When I was asked to music direct The Little Mermaid last year, I jumped at the opportunity. I immediately started listening to the cast album on an endless loop – at home, in the car, at the gym – letting the music fill me up and transport me back to a place of innocent wonder. You see, I had the great fortune of growing up during the Disney Renaissance. That period of time from 1989-1999 where Disney had an amazing resurgence of animated musical hits which included Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan, and Tarzan. But it was The Little Mermaid that started it all. As someone who grew up during this time period, it seems natural that I would be drawn to these films and their scores. “Part of Your World” was my very first audition song at the tender age of 9. But what is it about The Little Mermaid and many of its Renaissance counterparts that has made it a timeless treasure that still appeals to audiences of all ages today? Is it its foundation in a classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale? Is it a series of popular animated sequels? Is it the adorable collection of characters? Yes. But, most of all, it is the music.
When The Little Mermaid was released in 1989, it won the Academy Award for Best Score and Best Song – “Under the Sea.” It’s not hard to see why. One only has to hear the opening few notes of marimba and steel drum to recognize Sebastian’s underwater dance party. To truly understand what is special about the music of The Little Mermaid, we have to look to its composer – Alan Menken. Menken has had a truly formidable career, composing music for over twenty films and almost as many musicals. Menken has a distinct musical signature. You know when a song belongs to him. Yet he is also able to create a unique musical world for each of his stories. In fact, he is the man behind the music for six of the musicals in the Disney Renaissance. This is no coincidence. Disney has a long history of employing in-house composers. From the 1960s-1980s, it was the Sherman Brothers, who gave us Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Charlotte’s Web and The Aristocats. Alan Menken came in the late 80s and created a new musical landscape for Disney films, and indeed for an entire generation. What makes the music stick, aside from excellent songwriting, is its ability to create a cultural phenomenon. The songs from The Little Mermaid are more than just nice melodies sung by cute animated characters. They were part of the cultural landscape of their era. They permeated cassette tape players, school talent shows, and karaoke nights. They passed from one generation to the next, becoming a part of our cultural identity. I have been assigning students “Part of Your World” in their voice lessons for the past ten years, and have yet to meet a student who has never heard the song.
The real question is – what comes next? Alan Menken is still writing music, of course. But who will be the musical voice of the next generation? Will is be Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the composers of Frozen? Those songs certainly permeated the cultural landscape for all of 2014, but will they last the way that the songs of The Little Mermaid have? With a sequel and a Broadway production in the works, Disney certainly hopes so. Perhaps in 30 years we will look back and say that Frozen was the beginning of the second great Disney Renaissance, just as The Little Mermaid was in 1989. Only time will tell.