Photo courtesy of Disney
A Life, A Spirit, A Name: 'Pocahontas' Songwriters Reflect On The Disney Animated Classic 25 Years After Its Release
"It was courageous and tried to push the envelope of what one can do in an animated feature for a general audience. To this day, it remains a brave and beautiful film," says Stephen Schwartz. Over the course of his career, Stephen Schwartz has composed groundbreaking musicals such as Pippin, Wicked, and the GRAMMY-winning Godspell. But in 1996, he won his second award from the Recording Academy, this time as a lyricist, collaborating with the equally renowned composer Alan Menken on the Disney animated feature Pocahontas. Today, 25 years after the film’s initial release, Pocahontas' strengths have only grown. "We really wanted to deal with racial discrimination and environmentalism, it feels more timely to me than ever," Menken adds. "It was so powerful to reach into the trove of influences that came from early America and Native Americans to give Pocahontas such a unique and powerful color palette."
Prior to Pocahontas, Schwartz and Menken had become friends, though hadn’t yet gotten the chance to work together. Menken had a long line of film hits under his belt, including multiple Disney features; alongside lyricist Howard Ashman, Menken composed the scores to Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin. But after Ashman’s death midway through writing Aladdin, Disney linked Menken with other collaborators.
After pairing with Tim Rice to finish Aladdin, Disney suggested Schwartz for their next film. "You can't really fill Howard Ashman’s shoes, but they needed someone who would work well with Alan," Schwartz says. Menken, meanwhile, had long watched Schwartz's work with admiration. "He was a legendary composer, the wunderkind of Broadway back in the '70s," Menken says. "He was very much a standard for bringing pop music into Broadway." Most recently, Schwartz had written the lyrics to the Broadway show "Rags," but had composed music, written lyrics, and even directed. Schwartz was confident that his flexibility would bode well for their work. After a successful interview with Disney leadership and chatting with Menken, Schwartz signed on to the project—even before learning what the film was all about.
Once he understood that he'd agreed to write lyrics for Pocahontas rather than a fairytale-based film like The Little Mermaid—and for an animated Disney film—Schwartz got nervous. "Talking honestly about Native Americans and their encounters with white settlers would be difficult. But the worst that could happen is they'd see what I came up with and I'll get fired," he says.
Menken, meanwhile, was already a veteran of the Disney process, and knew that back-and-forth would be positive and essential. "Arrangement and song structure and lyrics change constantly throughout the writing of any movie, and one of the keys of success is never being precious about that," he says. "If you change something and it's better, that's great. And if you change something and it's not better, you just go back to what you had. There's no downside of being flexible."
Luckily, the first song the two wrote not only didn’t necessitate firing, it proved to be the film’s beating heart: "Colors of the Wind." The reaction from Disney brass was overwhelmingly positive, and the duo knew they’d found a way to convey these sensitive topics in American history—and to do so in a beautiful, honest way.
To reach that place, Menken and Schwartz immersed themselves in research on Native American culture. "I have this slogan: ‘in lieu of inspiration, do research,'" Schwartz says. For Menken, that meant learning as much as he could about traditional Native American music. "The percussive nature of the voices and drums, the beautiful wind instruments all came together," Menken adds. "From there, it was about overlaying a romanticism and a classicism that really characterizes that score."
Schwartz, meanwhile, tracked down books of history of the Algonquin tribes as well as Native American poetry. In the latter, he was fascinated by nature imagery, the way that the poems used metaphors to tell stories. The most significant source of inspiration, though, was a (potentially apocryphal) letter written by Duwamish tribe Chief Seattle to then-President Franklin Pierce. "I remember so vividly the first time I read, ‘There is no quiet place in the white man’s cities. No place to listen to the leaves of spring or the rustle of insect wings,'" Schwartz says. "If you look at the lyrics for ‘Colors of the Wind,' you can see how inspired I was by his words. I tried to capture the spirit of this philosophy and the cadence of Native American poetry." In fact, when the song won an Academy Award, Schwartz made sure to credit the award to Chief Seattle in his acceptance speech.
Seeing the final product of "Colors of the Wind" within the film, Schwartz remembers, was a revelation. The duo had written the song around the concept of an impossible metaphor: the visuals of something invisible. But Disney worked its magic. "We were writing about a deep philosophy for the character of Pocahontas and her people, which was in stark contrast to the white men that came looking for gold and saw the land as a basis for exploitation," Schwartz says. "The animators very cleverly turned it into blowing autumn leaves."
Ultimately, "Colors of the Wind" proved significant in defining themes and the central conflict for Pocahontas. Over the three- to four-year process, the film’s directors worked closely with Menken and Schwartz to ensure the themes and character concepts carried through. In fact, towards the end of the creation of Pocahontas, Menken and Schwartz were tasked with composing the music for Hunchback of Notre Dame. "If I had to jump over and write a song for Hunchback and then come back, it could take a couple of days to just see through those eyes again," Schwartz says.
Not only was the song important in the film's production, it proved to have a potent life outside of Pocahontas as well. The song was recorded with pop star/actor Vanessa Williams for the film's soundtrack, and the version wound up becoming a top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. After previously being passed over for a Disney role years earlier, Williams cherished the opportunity to become a part of that world. "For me, it’s much more than just a beautiful song that Steven Schwartz and Alan Menken wrote," Williams says. "It's more triumphant when married with the journey that I went through, the triumph after being rejected."
Rather than merely recording the song as it was in the film, Williams worked with producer Keith Thomas on a new take. Thomas had produced Williams’ previous hits such as "Save the Best for Last" and "Sweetest Days." Schwartz and Menken joined the duo in the studio, and suggested that Williams try out a pop and R&B-inflected take on the song, rather than leaning into musical theater. “It's such a beautiful song and I just love that she's a triumphant Native American, which is fantastic,” she explains. “You have to connect to the material and you have to create the moment. It's one of those songs that audiences always connect to.” Williams also had the opportunity to perform “Colors of the Wind” the night it won Best Song Written for a Motion Picture at the Oscars.”I had dancers and aerialists and a revolving staircase to climb up in my Versace gown,” she recalls.
More than a powerful step in her career, Williams was excited by the film's extended representation within the Disney universe. As a centerpiece of Pocahontas, the vocalist always focused down on a single verse: "For whether we are white or copper skinned/ We need to sing with all the voices of the mountains/ We need to paint with all the colors of the wind." To this day, those lines give Williams an extra charge every time she sings them. "I always indicate my arm, my copper-colored skin when I get there," she explains. "I have Native American heritage in my background. I have Native American blood in my veins."
While writing a song honoring the Native American perspective may have been a challenge, Schwartz was unsure as to how Disney would react to songs that more directly addressed white settlers’ deleterious effect on the land and the indigenous people. "I felt we had to directly address the themes of ethnic conflict in 'Savages,' which I had never seen done in animation before," Schwartz says. "And then Ratcliffe, who is I suppose is the villain, sings, ‘Mine, Mine, Mine’ which is a song about rapaciousness." Again, Disney surprised him in its unwavering support of the bold direction. "I found them enormously courageous," Schwartz says. "I kept expecting them to say we were pushing it too far, that it was too controversial, but they really never did that."
The major point of struggle in the film’s composition came in writing a pure love song for Pocahontas and John Smith. Menken and Schwartz’s composition, "If I Never Knew You," was loved by Disney, but when it slowed the pace too drastically in early screenings, the duo suggested it be removed. "It’s a beautiful song, but I anticipated that people were going to come to the table and question whether we needed it," Menken says. "But I surprised people. We sat down at our postmortem and I questioned whether it was necessary and everybody at the table sighed a deep sigh of relief because they were concerned about having to confront me about it." The music was used for the end credits in the initial release, but was actually added back into the film itself when it was re-released for its 10th anniversary.
While neither Schwartz nor Menken may be Native American, they worked to ensure they could bring to light the oppression Native Americans face as well as the beauty of the culture. "I feel strongly that we would all be a lot better off if we were more conscious of how we are treating our earth and that we have a responsibility to the humans that follow us to leave them a habitable planet,” Schwartz says. "Climate change was not something that was as in the forefront in 1992, when we first wrote 'Colors of the Wind,' and 1995 when the film was released. But today, as we see the dire consequence of our failing to take care of our planet, the messages of the film have become more urgent and more necessary."
Menken similarly remains proud of the film’s place in providing more representation for Native Americans. "Pocahontas was so pivotal given contemporary sensitivities about how we depict Native Americans," he says. "This is a musical and a Disney project, so there are elements that are really romanticized in the storytelling, but we had very pivotal Native advisors such as Russell Means. We and Disney wanted to be accurate and balanced in our depiction of the story."