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Film Music

Top 10 songs from Disney musicals

A friend of mine recently posted: “Let’s stir up some controversy: What are your thoughts on The Lion King?” I replied that a certain song on that soundtrack was a top-5 Disney song, and it wasn’t “Circle of Life” or “Hakuna Matata”.

That inspired me to consider how I would actually rank the best Disney songs. My needlessly arbitrary rules:

  • only one song per movie (live-action or animated)
  • from a movie that’s actually a musical where characters sing songs, not just a movie with a lot of original songs (sorry Tarzan)
  • judging the song itself, not the movie it’s from

Let’s get to it.

Just missed the cut

“The Bare Necessities” – The Jungle Book (1967), “Under The Sea” – The Little Mermaid (1989), “Not in Nottingham” – Robin Hood (1973), “Love Is An Open Door” – Frozen (2013)

The List

10. “Carrying the Banner”Newsies (1992)

I must admit that seeing the superior Broadway stage version has made me partial to that version of the soundtrack (both of which were composed by Disney music maven Alan Mencken). But for the purposes of this list I have to go with the opening number, which ably and jauntily establishes the setting and characters in under five minutes. (Runner-up: “Seize the Day”)

9. “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You”Mulan (1998)

To be honest I barely remember Mulan and most of its songs, so the fact that this one stands out so much is a testament to its enduring appeal. The a cappella chorus towards the end is a nice touch. (Runner-up: None)

8. “When We’re Human”The Princess and the Frog (2009)

Happy to show some love for Randy Newman since his Toy Story work is ineligible. The soundtrack as a whole (which I have a history with) is a great showcase for jazz, zydeco, gospel, and blues—and this song is probably the most danceable on this list. (Runner-up: “Almost There”)

7. “Life’s A Happy Song”The Muppets (2011)

Nothing but respect for “The Rainbow Connection” from the original Muppet Movie, but this reboot and its music by Flight of the Conchords alum Bret McKenzie really surpassed (at least my) expectations. I favor the finale version of this song, which includes the entire ensemble. (Runner-up: “Pictures In My Head”)

6. “A Whole New World”Aladdin (1992)

For a long time this was my stock answer for best Disney song. It’s an Alan Mencken joint, after all, and I’m a sucker for a soaring strings-melody combo. (Also Jasmine is the most attractive Disney princess.) But it just kept getting pushed down the list as I considered other songs. (Runner-up: None)

5. “A Star Is Born”Hercules (1997)

This whole soundtrack is up there in terms of all-around quality. No surprise since it’s another Alan Mencken production. Just an explosion of gospel/soul ebullience. I went with this song over the runner-up because it sticks with one tempo and, as the finale, brings some extra zest. (Runner-up: “Zero to Hero”)

4. “That’s How You Know”Enchanted (2007)

Guess who again? I swear I wasn’t tracking the composers when making this list, though I could have told you beforehand that Mencken would dominate. Anyway, this song rules. (Runner-up: “Happy Working Song”)

3. “We Know The Way”Moana (2016)

Like Hercules, this is one of the stronger soundtracks top to bottom. Even the villain song isn’t terrible. This particular track—while not the best sung given Lin-Manuel Miranda’s less-than-professional voice—is propulsive and buoyant like an ocean wave. Of the two iterations I’d have to pick the first, but the finale version provides a nice punch. (Runner-up: “Where You Are”)

2. “Proud Corazón”Coco (2017)

(Spoiler warning on that link as this song ends the movie.) To date, this is the only Disney song that has given me goosebumps and tears at the same time. I now watch Coco every Dia de Los Muertos while thinking of my ancestors, and this song is a hell of a climax for such a tradition. (Runner-up: “Un Poco Loco”)

1. “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King”The Lion King (1994)

I think I’m as surprised as you are. As I mentioned above, “A Whole New World” was my #1 for a long time. But listening to this one recently, I was struck by an epiphany that it’s really just an amazing bubblegum pop song. Goofy, sure, but with a killer guitar/flute (?) hook, colorful bass lines, and an inspired chord progression. I once played a stripped-down acoustic guitar cover of it at an open mic and still worked brilliantly. Think I’m getting wildly out of wing? Nah—this is my finest fling! (Runner-up: “Circle of Life”)

Categories
Etc. Life

Memories make us rich

Derek Sivers:

A new year begins when there’s a memorable change in my life. Not January 1st. Nothing changes on January 1st. … Your year really begins when you move to a new home, start school, quit a job, have a big breakup, have a baby, quit a bad habit, start a new project, or whatever else. Those are the real memorable turning points — where one day is very different than the day before. Those are the meaningful markers of time. Those are your real new years.

I read this just after New Year’s but thought of it recently after noting a significant milestone: Ten years ago this weekend a musical called Tell Me Truly debuted on a stage at my college. It was written and scored by me and my longtime friend, and staged by our friends and fellow students. It was one of the best times and accomplishments of my life.

Ten years is too long and arbitrary a timespan to have any intrinsic meaning to a human brain. My memories of that experience don’t reemerge every year on the anniversary of opening night. They remain with my other “meaningful markers of time” in a bank of memories, accumulating interest as I age and deposit more experiences.

“Memories make us rich,” as the sportswriter Vic Ketchman is fond of saying. In that case, I’m pretty well-off.

Categories
Arts Music

Hamilton and what makes a healthy republic

My wife’s surprise typewritten handiwork. I’m a lucky guy.

The Show

Ready for a hot take? Hamilton: An American Musical was really good.

I assumed I wouldn’t see it for years, as tickets are prohibitively expensive in Chicago. But it was a surprise anniversary gift from my wife (musical theater tickets are the traditional Year 3 gift, right?) along with a special ticket she made to stand in for the digital ones. Best of wives, best of women!

It was a funny thing to finally see before my eyes what for years had only streamed through my ears. Since the cast recording basically is the whole show, I knew the plot and what to expect from song to song. But I also knew the staging would add a whole new layer to the story the music itself tells so well. It definitely did.

Several songs were even better on stage. “It’s Quiet Uptown”, which I usually skip over on the album, was devastating in its simplicity. And “The Reynolds Pamphlet” made kinetic use of the double-turntable floor, the pamphlet props, and the whole cast and chorus.

Special shout-out to Jamila Sabares-Klemm, who played Eliza with stunning range and vocal power, and Colby Lewis, who played LaFayette and Jefferson with a delightful flair.

The Book

After seeing the show I checked out Hamilton: The Revolution from the library. It’s essentially book-length liner notes accompanied by essays about the cast and creation of the show. The highlights of the book are the lyrical annotations by Lin-Manuel Miranda. He clearly delights in paying homage to the artists and works he quotes in the show, and adds great insight to his creative process. (“Farmer Refuted” is a short but brilliant burst of layered lyrical ingenuity.)

He also calls attention to certain lines that deserve a deeper reading. I know it’s easy for me to lose the meaning of words I’ve listened to a lot unless I really try to think about them. That was the case for the excerpt from Washington’s actual Farewell Address, featured in “One Last Time”:

I anticipate with pleasing expectation that retreat in which I promise myself to realize, without alloy, the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow-citizens, the benign influence of good laws under a free government, the ever-favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust, of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.

The benign influence of good laws under a free government are, I realize now, an excellent triad of ideals that characterize a healthy republic.

An unhealthy one, conversely, would be an oppressive government that institutes bad laws with malignant influence on its citizens. What exactly constitutes oppression and bad laws and malignant politics is a debate as old as America itself, as Hamilton so brilliantly shows. Particularly in Act II with “The Room Where It Happens” and “Cabinet Battle #1” and “The Election of 1800”.

Ron Chernow rightly calls the show “American history for grownups” because it doesn’t sanitize the people in it, nor their methods for achieving their political goals. I’m so glad I got to see it, and recommend it if you ever have the chance to see it somewhere near you.

Categories
Music

I’m with “Stupid With Love”

I have listened to the Original Broadway Cast Recording of the Mean Girls musical (on Hoopla—free with your library card) and have determined, without having seen the show, that the best song is “Stupid With Love.”

Categories
Film Music

Breaking Newsies

My betrothed and I caught the penultimate performance of Newsies: The Musical in Chicago on Saturday night. We’d been watching prices on StubHub for a while and finally jumped on them Saturday morning for the 8 PM showing. So glad it worked out because I’ve been excited to see it since its announcement years ago.

I went with “Breaking Newsies” because of the pun, obviously, but also because to make this show they had to break the original Newsies movie and rebuild it into something way better. I’m not exactly sure why I so love the original movie, which is—let’s be honest—a mediocre camp-fest meant primarily for kids, a la High School Musical (which is fitting given the two movies share a director.) But I watched it in high school with some friends who were strangely enthusiastic about it and found myself enjoying the music, which isn’t surprising given that it was wrought by Disney musical maven Alan Menken. “Seize the Day” is my go-to pump-up song, and what I listen to on repeat when I’m having a good day and want to keep it good.

Christian Bale famously disdains the 1992 movie he helmed, which makes no sense. If you turn off your left brain and remember its audience, the movie is quite fun, though about halfway through it dips considerably in quality. Once the strike is on and the “Seize the Day” a cappella chorale passes, it loses charm for the sake of plot and message—and who wants that in a silly musical made for kids?

This was what I worried most about in the musical. How would they fix the movie’s terrible excuse for a love story, honor the politics, and raise the stakes for everyone? No spoilers here, but I thought the adjustments they made to characters and motivations were savvy and ameliorative. The new songs, too, were welcome additions to the Newsies cult canon. They ditched weak songs (peace out “High Times, Hard Times”) and moved some existing songs around, but in a way that tightened the story and made it more cohesive.

What else should I have expected from a Tony Award-winning Broadway show based on a Disney property? The dancing was top-notch and remains my favorite element of stage shows in general. I’m always impressed by what these performers can do so well and so seemingly easily. We saw the penultimate performance in the Chicago run and yet the energy level seemed just as high as an opening night. I greatly admire what these professionals can do. I only wish from our nosebleed seats we could have seen the performances up closer.