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"Songs Are Like Love": 'Aladdin' Songwriters Look Back On "A Whole New World"

Photo courtesy of Disney

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"Songs Are Like Love": 'Aladdin' Songwriters Look Back On "A Whole New World"

25 years after "A Whole New World" won Best Original Song at the GRAMMYs, the Recording Academy caught up with the history-making ballad's creative team: composer Alan Menken, lyricist Tim Rice, and performers Brad Kane and Lea Salonga

GRAMMYs/May 21, 2019 - 11:53 pm

"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 MermaidBeauty and the BeastPocahontas, 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 WonderlandDumboPeter 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."

Trouble So Hard: Moby On His New Memoir & The 20th Anniversary Of ‘Play’

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GRAMMY SoundChecks With Gavin DeGraw

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

On Aug. 28 Nashville Chapter GRAMMY U members took part in GRAMMY SoundChecks with Gavin DeGraw. Approximately 30 students gathered at music venue City Hall and watched DeGraw play through some of the singles from earlier in his career along with "Cheated On Me" from his latest self-titled album.

In between songs, DeGraw conducted a question-and-answer session and inquired about the talents and goals of the students in attendance. He gave inside tips to the musicians present on how to make it in the industry and made sure that every question was answered before moving onto the next song.

 

Juan Gabriel named 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person Of The Year

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Juan Gabriel named 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person Of The Year

Annual star-studded gala slated for Nov. 4 in Las Vegas during 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Week celebration

GRAMMYs/May 15, 2017 - 01:36 pm

 GRAMMY.com

 Internationally renowned singer/songwriter/performer Juan Gabriel will be celebrated as the 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year, it was announced today by The Latin Recording Academy. Juan Gabriel, chosen for his professional accomplishments as well as his commitment to philanthropic efforts, will be recognized at a star-studded concert and black tie dinner on Nov. 4 at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nev. 

The "Celebration with Juan Gabriel" gala will be one of the most prestigious events held during Latin GRAMMY week, a celebration that culminates with the 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Awards ceremony. The milestone telecast will be held at Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas on Nov. 5 and will be broadcast live on the Univision Television Network at 8 p.m. Eastern/7 p.m. Central. 

"As we celebrate this momentous decade of the Latin GRAMMYs, The Latin Recording Academy and its Board of Trustees take great pride in recognizing Juan Gabriel as an extraordinary entertainer who never has forgotten his roots, while at the same time having a global impact," said Latin Recording Academy President Gabriel Abaroa. "His influence on the music and culture of our era has been tremendous, and we welcome this opportunity to pay a fitting tribute to a voice that strongly resonates within our community.

Over the course of his 30-year career, Juan Gabriel has sold more than 100 million albums and has performed to sold-out audiences throughout the world. He has produced more than 100 albums for more than 50 artists including Paul Anka, Lola Beltran, Rocío Dúrcal, and Lucha Villa among many others. Additionally, Juan Gabriel has written more than 1,500 songs, which have been covered by such artists as Marc Anthony, Raúl Di Blasio, Ana Gabriel, Angelica María, Lucia Mendez, Estela Nuñez, and Son Del Son. In 1986, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley declared Oct. 5 "The Day of Juan Gabriel." The '90s saw his induction into Billboard's Latin Music Hall of Fame and he joined La Opinion's Tributo Nacional Lifetime Achievement Award recipients list. 

At the age of 13, Juan Gabriel was already writing his own songs and in 1971 recorded his first hit, "No Tengo Dinero," which landed him a recording contract with RCA. Over the next 14 years, he established himself as Mexico's leading singer/songwriter, composing in diverse styles such as rancheras, ballads, pop, disco, and mariachi, which resulted in an incredible list of hits ("Hasta Que Te Conocí," "Siempre En Mi Mente," "Querida," "Inocente Pobre Amigo," "Abrázame Muy Fuerte," "Amor Eterno," "El Noa Noa," and "Insensible") not only for himself  but for many leading Latin artists. In 1990, Juan Gabriel became the only non-classical singer/songwriter to perform at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and the album release of that concert, Juan Gabriel En Vivo Desde El Palacio De Bellas Artes, broke sales records and established his iconic status. 

After a hiatus from recording, Juan Gabriel released such albums as Gracias Por Esperar, Juntos Otra Vez, Abrázame Muy Fuerte, Los Gabriel…Para Ti, Juan Gabriel Con La Banda…El Recodo, and El Mexico Que Se Nos Fue, which were all certified gold and/or platinum by the RIAA. In 1996, to commemorate his 25th anniversary in the music industry, BMG released a retrospective set of CDs entitled 25 Aniversario, Solos, Duetos, y Versiones Especiales, comprised appropriately of 25 discs.   

In addition to his numerous accolades and career successes, Juan Gabriel has been a compassionate and generous philanthropist. He has donated all proceeds from approximately 10 performances a year to his favorite children's foster homes, and proceeds from fan photo-ops go to support Mexican orphans. In 1987, he founded Semjase, an orphanage for approximately 120 children, which also serves as a music school with music, recreation and video game rooms. Today, he continues to personally fund the school he opened more than 22 years ago.   

Juan Gabriel will have the distinction of becoming the 10th Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year honoree, and joins a list of artists such as Gloria Estefan, Gilberto Gil, Juan Luis Guerra, Julio Iglesias, Ricky Martin, and Carlos Santana among others who have been recognized. 

For information on purchasing tickets or tables to The Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year tribute to Juan Gabriel, please contact The Latin Recording Academy ticketing office at 310.314.8281 or ticketing@grammy.com.

Set List Bonus: Bumbershoot 2013
Grizzled Mighty perform at Bumbershoot on Sept. 1

Photo: The Recording Academy

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Set List Bonus: Bumbershoot 2013

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 04:22 am

Welcome to The Set List. Here you'll find the latest concert recaps for many of your favorite, or maybe not so favorite, artists. Our bloggers will do their best to provide you with every detail of the show, from which songs were on the set list to what the artist was wearing to which out-of-control fan made a scene. Hey, it'll be like you were there. And if you like what you read, we'll even let you know where you can catch the artist on tour. Feel free to drop us a comment and let us know your concert experience. Oh, and rock on.

By Alexa Zaske
Seattle

This past Labor Day weekend meant one thing for many folks in Seattle: Bumbershoot, a three-decade-old music and arts event that consumed the area surrounding the Space Needle from Aug. 31–Sept. 2. Amid attendees wandering around dressed as zombies and participating in festival-planned flash mobs to Michael Jackson's "Thriller," this year the focus was on music from the Pacific Northwest region — from the soulful sounds of Allen Stone and legendary female rockers Heart, to the highly-awaited return of Death Cab For Cutie performing their 2003 hit album Transatlanticism in its entirety.

The festival started off on day one with performances by synth-pop group the Flavr Blue, hip-hop artist Grynch, rapper Nacho Picasso, psychedelic pop group Beat Connection, lively rapper/writer George Watsky, hip-hop group the Physics, and (my personal favorite), punk/dance band !!! (Chk Chk Chk). Also performing on day one was Seattle folk singer/songwriter Kris Orlowski, who was accompanied by the Passenger String Quartet. As always, Orlowski's songs were catchy and endearing yet brilliant and honest.

Day one came to a scorching finale with a full set from GRAMMY-nominated rock group Heart. Kicking off with their Top 20 hit "Barracuda," the set spanned three decades of songs, including "Heartless," "Magic Man" and "What About Love?" It became a gathering of Seattle rock greats when, during Heart's final song, Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready joined for 1976's "Crazy On You."

Day two got off to an early start with performances from eccentric Seattle group Kithkin and Seattle ladies Mary Lambert and Shelby Earl, who were accompanied by the band Le Wrens. My highlight of the day was the Grizzled Mighty — a duo with a bigger sound than most family sized bands. Drummer Whitney Petty, whose stage presence and skills make for an exciting performance, was balanced out by the easy listening of guitarist and lead singer Ryan Granger.

Then the long-awaited moment finally fell upon Seattle when, after wrapping a long-awaited tour with the Postal Service, singer/songwriter Ben Gibbard returned to Seattle to represent another great success of the Pacific Northwest — Death Cab For Cutie. The band celebrated the 10-year anniversary of their album Transatlanticism by performing it from front to back. While a majority of attendees opted to watch the set from an air-conditioned arena, some of us recognized the uniqueness of this experience and enjoyed the entire set lying in the grass where the entire performance was streamed. 

Monday was the day for soul and folk. Local blues/R&B group Hot Bodies In Motion have been making their way through the Seattle scene with songs such as "Old Habits," "That Darkness" and "The Pulse." Their set was lively and enticing to people who have seen them multiple times or never at all.

My other highlights of the festival included the Maldives, who delivered a fun performance with the perfect amount of satirical humor and folk. They represent the increasing number of Pacific Northwest bands who consist of many members playing different sounds while still managing to stay cohesive and simple. I embraced the return of folk/pop duo Ivan & Alyosha with open arms and later closed my festival experience with local favorite Stone.

For music fans in Seattle and beyond, the annual Bumbershoot festival is a must-attend.

(Alexa Zaske is the Chapter Assistant for The Recording Academy Pacific Northwest Chapter. She's a music enthusiast and obsessed with the local Seattle scene.)

Neil Portnow Addresses Diversity & Inclusion, Looks Ahead During Speech At 2019 GRAMMYs

Neil Portnow and Jimmy Jam

Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty Images

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Neil Portnow Addresses Diversity & Inclusion, Looks Ahead During Speech At 2019 GRAMMYs

Jimmy Jam helps celebrate the outgoing President/CEO of the Recording Academy on the 61st GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Feb 11, 2019 - 10:58 am

As Neil Portnow's tenure as Recording Academy President/CEO draws to its end, five-time GRAMMY winner Jimmy Jam paid tribute to his friend and walked us through a brief overview of some of the Academy's major recent achievements, including the invaluable work of MusiCares, the GRAMMY Museum, Advocacy and more.

Portnow delivered a brief speech, acknowledging the need to continue to focus on issues of diversity and inclusion in the music industry. He also seized the golden opportunity to say the words he's always wanted to say on the GRAMMY stage, saying, "I'd like to thank the Academy," showing his gratitude and respect for the staff, elected leaders and music community he's worked with during his career at the Recording Academy. "We can be so proud of what we’ve all accomplished together," Portnow added.

"As I finish out my term leading this great organization, my heart and soul are filled with gratitude, pride, for the opportunity and unequal experience," he continued. "Please know that my commitment to all the good that we do will carry on as we turn the page on the next chapter of the storied history of this phenomenal institution."

Full Winners List: 61st GRAMMY Awards