Bittersweet And Strange: Howard Shines a Bright Light on The Voice Of My Childhood

It is absolutely impossible to calculate the depth of Howard Ashman’s influence on me, and countless other people like me, who fell in love with musicals as a medium because of his work with Disney.

The new documentary on Disney+, directed by Don Hahn, who produced Beauty And The Beast is of a piece with Hahn’s equally wonderful, Waking Sleeping Beauty, chronicles Ashman’s life, from his working class Baltimore roots, to his tragic death from complications from AIDS in 1991.

The movie deals with his early work and relationships sensitively before settling into his life long partnerships, creatively with Alan Menken and his life partner Bill Pausch, both of whom tell some of the most touching stories about him.

What I like so much about Hahn’s approach here, and why I think it surpasses Waking Sleeping Beauty (which I happen to really like a lot) is that here Hahn doesn’t have an axe to grind. He wants to share his friends life and work, especially his work, with people. And the work so often speaks for itself.

Old footage of Ellen Greene singing “Somewhere That’s Green,” or Jodi Benson recording “Part Of Your World,” or an incredible demo of Ashman singing “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” or the joyous look on Jerry Orbach’s face as he listens back to “Be Our Guest” for the first time, this man wrote such wonderful, perfect, musical theater songs. There are no talking heads, narration is provided by Hahn himself, or by stories told over old photographs, which makes it much more intimate. Occasionally an old interview with Ashman will pop up, and listening to him talk about his work is transfixing.

Thinking about AIDS is something I do, and have done A LOT, in my life. I was too young for the most dangerous time of this disease, but I live in the New York area and love art, so pretty much every bit of the art I love was shaped by the disease, by the generation of men who were lost.

Watch this one with tissues, y’all. It’s going to break your heart. And be prepared for one final punch in the gut over the credits.

Magical Movies Tour: Beauty And The Beast

As much as I personally prefer The Little Mermaid (and it is quite a bit.) there’s just no way to deny that Beauty And The Beast is an outright masterpiece of a film, and should be on those lists of “perfect movies” and yet it somehow never makes it.

Beauty And The Beast is flawless, the stunning animation, the pitch perfect voice performances, the simple and yet emotionally resonant love story, those songs. My God, those wonderful, wonderful Ashman and Menken songs, “Be Our Guest,” “Belle,” “Something There,” “Gaston,” “The Mob Song,” and of course the title track, performed with heartfelt timelesss musical theater precision by Angela Lansbury and then with deeply of it’s moment pop gusto by Celine Dion and Peabo Bearnson.

I have a lot of opinions about this movie and the many pop culture conversations that have sprung up around it, and, thankfully, the conversation has turned from the “Belle has Stockholm Syndrome” narrative that dominated a few years ago. (Nope. It’s just that your high school English teachers failed you and you don’t know how to parse a pretty straightforward narrative about growth and forgiveness without taking everything so fucking literally.) But it’s difficult to somehow say that this movie is widely and universally acclaimed and yet still somehow, underrated?

It is so good though, so beautiful and special that it is somehow, universally loved and acclaimed and yet somehow underrated. Watch it again, any time you get a chance and see something you hadn’t seen before, because there’s always something.

Next week, none of us have ever had a friend like Aladdin. 

 

Top 5 Disney Duets

Guys! I’m leaving tomorrow. With a collective 10 hours of holding for cast members (all of whom were super courteous and helpful, and frankly a lot of folks are dealing with bigger fall out from Irma than having to wait a week to ride Flight of Passage) and tonight I’m going to see War Paint, so I though it was a good time to talk about duets.

A duet is, quite simply, a song sung between two people. They are often, but not always, romantic in nature (all of the ones on this list are…) and often they take place in the climax of Act II. Some of classic Broadway duets include, “People Will Say We’re In Love” from Oklahoma, “Friendship” from assorted Cole Porter projects but mostly Anything Goes, “For Good” from Wicked, “What You Own,” from Rent, and the ultimate Act II duet “Suddenly Seymour” from Little Shop of Horrors.

5. “I See The Light” from Rapunzel

I see the light

I remember the first time I heard this song, when Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi sang it at the Oscars. I was already deep into crush land with Zach, because I’d been watching Chuck and learning that he could sing, whoo baby. Anyway, the song, it’s beautiful and illuminates (ha!) the relationship between Rapunzel and Flynn so perfectly, as well as walking through their journey. This is the fulfillment of what they both want more than anything before. And those lanterns.

4. “Once Upon A Dream” from Sleeping Beauty

Once Upon a Dream

There are few things in the world I love the way I love the moment where Aurora and Phillip waltz through the woods together. It’s so lovely, and this perfect little song about feeling like you know some one and being connected by fate and love. Ugh, it’s so beautiful.

3. “Something There” from Beauty And The Beast

Something There

I have deep affection for the music from Beauty And The Beast and “Something There” is certainly up there in the “songs that sometimes get forgotten.” A big function of the duet is often to move us emotionally from one place to another with characters. This does that, almost as clearly as anything.

2. “If I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters Inc.

Monsters Inc

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about how much I love Billy Crystal, and I also love John Goodman, and I love the sort of old school-ness of both of them, which is captured in this delightful bff duet between Mike and Sulley from Monsters Inc.

1. “A Whole New World” from Aladdin

A_Whole_New_World.png

In the intro I described “Suddenly Seymour” as the ultimate Act II duet. It is. It is the best one ever written in my very very unexpert opinion, however, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken also wrote the second best Act II duet ever for Aladdin and it’s “A Whole New World.” Aladdin and Jasmine’s magic carpet ride around the world is delightful, romantic and soaring. Also, Lea Solanga.

Runners Up: “Love is An Open Door” from Frozen, “If I Never Knew You” from Pocohontas

 

Top 5 Disney “I Want” Songs

So, I’m going back to Disney World in a few weeks.

I’m going four times this year.

I know.

I know.

Anyway…because of that, I’ve been listening to a lot of Disney music. And I started thinking about Disney’s place in musical theater canon. Some of the best “showtunes” of the past 30 years have come from the House of Mouse, which is why I’m convinced that Disney is (part of) why I became a theater geek. I instinctively understood how musicals worked by the age of 4 because of how many times I’d watched The Little Mermaid. (A LOT of times, you guys. A LOT)

So, I’m starting with “I Want” songs. An “I Want” song is sung by a protagonist and states what their goal is. It usually takes place in Act 1, after the opening. Some classic “I Wants,” include, “Somewhere That’s Green,” “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?,” “Something’s Coming,” “One Song Glory,” and “The Wizard And I.” (See, I went modern for a couple!)

5. “Someday My Prince Will Come” – Snow White

Snow White 1

I gave it a spot for being the original, and it really is a lovely piece of music. Snow White’s trilling soprano is dated now, and annoying always but the chirpy bird-like sound is a nice thematic touch. Snow White is dreaming of escape, this is what she wants, it’s clear and pretty and kind of perfect for her.

4. “How Far I’ll Go” – Moana

MoanaPortrait.0

Only this low because it’s new, and we don’t know how we’ll all feel about it in a few decades. (Good, I’m betting on good.) I love this song. Lin-Manuel writes good “I Want.” (“My Shot,” and “It Won’t Be Long Now,” LISTEN TO THEM. I will wait.) But when I heard this song for the first time, I was blown away. We know Moana so perfectly through this song, not just it’s lyrics, but it’s rising and falling melody and pulsing rhythm. So good!

3. “I Can Go The Distance” – Hercules

Hercules-Go-The-Distance

Hercules is my number one most underrated Disney Soundtrack, and this song is another one that gives us such a clear picture of our hero. We know everything that Hercules wants, what drives him, from this song. It’s also a great heroic theme, those soaring horns and strings, so beautiful!

2. “Belle (Reprise)” – Beauty And The Beast

Belle

Look, it LITERALLY has the phrase, “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere” in it. We’ve already met Belle before this reprise, but it’s still a good one! This is her thesis statement. Also…Mencken

1. “Part Of Your World” – The Little Mermaid 

Ariel-in-Her-Cave-in-The-Little-Mermaid

Sometimes I think that “Part Of Your World” is the platonic ideal of an “I Want” song, and it’s definitely one of my favorites ever. My eyes and insides have their own reactions to this song. (I cry, a lot, with wild abandon.) Ariel’s greatest desire is to be human, to experience a world she’s only ever caught glimpses of, that she doesn’t really understand, but desperately yearns to. The song also has the secret weapon of Jodi Benson’s voice, which is exceptional. That belt is insane, when she hits, “when’s it my turn?” if your heart doesn’t just melt to that little red haired fish girl, I don’t know if you have a heart.

Runners Up: “For The First Time In Forever” from Frozen, “Almost There,” from The Princess And The Frog, “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” from The Lion King, “Out There” from The Hunchback Of Notre Dame.

Not Disney But Should Be Mentioned Because It’s One Of The Greatest “I Want” Songs Ever: “Journey To The Past” from Anastasia. 

 

 

Ever Just The Same, Ever A Surprise

Beauty And The Beast

Beauty And The Beast is not my favorite Disney movie. I love it a lot, and I still think it’s one of the greatest examples of a film musical. (Right behind Singin In The Rain and The Sound Of Music.)  So I had similar if not the same expectations as everyone going into the movie last weekend.

I wasn’t disappointed. Baffled, unsure, and impressed, for sure, but never disappointed.

The basics of Beauty And The Beast remain as they always have been, but the new film manages to add wrinkles and twists to the story you know that are surprising enough to make watching the film engrossing. The characters we know and love are given turns in their paths and depths revealed in their wake.

If I sound a little too poetic I’m sorry, but I was very happy with this movie. I’m obsessed with this cast, with the decision made in it’s screen play, and I could babble on for days about the visual, but I guess I have to focus on one thing at a time.

Let’s start with the cast. Emma Watson is delightful as Belle. There’s none of Hermione’s intensity or bossiness in her quiet thoughtful French village girl, and that’s something of a relief. Watson’s voice is noticeably autotuned in spots, but when it isn’t has a lovely sing song quality that I think suits the piece quite well. Dan Stevens brings a mournful heartbreak to the Beast and “For Evermore” is an excellent addition to the canon of Howard Ashman penned Disney songs. These two were also wonderful together. Kevin Kline. I wish Kevin Kline were in more movies. The only reason I can think that he isn’t is that he is not inclined to be, because he’s ALWAYS SO GOOD! Ian McKellan is wonderful if underused. There’s a lot of comedy to Cogsworth that I think got lost in the more serious tone taken on the overall film, but both he and Emma Thomspson do exceedingly well with their limited scope. I would watch Audra McDonald read the phone book as long as she got to hit a few above the staff notes and the movie grants her that and then some. Ewan McGregor acquits himself well with Lumiere, the one of the servants who I think gets to maintain their original charm. This is probably because Lumiere is the most *ahem* flamboyant, (pun  not intended) his light (Damn, keep walking into those) is harder to dampen.

Luke Evans and Josh Gad are flawless and I want more of them doing musical theater. I hope this movie shows the mainstream what theater people have known about Gad for a long time. There’s more to him than Olaf, not that mainstream comedy has the kind of roles that really suit Gad, but he’s really great here, and Evans makes Gaston’s particular brand of masculine menace chilling.

The screenplays new wrinkles would constitute spoilers if I talked about them too deeply, but I will talk about the deepening characterizations, starting with Gaston and LeFou! The codifying of LeFou’s queerness is interesting, especially as it dawns on him that his adoration of Gaston is both troubling and misplaced, giving a comic sidekick an actual arc is something that I always support and it’s executed well here. Gaston is shown here as a soldier and returning golden boy who finds the provincial town dull after the horror and glory of war. Which is way more interesting than a blustering hunter and a good deal more frightening. He’s enamored of Belle not just because she’s beautiful (though that helps) but because she’s, well, disinterested. There’s an undercurrent of “yes, you and I are above this place” to his attempts to woo her, and that’s fascinating to me.

Maurice also gets a makeover, made less of a buffoon and more of an eccentric and it works. Belle and The Beast, both become wounded motherless children, searching for a connection anywhere they can find it, and it makes their romance deeper, sweeter and sadder all at once.

I didn’t love all of the changes. It seemed strange to turn the village from a quiet, sleepy, slightly backward hamlet to some kind of patriarchal hellscape a la The Republic of Gilead where women aren’t allowed to learn to read and if they’re unmarried or without a father’s protection they’re thrown out into the streets to beg. This seems extreme for a fairytale that’s about seeing past first impressions and I did feel the loss of some of the comedy.

But there’s something deeply instinctual about fairy tales, and Disney’s take on these stories that have been with us forever is so deep in the company’s roots, I’m not surprised that they’re able to execute things well.

Tale As Old As Time

I don’t know who exactly at Disney Studios I’m supposed to thank for these live action movies, but they deserve thanks, if only for the stunning images they create.

Yesterday a new trailer for Beauty And The Beast hit and if nothing else, this movie looks absolutley stunning. Every image looks breathtaking. There are a few things that really stand out to me.

  • I’m much more excited than I realized for Kevin Kline as Maurice. Like, unresonably excited, I love Kevin Kline.
  • Maurice is caught when the Beast finds him clipping a rose. This is, unfathomably important to me. In the original fairy tale, this is what Belle asks her father for. (She also has two vain and silly sisters, I’ve always been glad Disney excised them.)
  • Emma Watson really was such brilliant casting, and she looks so at home running around the castle. (Can’t imagine why)
  • I’m still obsessed with the yellow dress, I think they did a wonderful job with it.
  • Emma Thompson’s voice is always the greatest comfort.

So we’re a few months away, but I’m really excited to see the movie. Before that there’s Moana, and you know, my trip to Disney World…so I’ll be full up with magic when the movie hit.

Looking forward to it!

Cosplay Corner: Give My Regards To Old Broadway!

Because the Tonys I decided to focus this week on Broadway Cosplays! (Hooray!)

Con Ready Cosplays

I don’t have any strictly Broadway cosplays (I threaten to do Galinda every year and always wind up backing off)

But I do have Belle and Beauty And The Beast was a Broadway show. So we’ll talk about that.


This was the simplest costume ever (except maybe Captain America…), I owned the blue dress as a 50’s costume for years, and the white long sleeved shirt is from my Princess Leia costume from last year. I bought the apron on Amazon, threw on a pair of black flats, tied my hair back and voila! Belle! (If you’re interested in Kristi’s Jedi Sleeping Beauty costume, check out her great post about it!)

Closet Cosplay

I had a lot of fun with these this week. Thinking of shows that I love and characters I like and embracing those aesthetics and figuring out what in my wardrobe would work to bring it across.

Eponine – Les Miserables


I wore this on Sunday for the Tonys, but I didn’t actually wear the whole thing because it was too hot to wear the coat and hat. BUT I know that I can do that for colder weather.

Les Mis is my favorite musical ever and Eponine is my favorite character in it. So it’s nice that approximating her look is so freaking simple.

Anyway, the outfit is simple, jeans, a grey tunic, a brown jacket and a cap. Add a distracted forlorn look and you’re a perfect Eponine!

Hamilton


I didn’t zero in on a specific character here, I just wanted to put forward a general feel for the show’s aesthetic as I understand it…having not actually seen the show yet. You know what? That’s OK. I think so at least.

Anyway, the white leggings come from my Princess Leia costume, the riding boots from my life as a preppy girl, and a blue shirt that I’ve always felt looked vaguely historical, an invokes the color of the Patriot Army. I’m all set to be in the room where it happens…

Galinda – Wicked


After Les Mis, comes Wicked when it comes to my favorites. And I’ve related to the character of Galinda/Glinda from the moment I met her.(You know, through the OBC, as played by Kristin Chenoweth)

A simple costume, pink fluffy skirt, white V-neck and pink jewelery! It helps that I’m blonde!

Pick a Prince, Any Prince

Last week I went to go see Frozen, and while I thoroughly enjoyed it, (I’m actually already planning on being Elsa for Halloween because I have a dress that would work perfectly) it of course got me thinking about Disney and Princesses and Princes and wanting more than anything to get back to Orlando and go to Disney World Again.

Granted, it takes someone saying "Disney" for me to think about how much I want to go back to Disney World...

Granted, it takes someone saying “Disney” for me to think about how much I want to go back to Disney World…

But add that to a popular Buzzfeed quiz that’s been going around where it chooses not which Disney Princess you are, but which Disney Prince is most suited to you and my decision to start revising my own princess story this week, I’ve been thinking a whole lot about the princes and princess that have haunted and defined so many childhoods. So I’m going through the Disney Princes one by one. Some of these will be cheats because they aren’t technically princes until the end of the movie, or maybe not at all. Also, there are spoilers for all of the older Disney movies, and for Frozen, but not until the very end.

When I took the quiz I got Aladdin, which wasn’t like totally out there, I’ve mentioned before how the earliest princes had little to recommend them personality wise, so to me, that rules out both Snow White and Cinderella’s princes. Prince Charming and The Prince are their names respectively.

Cinderella's looks a lot like Dick Grayson...I may have just had a fangirl epiphany.

Cinderella’s actually looks a lot like Dick Grayson…I may have just had a fangirl epiphany.

They both just don’t have much going on in the personality department. But they are excellent singers and pretty dedicated to finding their lady loves, so there’s that.

But then came Prince Phillip.

Phillip

I know you…

Unlike his two predecessors, Phillip had an actual personality and stuff to do. He’s willing to rebel against his father to marry the girl he loves instead of his betrothed (turns out, conveniently for him, they’re the same person) then he fights a dragon to save her and granted the whole “kiss while asleep” thing is vaguely date rapey, but hey, it was the only way to break the spell and at least unlike Charming up there, no one thought that Rose/Aurora was dead.

Of course, it would be 50 years before we met the next Prince, and he’d be the prince to beat them all. I’m talking about the one, the only, Prince Eric.

*Sigh*, *Swoon*

*Sigh*, *Swoon*

I love Eric. It might be because I’ve known him since I was two and my Aunt Mary took me to see The Little Mermaid in the theater. It might be because he has a boat. (I like boats. It’s the prep in me.) It might be because he and Ariel rescue each other. All I know is that I’m crazy about Prince Eric. He’s the freaking best.

Then comes the Beast/Chet

I'll explain Chet in a minute

I’ll explain Chet in a minute

OK, according to the interwebs, the Beast’s actual name is Prince Adam, but according to my friends and I after several glasses of wine in college his name is Chet, because doesn’t he look like a Chet? Anyway, a gruff exterior that shelters a heart of gold, I’ve never particularly loved him per se, but I do love Beauty and The Beast, even if it made me weep like a baby because I was terrified of The Beast the first five times I saw it as a child. I’ve learned to love it, especially as a theater geek, because it’s one of the greatest musicals of all time. It was also the first animated film ever nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. It lost to Dances With Wolves, which I doubt anyone knows by heart, because I’ve never met anyone who’s stayed awake through the whole thing.

Then comes my match (apparently) and that’s Aladdin.

Look at that smile!

Look at that smile!

He’s kind of the man. He shares his limited food with starving children. He wins the heart of Princess Jasmine with his adorable personality. (And some hijinks and a genie.) He’s got ridonkulous abs, and he’s voiced by DJ Tanner’s perfect boyfriend Steve. Honestly, there wasn’t much else a girl from the mid 90’s could want in a guy. Plus he has the distinction of being the only guy on this list who’s movie is named exclusively after him. (Beast gets half credit.)

Now we’re entering some murky teritory since after Jasmine there was a stretch of not really princesses who still get counted in Disney’s count. But they had some stellar dudes after them, so let’s talk about John Smith for a second.

John Smith

Meh

John Smith barely counts and not just because Pocahontas is a subpar Disney flick. He’s an actual historical dude, who lived and junk. Also he’s voiced by Mel Gibson, who’s hunk cred was already wearing thin in the late 90’s. But, Ally over at Fandom Obsessed casts Chris Hemsworh as him, and I’m inclined to agree so that earns him some points.

But seriously folks, let’s get down to business and talk about General Li Shang, who, is again, not a prince and Mulan is not technically a princess, but they’re pretty great so I want to talk about them anyway.

I'll make a man out of yooouuuu!

I’ll make a man out of yooouuuu!

Shang might have the best character song (musical theater term!) of any Disney character ever. You know just about everything you need to know about Shang from “I’ll Make A Man Out of You.” It doesn’t hurt that it’s being delivered by the great Mr. Donny Osmond. And you’ve got to love the Shakespearean style of falling for Mulan while she’s dressed as boy Ping. And the fact that they’re both warriors and enter into their relationship as equals. It’s a pretty cool deal, as far as everything goes.

Speaking of entering a relationship as equals, that’s kind of the theme moving into the new millenium, or in the case of Prince Naveen, Tiana is just his superior in every way, but she puts up with him because he’s pretty cute and makes her lighten up.

He plays a ukulele! It's adorable.

He plays a ukulele! It’s adorable.

Whether it’s being transformed into a frog together, or eventually running their restaurant down on the bayou, there’s something very special about the way that Tiana and Naveen fall in love. Also, I kind of love that he’s clearly North African and she’s African America. It’s just a super cool dynamic and so Louisiana.

But when I really think about the “new age” Disney Princes, there’s only one guy who makes the cut. Like Prince Eric before him, there’s Flynn Rider, and then there’s everyone else.

Being voiced by Zachary Levi doesn't really hurt his case either.

Being voiced by Zachary Levi doesn’t really hurt his case either.

Yes, he’s a theif and a scoundrel. (But as a fangirl raised on Han Solo, I don’t see much of a problem with that.) Yes, his actual name is Eugene Fitzherbert. Yes, he kind of takes major advantage of Rupunzel’s naivete, at least at first. But he comes around and sacrifices himself to save her from Goethel, and then she saves him. And do I need to reiterate the awesome Zachary Levi-ness?

I couldn’t find any pictures of the various princes who come to win Princess Merida’s hand, which frankly, is kind of awesome, but here’s some equally as awesome fan art by Paola F, known on deviant art as Irrel of Merida and Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon, which is actually a brillaint couple.

Cute

Cute

And then we have, well, Frozen had two princes (kind of) and I’m going to talk about them both. Let’s start with the first, Prince Hans.

The uniform is a nice touch

The uniform is a nice touch

What’s kind of cool about Prince Hans, aside from the fact that he’s the bad guy in the most obvious twist ever, is that he’s a deconstruction of a Disney Prince. He’s shallow, dresses the part, Prince Anna falls in love with him at first sight and they get engaged after having the interaction of one evening. Basically, everyone else in the movie thinks this is insane. In fact it’s what sets off the whole plot, because it’s what sends Anna’s sister Queen Elsa over the edge. Also, he’s voiced by Santino Fontana, who also played Prince Topher in the Broadway Cinderella. So he’s not new to this party.

Then of course there’s the real deal in Frozen, and that’s Kristoff, an ice merchant who was raised by trolls and has a pet reindeer named Sven, who is his best friend.

This is the single greatest origin story since Batman

This is the single greatest origin story since Batman

I wasn’t totally sold on Kristoff, and mostly figured he would get by on the inherent charm that Jonathan Groff brings to everything he does and Flynn Rider goodwill. Then he sang “Reindeers are Better Than People,” and it was all over. I was Team Kristoff. Then he reluctantly takes Anna to Elsa and is blown away by Elsa’s powers. He takes Anna to the trolls to try to save her life and eventually battles his way through Elsa’s storm to do it. (Anna winds up saving her self and her sister and it’s fantastic.) In the end, Anna buys him a new sled, they kiss and presumably get married.

So, that’s my tour through the princes of Disney. And if anyone feels like giving me about $1500 so that I can go to Disney World, I’d really super appreciate it!