Photo courtesy of Disney
"Songs Are Like Love": 'Aladdin' Songwriters Look Back On "A Whole New World"
"Songs are like love. You could be in the room with the most beautiful or handsome person in the world, and it may not be love. You could be in the room with somebody who may look a little strange, but it's just, 'Oh my God, I'm in love.'"
GRAMMY-winning composer Alan Menken is behind some of the most iconic moments in Disney music history, and he’s certainly one to trust when it comes to both songs and love. Having contributed to such Disney classics as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas, he is arguably best known for his work on the 1992 animated masterpiece Aladdin, and now, its live-action follow-up starring Will Smith, Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that, even decades later, Hollywood would opt to revisit the story of Aladdin. 25 years ago, at the 36th GRAMMY Awards, Menken's unforgettable ballad "A Whole New World" became the first (and is still the only) Disney song to ever win a GRAMMY for Best Original Song.
"You can't calculate every element of what makes a song timeless," Menken tells the Recording Academy from his studio. "Sometimes it's just something ineffable that happens in the room, that happened in the context of how it's used, and it just takes off. Sometimes you can't explain it."
Here, Menken, lyricist Tim Rice, and the original voices behind Aladdin (Brad Kane) and Jasmine (Lea Salonga) recount their own magic carpet ride in creating "A Whole New World."
Building "A Whole New World"
Long before Aladdin, Menken made a major breakthrough when he connected with playwright Howard Ashman for a musical adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater." The two hit it off, and moved forward by writing the smash adaptation of "Little Shop of Horrors." Disney took note, and brought the two in for 1989’s The Little Mermaid. By the time work began on Aladdin in 1991, Menken and Ashman had won four Oscars and been nominated for four more, not to mention countless other awards.
The writing process for the music that would become "A Whole New World" took only about 45 minutes, Menken recalls. "I find with songwriting for a musical or for a movie, it’s a lot easier to hone in on the style," he says. While the duo had started writing for the stage, they found that the process of writing for animation wasn’t dissimilar; it all came down to identifying the dramatic moment. "In this case, we're kind of the architect that plans where this all goes," he says. "The song is what starts things off."
But in the midst of writing music for Aladdin, Ashman passed away tragically at the age of 40. “We had started working on this magic carpet ride song in Aladdin, but at first the movie’s ballad was a song that Aladdin sang to his mother early on, called 'Proud of Your Boy,'" Menken recalls. "There were changes happening on the film, but we were being protected from dealing with those out of respect for Howard’s health condition." After Ashman passed away, Menken learned that the plotline surrounding Aladdin's mother was cut entirely, meaning the film was in need of a new ballad after all. The obvious choice, he says, came in the form of a magic carpet ride.
It was at this point that Menken connected with lyricist Tim Rice, who had previously written lyrics for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Evita," and more. Rice had been working on music for The Lion King when he was asked to contribute to Aladdin, and he was excited to take on the challenge. "I'd never met Alan, but I was fully aware of the wonderful things he had written with Howard," Rice says. "It was tragic to be involved because of Howard’s illness, but I was asked to forget about "Lion King" for three or four weeks to work on one or two new songs."
Both in The Lion King and Aladdin, Rice was particularly inspired and excited to be a part of the animated world, having devoured Disney films as a child. "I loved Alice in Wonderland, Dumbo, Peter Pan—and I never thought I would one day be writing songs for Disney animated films. It's a great honor," he says.
While waiting for the meeting the two had scheduled in Rice’s London home, Menken began working out new pieces and tinkering with old ideas. "I sent the magic carpet ride piece to Tim, using the working title 'The World At My Feet,'" Menken says. "And he very wisely changed it to 'A Whole New World.' I went off to London, they put that lyric in front of me, we put in the music, and we played our new baby. We all immediately knew there was something really special about this song."
For Rice, knowing the context in which the song would live—that this would be set to a fantastic ride around the world on a magic carpet—immediately unlocked the lyrics, which he composed more quickly than other songs. "It wasn't just a random love song," Rice says. "It was corny Disney stuff in a way, but it was also actually a chance to write to a wonderful tune, to write some entertaining words that both figured the story and to a great extent worked out of context."
Finding Aladdin & Jasmine
When it came time to record the song for the movie, Brad Kane and Lea Salonga were chosen as the singing voices of Aladdin and Jasmine. Kane, who was 19 when Aladdin hit theaters, started in musical theater at a young age, working on Broadway and alongside legends like Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin. Salonga, meanwhile, was 21 and had her own massive stage and singing career in Manilla as a child, as well as TV and film roles and a Broadway turn in "Miss Saigon."
While providing beautiful voice to animation in the film, Kane and Salonga were given a chance in the spotlight when performing at the Oscars, about a year prior to the song’s GRAMMY win. "That's the one time that ‘A Whole New World’ was brought into a three-dimensional realm," Salonga recalls. "They replicated the costumes and they were able to create the city of Agrabah on-stage. It was quite an exciting thing too, and a lot of fun." Kane, who has since become a writer and producer for television, found himself looking out at the legends in the audience, equally in awe of the moment. "It was very exciting, but also terrifying," he laughs. "I got up there in front of all my idols—Clint Eastwood, Al Pacino, Federico Fellini—and I was singing this Disney song, and all I was thinking about was ‘Don't trip, don't fall off the forklift designed to look like a magic carpet. Maintain your dignity and get through the song.'"
Though their chemistry would become an essential part of the lasting legacy of "A Whole New World," Salonga and Kane first met when they were brought in to demo the track. "Very quickly after singing the demo, we were called in to do it for real," Salonga recalls. "I remember being there the whole day, and I remember "Miss Saigon" giving me the day off beforehand so that I could rest and sound really good for this recording." Though now looking back 27 years to the recording process, Kane recalls just how special that moment was—particularly in his admiration for his partner in song. "I was nowhere near the singer she was," he says. "I remember going into the recording booth and hearing her open her mouth for the first time to sing the Jasmine line and just completely being transported by this brilliant, crystal clear, glorious talent—and that I think is one of the great highlights of the experience for me, getting to share a mic with Lea and be in the presence of such an extraordinary talent."
Because the song was a late addition to the film, there was far less time between the completion of writing and the recording session—to the point that Rice needed to bring the vocalists back into the studio to tweak a line. A line that has now been ingrained in the public consciousness for decades it seems, was incredibly close to being a little more repetitious. "At first, it was ‘Now from way up here, it's crystal clear, that now I'm in a whole new world with you,'" she explains. Rice called the duo in to re-record, and it became the now-iconic "But when I'm way up here, it's crystal clear, that now I'm in a whole new world with you." Salonga now looks back at that experience fondly. "We got called back in for one word. But I guess Tim’s got a few awards under his belt, so he knows what he’s doing," she laughs.
Though they were singing for animation, the film’s directors had set up cameras to capture Salonga and Kane’s movements, as a way to gain context and inspiration for the characters. "I remember being told, ‘You really have to put all the emotion in that vocal, because the audience can't see you,'" Salonga says. "It's far more challenging than it sounds, because when you're performing [on-stage], you have the aid of your face and your body. But when you're doing it just for an animated feature, you have to pretend that nothing else exists, that everything has to be focused on your voice."
Kane, meanwhile, remembers the experience as a surreal disconnect from the moment and his personal musical preferences. "I was 17 or 18 years old, and this was the time when grunge was really hitting, and I was the perfect age for that and that’s the kind of music I was into," he says. “I had seen "The Little Mermaid" and liked that very much, and was a big fan of "Little Shop of Horrors," but I was not a Disney aficionado. I thought ‘A Whole New World’ was very pretty, but I was going to film school at NYU down in Greenwich Village and listening to Nirvana, the Pixies, and Jane's Addiction.” But now, 25 years later, that distance from that world of music has changed for Kane dramatically. “I appreciated the opportunity so much, but now it means so much more to me than it ever did because I have kids, and they're Disney fanatics,” he says. “I appreciate that part of my life and the song in the movie now more than I ever did, and I’m so grateful to have gotten to do it.”
Seeing the finished product, animated and on the big screen, Rice knew that he had fulfilled the vision he and Menken had set forth for the song—largely by working with the characters in mind as if they were on the stage or live action, not infantilizing them as cartoons. "Even if it's all animals, like in The Lion King, you must believe in the characters,” he says. “It’s extraordinary when you think about it, that audiences can care deeply about people who are only drawn, but the characters of Aladdin and Jasmine were just as real to me as if I'd been writing about real people."
Winning The Best Original Song GRAMMY
Though they each might have known that they had written and recorded a beautiful song, no one expected "A Whole New World" to take home the Best Original Song GRAMMY. It wasn’t even just that a win like that was unheard of for a Disney song—it seemed impossible. Just the previous year, Menken and Ashman’s title song for "Beauty & the Beast" lost the same award to Eric Clapton’s "Tears in Heaven."
"I don't think anyone actually expected us to win," Menken says. “In fact, the song wasn't even performed on the GRAMMY telecast. I mean, we were up against Billy Joel, Neil Young, Meat Loaf, Sting. People were shocked. And, of course, we were really happy [laughs]." Rice, meanwhile, had set his sights on another award, never even considering the GRAMMY a possibility. "When you're writing for a film, you tend to think about Oscars, if anything," he says. "It was unusual for something that was a conventional theatrical song to win that award."
Rice, meanwhile, quickly returned to his work on The Lion King, which in turn made its own tremendous mark on the pop culture world. "Having a little bit more experience of seeing how things would happen further down the line really helped me when it came time to record songs with the 'Lion King' team," he says.
Now, with the live-action Aladdin around the corner (arriving on May 24), the film's soundtrack will naturally heavily rely on the work of Menken, Ashman, and Rice; the film will feature new and classic songs. Menken composed the new score and worked with Pasek & Paul, the songwriters behind "La La Land." "We have a new arrangement of ‘A Whole New World’ that I’m really happy with," Rice says. "It’ll have a fresh, new feeling and is one of the highlights of the movie."
Though it may have felt like a surprise at the moment, the song now feels inevitable, an essential piece of the American songbook and a continuing love story. For Salonga and Kane, "A Whole New World" has become a sort of legacy, an honor that continues to inspire and grow. “It's great to have been able to make my contribution to film, something that will last even past my own natural life," Salonga says. “So many generations of children that will get to hear it and will have their imaginations awakened—and it still turns people into four-year-olds."
And while they can identify elements of the song’s composition that has led to that fact, Menken and Rice are hesitant to chalk the endurance of "A Whole New World" purely to structure or style. "It’s something that people can identify with, and it’s a very positive, nice love song—while a lot of the love songs I've written have been a little bit pessimistic," Rice says. Menken, meanwhile, returns to the concept of the song itself as a form of love, and having that one transcendent moment. “If I have to analyze it, it’s a very long melodic line with a lot of sweep and scale to it. It has a very free and open feeling,” he adds. "But really, it was the right song at the right time."