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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?

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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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14 Not-So-Dirty Facts About Dirty Dancing
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Released on August 21, 1987, no one—not even stars Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey—could have predicted the phenomenon that Dirty Dancing would turn into. Today, 30 years later, we’re still talking about the dance-musical-romance’s sensual choreography, its oldies soundtrack, and not putting Baby in a corner. Here are some not-so-dirty facts about the iconic movie, which grossed nearly $215 million worldwide.

1. PATRICK SWAYZE BELIEVED DIRTY DANCING ENDURED BECAUSE OF ITS HEART.

In an interview with AFI, Swayze explained why he thought Dirty Dancing has stuck around for so long. “It’s got so much heart, to me,” he said. “It’s not about the sensuality; it’s really about people trying to find themselves—this young dance instructor feeling like he’s nothing but a product, and this young girl trying to find out who she is in a society of restrictions when she has such an amazing take on things. On a certain level, it’s really about the fabulous, funky little Jewish girl getting the guy because [of] what she’s got in her heart.”

2. THE FILM GAVE NEWMAN HIS FIRST BIG MOVIE ROLE.

Before starring as Stan, the resort’s social director, Wayne Knight had small roles in a few TV movies, including an uncredited role in the nuclear holocaust drama The Day After. Dirty Dancing showcased his talents, which in 1992 led him to be cast as Newman on Seinfeld.

3. BILL MEDLEY THOUGHT HE WAS BEING HIRED TO RECORD A SONG FOR A “BAD PORNO.”

Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes sang the vocals to the Oscar-winning song “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.” Medley told Songfacts that Dirty Dancing music supervisor Jimmy Ienner called him and mentioned he was gathering music for the movie. “It sounds like a bad porno movie,” Medley said. Medley’s wife was expecting a baby, so he turned the song down. A few months later Ienner convinced him to do the song, even though Medley didn’t think the movie would be popular.

“We just went in to work together, to sing together, and little did we know it was going to be the biggest movie of the year. Just unbelievable,” Medley said. The song ended up selling more than 500,000 copies, and Medley ended up titling his own memoir The Time of My Life. (Note: The film was actually the 11th highest grossing film of the year; Three Men and a Baby took the top spot for 1987.)

4. PAUL FEIG STARRED IN A DIRTY DANCING TV SHOW SPINOFF.

Dirty Dancing the TV series lasted for only 11 episodes beginning in the fall of 1988, but it gave us then-unknown actors Paul Feig (creator of Freaks and Geeks and director of Bridesmaids) and Melora Hardin (Jan Levinson of The Office). Hardin played Baby but her last name on the show was Kellerman because her dad was Max Kellerman, not Dr. Houseman. CBS even used “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” for the show’s opening credits.

5. A DIRTY DANCING REALITY SHOW AIRED OVERSEAS.

For two seasons between 2007 and 2008, the UK’s Living network aired a reality show called Dirty Dancing: The Time of Your Life, in which groups of dancers competed for a year-long contract with Bloc, a Los Angeles-based dance agency. The series took place at Virginia’s Mountain Lake Lodge, where much of the original movie was filmed. Couples danced in front of three judges, including Miranda Garrison, who played Vivian Pressman in the movie and was also an assistant choreographer on the film.

6. MOUNTAIN LAKE LODGE REGULARLY HOSTS DIRTY DANCING WEEKENDS.

The Pembroke, Virginia resort where many of the Kellerman’s scenes were filmed hosts regular Dirty Dancing­-themed weekends a year. Dinners, a sock hop, a screening of the movie, a watermelon toss, group dance lessons, and a Dirty Dancing scavenger hunt are just some of the many activities on the agenda.

7. ELEANOR BERGSTEIN WROTE ANOTHER DANCE MOVIE AFTER DIRTY DANCING.

Bergstein wrote the script to Dirty Dancing, and in 1995 she had the opportunity to direct as well. She wrote and directed Let It Be Me, starring Jennifer Beals and Campbell Scott. To this day, she hasn’t written or directed any other movies, but she did adapt Dirty Dancing into a successful stage show.

8. ACCORDING TO BERGSTEIN, EASTERN EUROPE WATCHES A LOT OF DIRTY DANCING.

In a 2006 interview with The Guardian, Bergstein talked about the movie’s popularity with people in the former Eastern Bloc. “And in Russia, it’s policy in the battered women’s shelters, when a woman comes in for help. First, they wash and dress her wounds, then they give her soup. Then they sit her down and show her Dirty Dancing. When the Berlin Wall came down, there were all these pictures of kids wearing Dirty Dancing T-shirts; they were saying, ‘We want to have what they have in the West! We want Dirty Dancing!'”

9. PENNY BRIEFLY TRANSFORMED INTO A POP STAR IN THE LATE 1980s.

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Cynthia Rhodes made a name for herself as dancer Tina Tech in 1983’s Flashdance and starred as John Travolta’s dance partner/love interest in Staying Alive that same year. But it was her role as Johnny Castle’s dancing partner, Penny, that garnered her the most notice. A couple of years after Dirty Dancing, she married singer Richard Marx (they’ve since divorced), and she briefly filled in as the lead singer of L.A. pop group Animotion, known for their hits “Room to Move” and “Obsession.”

10. JENNIFER GREY PLAYED A VERSION OF HERSELF ON THE SITCOM IT’S LIKE, YOU KNOW...

The short-lived ABC sitcom (1999-2000) featured Grey as a member of a Seinfeld-like gang, except the show swapped out New York City for Los Angeles. She allowed herself to be self-deprecating, even poking fun at her nose job and her Dirty Dancing celebrity. Arthur (Chris Eigeman) meets “Jennifer Grey” and goes, “Oh, like the actress. Dirty Dancing. You spell it the same way as her?” “I am Jennifer Grey,” she responds, then she does a dance to prove it. “You look different,” he says. “Nose job!” She blurts. “Just one?” he retorts. (She had two of them.)

11. GREY WAS SHOCKED TO BE A PART OF THE MOVIE CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE.

During a scene in the 2012 rom-com Crazy, Stupid, Love., Ryan Gosling uses the famous Dirty Dancing lift to woo Emma Stone into bed with him. As she watched the movie, Grey got an unexpected surprise. “I’m such a fan of Ryan Gosling and all of a sudden he’s saying my name [in the movie],” she told Yahoo!. “I’m just in the theater with my husband and I look at him like, ‘Oh my God, Ryan Gosling just said my name. What’s going on?’ I was so scared. I was like, ‘Oh, no. What are they about to do?’ All of a sudden there I was, part of their movie.”

12. BORSCHT BELT RESORTS LIKE KELLERMAN’S ARE DISAPPEARING.

The area in the Catskills and upstate New York where many resorts like Kellerman’s were located is referred to as the Borscht Belt, because of the area’s popularity with Jewish-American families from the 1920s to the 1980s, with the height of their popularity being in the 1950s and ’60s. Comedians such as Joan Rivers and Jerry Seinfeld got their starts at these resorts. Since the 1990s, hundreds of these resorts have shuttered.

13. TWO FILMMAKERS PRODUCED A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE RESORT THAT SUPPOSEDLY INSPIRED KELLERMAN’S.  

For over 100 years, the Monticello, New York-based Kutsher’s Hotel and Country Club welcomed Jewish-American families every summer. Wilt Chamberlain worked there as a bellhop, and according to Caroline Laskow and Ian Rosenberg, the husband-and-wife filmmakers behind Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort, it’s also part of the inspiration behind Dirty Dancing.

“Perhaps Hollywood had taken sort of what was true for the Catskills and was using it for their own purposes, but ... [Hollywood] was just copying what was already here,” Rosenberg told ABC News. One of the last bastions of the Catskills’ Borscht Belt, Kutsher’s closed in 2013 and was sold to a billionaire who plans on replacing the resort with a $250 million yoga and wellness center. At least the doc acts as a relic to the halcyon days of dancing and escapism.

14. A DIRTY DANCING REMAKE WAS RELEASED EARLIER THIS YEAR.

Talk of a Dirty Dancing remake had been floating around Hollywood for a few years, and earlier this year it finally came to fruition. The film, which starred Abigail Breslin as Baby, was not met with great reviews. "Somehow, this earnest, anodyne remake has managed to surgically extract the magic—leaving the story and signature lines intact while suctioning out all the subtlety, charm, and lead chemistry that defined the iconic 1987 original," wrote Entertainment Weekly of the remake.

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10 Witty Facts About The Marx Brothers
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Talented as individuals and magnificent as a team, the Marx Brothers conquered every medium from the vaudeville stage to the silver screen. Today, we’re tipping our hats (and tooting our horns) to Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and Gummo—on the 50th anniversary of Groucho's passing.

1. A RUNAWAY MULE INSPIRED THEM TO TAKE A STAB AT COMEDY.

Julius, Milton, and Arthur Marx originally aspired to be professional singers. In 1907, the boys joined a group called “The Three Nightingales.” Managed by their mother, Minnie, the ensemble performed covers of popular songs in theaters all over the country. As Nightingales, the brothers enjoyed some moderate success, but they might never have found their true calling if it weren’t for an unruly equid. During a 1907 gig at the Nacogdoches Opera House in East Texas, someone interrupted the performance by barging in and shouting “Mule’s loose!” Immediately, the crowd raced out to watch the newly-liberated animal. Back inside, Julius seethed. Furious at having lost the spotlight, he skewered his audience upon their return. “The jackass is the finest flower of Tex-ass!” he shouted, among many other ad-libbed jabs. Rather than boo, the patrons roared with laughter. Word of his wit soon spread and demand for these Marx brothers grew.

2. THEY RECEIVED THEIR STAGE NAMES DURING A POKER GAME.

In May of 1914, the five Marxes were playing cards with standup comedian Art Fisher. Inspired by a popular comic strip character known as “Sherlocko the Monk,” he decided that the boys could use some new nicknames. Leonard’s was a no-brainer. Given his girl-crazy, “chick-chasing” lifestyle, Fisher dubbed him “Chicko” (later, this was shortened to “Chico”). Arthur loved playing the harp and thus became “Harpo.” An affinity for soft gumshoes earned Milton the alias “Gummo.” Finally, Julius was both cynical and often seen wearing a “grouch bag”—wherein he’d store small objects like marbles and candy—around his neck. Thus, “Groucho” was born. For the record, nobody knows how Herbert Marx came to be known as “Zeppo.”

3. GROUCHO WORE HIS TRADEMARK GREASEPAINT MUSTACHE BECAUSE HE HATED MORE REALISTIC MODELS.

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Phony, glue-on facial hair can be a pain to remove and reapply, so Groucho would simply paint a ‘stache and some exaggerated eyebrows onto his face. However, the mustache he later rocked as the host of his famous quiz show You Bet Your Life was 100 percent real.

4. HARPO WAS A SELF-TAUGHT HARPIST.

Without any formal training (or the ability to read sheet music), the second-oldest Marx brother developed a unique style that he never stopped improving upon. “Dad really loved playing the harp, and he did it constantly,” his son, Bill Marx, wrote. “Maybe the first multi-tasker ever, he even had a harp in the bathroom so he could play when he sat on the toilet!”

5. THE VERY FIRST MARX BROTHERS MOVIE WAS NEVER RELEASED.

Financed by Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, and a handful of other investors, Humor Risk was filmed in 1921. Accounts differ, but most scholars agree that the silent picture—which would have served as the family’s cinematic debut—never saw completion. Despite this, an early screening of the work-in-progress was reportedly held in the Bronx. When Humor Risk failed to impress there, production halted. By Marx Brothers standards, it would’ve been an unusual flick, with Harpo playing a heroic detective opposite a villainous Groucho character.

6. GUMMO AND ZEPPO BECAME TALENT AGENTS.

World War I forced Gummo to quit the stage. Following his return, the veteran decided that performing was no longer for him and instead started a raincoat business. Zeppo—the youngest brother—then assumed Gummo’s role as the troupe’s straight-talking foil. A brilliant businessman, Zeppo eventually broke away to found the talent agency Zeppo Marx Inc., which grew into Hollywood’s third-largest, representing superstars like Clark Gable, Lucille Ball, and—of course—the other three Marx Brothers. Gummo, who joined the company in 1935, was charged with handling Groucho, Harpo, and Chico’s needs.

7. CHICO ONCE LAUNCHED A BIG BAND GROUP.

Chico took advantage of an extended break between Marx brothers movies to realize a lifelong dream. A few months before The Big Store hit cinemas in 1941, he co-founded the Chico Marx Orchestra: a swinging jazz band that lasted until July of 1943. Short-lived as the group was, however, it still managed to recruit some amazing talent—including singer/composer Mel Tormé, who would go on to help write “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” in 1945.

8. THEY TESTED OUT NEW MATERIAL FOR A NIGHT AT THE OPERA IN FRONT OF LIVE AUDIENCES.

With the script still being drafted, MGM made the inspired choice to let the brothers perform key scenes in such places as Seattle, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco. Once a given joke was made, the Marxes meticulously timed the ensuing laughter, which let them know exactly how much silence to leave after repeating the gag on film. According to Harpo, this had the added benefit of shortening A Night at the Opera’s production period. “We didn’t have to rehearse,” he explained. “[We just] got onto the set and let the cameras roll.”

9. GROUCHO TEMPORARILY HOSTED THE TONIGHT SHOW.

Jack Paar bid the job farewell on March 29, 1962. Months before their star’s departure, NBC offered Paar’s Tonight Show seat to Groucho, who had established himself as a razor-sharp, well-liked host during You Bet Your Life’s 14-year run. Though Marx turned the network down, he later served as a guest host for two weeks while Johnny Carson prepared to take over the gig. When Carson finally made his Tonight Show debut on October 1, it was Groucho who introduced him.

10. SPY MAGAZINE USED A MARX BROTHERS MOVIE TO PRANK U.S. CONGRESSMEN.

Duck Soup takes place in Freedonia, a fictional country over which the eccentric Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) presides. In 1993, 60 years after the movie’s release, this imaginary nation made headlines by embarrassing some real-life politicians. Staffers from Spy got in touch with around 20 freshmen in the House of Representatives, asking some variation on the question “Do you approve of what we’re doing to stop ethnic cleansing in Freedonia?” A few lawmakers took the bait. Representative Corrine Brown (D-Florida) professed to approve of America’s presence in Freedonia, saying, “I think all of those situations are very, very sad, and I just think we need to take action to assist the people.” Across the aisle, Steve Buyer (R-Indiana) concurred. “Yeah,” he said, “it’s a different situation than the Middle East.”

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