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ALADDIN – Alan Menken

November 17, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The enormous success of Beauty and the Beast in 1991 ushered in what is now commonly known as the Disney Renaissance, which brought to an end a period of comparative creative and commercial failure for mouse house, and initiated what was quicky became a decade of constant growth and acclaim. Lyricist Howard Ashman, who had been a major part of Beauty and the Beast’s success alongside his composing partner Alan Menken, had also been working on a draft treatment for a potential Aladdin movie, based on the Arabic folktale of the same name from the One Thousand and One Nights, and the screenplay went through three drafts before then-Disney Studios president Jeffrey Katzenberg agreed to its production. The finished film is now one of the most beloved animated films of all time; it tells the story of street urchin Aladdin, who finds a magical lamp hidden in a cave and inadvertently releases from it a powerful genie who can grant him three wishes. Aladdin wishes to be a rich prince to that he can court the beautiful Princess Jasmine, the daughter of the sultan, but in doing so falls foul of Jafar, the sultan’s vizier advisor, who covets the power of the lamp for himself.

The film was directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, and featured the voice talents of Scott Weinger as Aladdin, Linda Larkin as Jasmine, and Jonathan Freeman as Jafar, with Aladdin and Jasmine’s singing voices provided by Brad Kane and Lea Salonga, but the real coup was getting megastar comedian Robin Williams to voice the hyperactive blue genie who becomes Aladdin’s friend. The off-the-cuff stream-of-consciousness comedy that Williams brought to the role changed animation voiceovers forever, and the Genie is now considered one of the most iconic roles of his storied career. The film was not as much of an awards darling as Beauty and the Beast, but the soundtrack certainly was: the music won the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Original Score, and was nominated for a BAFTA, and the songs “Friend Like Me” and “A Whole New World” were nominated for the Best Song Oscar, with the latter winning. “A Whole New World” also won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year – the first and (to date) only Disney song to win – and the album is one of the best-selling soundtrack albums to an animated film, with 3 million copies sold in the United States alone.

Sadly, Howard Ashman died in March 1991, and so never saw his original idea come to fruition, but he and Menken did manage to complete three songs together prior to his death; afterwards, Menken asked Tim Rice – who had written the lyrics for classic Andrew Lloyd-Webber musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita – to come on board and complete the remaining songs, while Menken wrote the score. It’s interesting, listening to the songs, to note the differences in lyrical styles between Ashman and Rice. Ashman was a lyricist very much in the Sherman Brothers mode, often engaging in clever wordplay, intricate rhymes, and peculiar turns of phrase. Rice, on the other hand, is much more of a smooth romanticist, offering more straightforward sentences promoting strong emotions. This contrast is very much in evidence throughout Aladdin, but the two styles nevertheless work very well, with Ashman bringing a raucous comedic edge to the songs performed by the Genie, and Rice bringing warm sentimentality to the Aladdin-Jasmine love story.

“Arabian Nights” has an Ashman lyric and is performed by Bruce Adler as a mysterious unnamed peddler traversing the vast desert landscape, setting the scene. Menken’s music for the song has twisty, serpentine melody that builds on a whole host of stereotypical middle eastern chord progressions and orchestrations, but when it explodes into its chorus off the back of a resounding gong crash, and Adler’s voice erupts like a call to prayer, the effect is sensational. Interestingly there was a little racism controversy over one of the lyrics in this song – people complained about the line ‘where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face” so much that it was eventually revised to ‘where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense’ for remastered reissues.

“One Jump Ahead” has a Rice lyric, as is performed by Brad Kane in character as Aladdin, and tells of his hard life as a poor street urchin in the city of Agrabah, stealing scraps and pushing his luck just so that he and his money friend Abu can survive. The melody has a jazzy, mercurial, nervous energy, a hint of the bazaar crossed the big top circus, pounding percussion and heavy brass overlaid with dancing string figures. The conversations in song that Aladdin has with various other Agrabah residents are amusing, although I have to say I’ve never liked the weird Brooklyn-accented women who sing in chorus fawning over Aladdin (an idea Menken used in Beauty and the Beast too). The more toned down “One Jump Ahead (Reprise)” sees Aladdin in more reflective mood, contemplating his lot in life with wishful sentimentality, which matches the charming smoothness of Kamen’s voice.

“Friend Like Me” is he first Ashman showstopper, performed by Robin Williams on a musical LSD acid trip, with textural nods to the 1940s big band jazz of Cab Calloway at his most vibrant. The orchestral part of the song is a knockout – that five-note phrase for muted brass! – while the vocal performance is a cornucopia of accents, styles, impressions, in-jokes that come so thick and fast you can barely keep up. “Prince Ali is another Ashman extravaganza performed by Williams as the Genie, this time a scene where he’s leading a parade through the streets of Agrabah, hyping up his newly-minted royal. The music cleverly revisits the regal fanfare from the beginning of “One Jump Ahead” – except this time the pageantry is for Aladdin – before turning into a rousing march-like Broadway number. I’ve always loved the clever lyrics in this song – ‘Prince Ali! Fabulous he, Ali Ababwa/Genuflect, show some respect/Down on one knee!/Now, try your best to stay calm/Brush up your Sunday salaam/Then come and meet his spectacular coterie’ – and especially the second verse, where it seems like three different people are singing three different lines simultaneously.

“A Whole New World” has Rice lyrics performed by Brad Kane and Lea Salonga, and is the score’s main love theme, accompanying Aladdin and Jasmine as they take a romantic journey over Agrabah on a magic carpet conjured up by the genie. This is arguably the score’s most popular song – it was turned into massive successful pop duet performed by Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle – but it’s actually my least favorite of the lot. It’s perfectly pleasant, with a pretty melody and earnest lyrics that speak of young love, but I always found it to be a touch sappy, and Salonga (whose tone I usually find lovely) here adopts that grating ‘Disney voice’ that makes my skin crawl. Finally, “Prince Ali (Reprise),” features the only vocal performance by Jonathan Freeman in character as Jafar, and is full of sneering, sardonic menace, as he gleefully unmasks the disguised Aladdin to the world.

In terms of the score, Alan Menken takes snippets and nuggets from almost all the songs and weaves them into his cues alongside a couple of score-specific themes representing Jafar, and the City of Agrabah, and the magical lamp at the heart of the story. I have always felt that, while Menken’s work on Beauty and the Beast was excellent, his first major score for The Little Mermaid was a touch underpowered and underdeveloped, and unfortunately Aladdin has a little more in common with the latter than the former; it also comes across as being a little less sophisticated than the music he would later write for Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. However, there’s still plenty of creativity on display here, including some moments of imposing action, lots of clever interplay between different themes and motifs, and several prominent progressions that are again steeped in the traditions of middle eastern classical music, although they perhaps do occasionally come a little too close to pastiche.

The motif for the lamp is an exploration of one of the ideas from the “Arabian Nights” song, and can be heard swaying evocatively on clarinets underneath Robin Williams’s shtick all throughout “Legend of the Lamp,” before really coming into its own during the quite impressive “The Cave of Wonders.” This cue is initially filled with trepidation and even a touch of light horror – tremolo strings, dark chords, some dissonance – before eventually emerging into a glittering, magical scene of awe-inspiring enchantment. Meanwhile, the vivacious Agrabah Theme gets its most prominent full statement of the evocative “Marketplace,” which is filled with sinuous dancing woodwinds, lyrical strings, and interludes for ethnic percussion.

“Street Urchins” is two minutes of playful mickey-mousing based around many of the melodic ideas and instrumental textures heard in the “One Jump Ahead” song. Interestingly Menken often plays around with the two specific notes that accompany the ‘street rat’ line and eventually molds them into a sort of little motif for Aladdin himself. They are usually carried by high strings or high woodwinds, and later find their way into “To Be Free,” “The Kiss,” “Marketplace,” and “Aladdin’s Word.” In “The Kiss” the theme blends with a motif from “A Whole New World” that represents Princess Jasmine, and it becomes really quite lovely.

The latter part of “Street Urchins” also revisits the regal fanfare-like idea that represents the wealthy inhabitants of Agrabah, and later appears as part of the melodic core of “Prince Ali”. The aforementioned “To Be Free” also introduces an optimistic, aspirational idea representing the concept of freedom, which plays an important part in the overall message of the film as all four main characters yearn to be freed of something holding them back, and which powerfully resolves during the film’s finale.

“Jafar’s Hour” introduces the menacing theme for Jafar, a descending low brass idea that drips with treachery. Jafar plans to usurp the Sultan, take possession of the lamp (and the genie), and marry Jasmine himself, and as his nefarious scheme is put into action Menken really lays into his idea; it becomes quite dominant in “The Ends of the Earth” and the subsequent “On a Dark Night,” some of the compositional textures in which foreshadow the dramatic parts of Pocahontas that he would write in 1995. I especially like the increased use of piano and brass in these cues, which rumble along powerfully.

“The Battle” is the score’s action-packed finale which offers some imposing statements of Jafar’s theme as the vizier takes control of the lamp and the genie from Aladdin, and wishes to become the most powerful wizard in the world – until his ego gets the best of him and he is tricked into imprisoning himself in the lamp. Menken’s orchestra rolls and churns, there are some clever action settings of the two-note ‘street rat’ Aladdin motif, and it all ends with a big swashbuckling finale that has touch of Korngold to it. Finally, the “Happy End in Agrabah” is the culmination of the Freedom Theme introduced earlier in “To Be Free,” when Aladdin, Jasmine, and even the Genie finally have all their obstacles to happiness removed: Aladdin and Jasmine cast off their vastly different pasts in order to be together, and Aladdin uses his last wish to wish for the Genie’s freedom. Menken lays the emotion on thickly, arranging the Freedom Theme to be massive and sweeping, while also offering upbeat fanfare versions of Aladdin’s motif and the Agrabah theme, as well as final flourish of “A Whole New World” as Jasmine and Aladdin declare their love.

The original soundtrack release of Aladdin was a touch over 50 minutes in length, and contained just over 30 minutes of score alongside all the original songs. A more complete and comprehensive version of the score was released in 20222 with the Legacy Collection album, which expanded the score’s running time to almost 2 hours, with the addition of several previously un-released score tracks, song variations, and alternate cues. It also re-sequences the songs and score into strict chronological order, making the album a true dramatic presentation of the film’s musical content.

Despite being a small step down from the heights of Beauty and the Beast, there is still a lot to recommend in Aladdin. The majority of the songs are excellent, with the two blockbuster Robin Williams efforts “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” standing out for their energy, creativity, and linguistic dexterity. Menken’s score has some enjoyable depictions of Middle Eastern music, intelligent interpolation of song melodies, and builds to a rousing finale, but despite the acclaim it received at the time I personally feel that, of all the scores he wrote in the Disney Renaissance period, this one has perhaps suffered the most over time; it’s good, there’s some punch, some pizzazz, and some yahoo, but even if you rub a lamp and have your wish granted by a genie, it’s unfortunately not Score of the Year material.

Buy the Aladdin soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Arabian Nights (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Bruce Adler) (1:19)
  • Legend of the Lamp (1:25)
  • One Jump Ahead (written by Alan Menken and Tim Rice, performed by Brad Kane) (2:23)
  • Street Urchins (1:53)
  • One Jump Ahead (Reprise) (written by Alan Menken and Tim Rice, performed by Brad Kane) (1:00)
  • Friend Like Me (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Robin Williams) (2:26)
  • To Be Free (1:39)
  • Prince Ali (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Robin Williams) (2:51)
  • A Whole New World (written by Alan Menken and Tim Rice, performed by Brad Kane and Lea Salonga) (2:40)
  • Jafar’s Hour (2:43)
  • Prince Ali (Reprise) (written by Alan Menken and Tim Rice, performed by Jonathan Freeman) (1:08)
  • The Ends of the Earth (1:35)
  • The Kiss (1:51)
  • On a Dark Night (2:55)
  • Jasmine Runs Away (0:46)
  • Marketplace (2:36)
  • The Cave of Wonders (4:57)
  • Aladdin’s Word (1:51)
  • The Battle (3:38)
  • Happy End in Agrabah (4:11)
  • A Whole New World (Aladdin’s Theme) (written by Alan Menken and Tim Rice, performed by Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle) (4:07)
  • Arabian Nights (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Bruce Adler) (1:20)
  • Legend of the Lamp (1:26)
  • On a Dark Night (2:56)
  • Diamond In the Rough (1:02)
  • One Jump Ahead (written by Alan Menken and Tim Rice, performed by Brad Kane) (2:24)
  • Street Urchins (1:53)
  • One Jump Ahead (Reprise) (written by Alan Menken and Tim Rice, performed by Brad Kane) (1:02)
  • Intro to Jasmine and Jafar (3:53)
  • Jasmine Runs Away (0:47)
  • Marketplace (2:38)
  • Alchemy (0:53)
  • Rooftop (2:27)
  • Aladdin and Jasmine Confront Jafar (2:41)
  • Dungeon (2:10)
  • The Cave of Wonders (Film Version) (3:04)
  • Search For the Lamp (3:43)
  • Confiding In Papa (0:46)
  • Intro to Genie (1:57)
  • Friend Like Me (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Robin Williams) (2:27)
  • Provisos and Quid Pro Quo (1:12)
  • Jafar and Iago Scheme (2:09)
  • To Be Free (Film Version) (4:03)
  • Jafar Finds a Solution (1:26)
  • Prince Ali (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Robin Williams) (2:52)
  • Journeyed From Afar (0:46)
  • Sultan’s Magic Carpet Ride (0:46)
  • A Very Impressive Youth (2:10)
  • Ali Comes Courting (3:00)
  • A Whole New World (written by Alan Menken and Tim Rice, performed by Brad Kane and Lea Salonga) (2:41)
  • The Kiss (1:52)
  • Genie Rescues Aladdin (2:06)
  • Sultan Under a Spell (1:21)
  • Maniacal Jafar (1:32)
  • Aladdin’s Word (1:52)
  • Iago Impersonates Jasmine (0:41)
  • Jafar’s Hour (2:40)
  • Prince Ali (Reprise) (written by Alan Menken and Tim Rice, performed by Jonathan Freeman) (1:14)
  • The Ends of the Earth (1:37)
  • Jafar In Charge (2:32)
  • The Battle (3:40)
  • Happy End in Agrabah (4:18)
  • Finale (0:45)
  • A Whole New World (Aladdin’s Theme) (written by Alan Menken and Tim Rice, performed by Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle) (4:07)
  • Why Me? (Outtake) (written by Alan Menken and Tim Rice, performed by Jonathan Freeman) (3:23)
  • Marketplace (Alternate) (2:30)
  • Dungeon (Alternate) (2:06)
  • Intro to Carpet (Alternate) (1:38)
  • Search For the Lamp (Alternate) (3:43)
  • Jafar and Iago Scheme (Alternate) (1:22)
  • Make You a Star (Alternate) (2:05)
  • Happy End in Agrabah (Alternate) (3:42)

Running Time: 50 minutes 02 seconds – Original
Running Time: 110 minutes 58 seconds – Legacy Collection

Walt Disney Records 60846-2 (1992) – Original
Walt Disney Records (1992/2022) – Legacy Collection

Music composed by Alan Menken. Conducted by David Friedman. Orchestrations by Alan Menken, Danny Troob, and Michael Starobin. Recorded and mixed by Bruce Botnick and Michael Farrow. Edited by Kathleen Bennett. Album produced by Alan Menken, Chris Montan, and Bruce Botnick.

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