on Funny Girl winner Streisand, who wore a revealing, sequined bell-bottomed-pantsuit and gave an inspired speech. “Hello, gorgeous,” she famously said to the statuette, echoing her first line in Funny Girl.

A few years earlier, Babs had received a Tony nomination for her portrayal of Fanny Brice in the Broadway musical Funny Girl, but didn’t win. At this point in her career, she was a Grammy-winning singer, but Funny Girl was her movie debut (and what a debut it was). In 1974, Streisand was nominated again for The Way We Were, and won again in 1977 for her and Paul Williams’s song “Evergreen,” from A Star is Born. Four-time Oscar winner Hepburn won her final Oscar in 1982 for On Golden Pond.

4. BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE // 1987

The March 30, 1987 telecast made history with yet another documentary tie, this time for Documentary Feature. Oprah presented the awards to Brigitte Berman’s film about clarinetist Artie Shaw, Artie Shaw: Time is All You’ve Got, and to Down and Out in America, a film about widespread American poverty in the ‘80s. Former Oscar winner Lee Grant (who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1976 for Shampoo) directed Down and Out and won the award for producers Joseph Feury and Milton Justice. “This is for the people who are still down and out in America,” Grant said in her acceptance speech.

5. BEST SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION) // 1995

More than 20 years ago—the same year Tom Hanks won for Forrest Gump—the Short Film (Live Action) category saw a tie between two disparate films: the 23-minute British comedy Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and the LGBTQ youth film Trevor. Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi wrote and directed the former, which stars Richard E. Grant (Girls, Withnail & I) as Kafka. The BBC Scotland film envisions Kafka stumbling through writing The Metamorphosis.

Trevor is a dramatic film about a gay 13-year-old boy who attempts suicide. Written by James Lecesne and directed by Peggy Rajski, the film inspired the creation of The Trevor Project to help gay youths in crisis. “We made our film for anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider,” Rajski said in her acceptance speech, which came after Capaldi's. “It celebrates all those who make it through difficult times and mourns those who didn’t.” It was yet another short film ahead of its time.

6. BEST SOUND EDITING // 2013

The latest Oscar tie happened only three years ago, when Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall beat Argo, Django Unchained, and Life of Pi in sound editing. Mark Wahlberg and his animated co-star Ted presented the award to Zero Dark Thirty’s Paul N.J. Ottosson and Skyfall’s Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers. “No B.S., we have a tie,” Wahlberg said to the crowd, assuring them he wasn’t kidding. Ottosson was announced first and gave his speech before Hallberg and Baker Landers found out that they were the other victors.

It wasn’t any of the winners' first trip to the rodeo: Ottosson won two in 2010 for his previous collaboration with Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker (Best Achievement in Sound Editing and Sound Mixing); Hallberg previously won an Oscar for Best Sound Effects Editing for Braveheart in 1996, and in 2008 both Hallberg and Baker Landers won Best Achievement in Sound Editing for The Bourne Ultimatum.

Ottosson told The Hollywood Reporter he possibly predicted his win: “Just before our category came up another fellow nominee sat next to me and I said, ‘What if there’s a tie, what would they do?’ and then we got a tie,” Ottosson said. Hallberg also commented to the Reporter on his win. “Any time that you get involved in some kind of history making, that would be good.”

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