Walt Disney himself demanded that each princess be unique and memorable, like no one you'd ever seen or heard before. He even went so far as to secure some voices forever through a binding contract (kind of like Ursula in The Little Mermaid). Princesses have come down from the storybook page and a little closer to earth these days, moving away from the classically trained sopranos to the more familiar chart-topping pop stars. Thirteen princesses have joined the Disney royal court since 1937 and each has her own story to tell with her own unforgettable music - and it doesn't always involve waiting around for a prince.
Adriana Caselotti as Snow White in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
1937The role of Snow White was Adriana Caselotti's one big break in Hollywood, and Walt Disney was determined to keep it that way. For the first full-length animated film in motion picture history, the 18-year-old classically trained singer signed away her rights to sing in any other movie to preserve the unique sound of the first Disney Princess. That wasn't the only surprise. Caselotti had no idea she had signed on to do a feature-length film.
"They had told me that it was going to be a little longer than their shorts, which were 10 to 12 minutes," she said. "So I thought it would be 20 minutes long or so. I didn't realize what had happened until I went to the premiere. I saw all these movie stars - Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard, Gary Cooper - everybody was there. I discovered this thing was an hour and 23 minutes."
Incidentally, she wasn't even invited to that premiere - she had to sneak in!
With her lilting operatic voice, Caselotti performed "I'm Wishing," "With a Smile and a Song" and "Some Day My Prince Will Come," all composed by Frank Churchill with lyrics by Larry Morey. She was paid $20 a day for her work as a voice actress and singer – a total of $970.
In her old age, Caselotti had a wishing well in the front yard of her Hollywood home and the entry phone connected to her doorbell played the movie's "I'm Wishing" along with "Some Day My Prince Will Come." She auditioned for the role with the latter song, which she performs three times in the movie: as a lullaby for the dwarfs, a wistful tune while she bakes, and a happy ending as the prince whisks her away. Walt Disney stood behind a screen to listen so he wouldn't be distracted by her appearance. When she saw the finished film, she knew it was the closest she would ever come to immortality. She told The Independent's Brian Sibley: "And when I'm in that coffin, d'you know what you'll hear? 'Some Day My Prince Will Come' because, you see, my voice will live forever."
True, the song will forever be connected with Snow White, but it also carries a note of tragedy. The jazz version made its debut during World War II in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in the Czech Republic. The Ghetto Swingers were a collective of musicians who were imprisoned there and petitioned to form a band in January, 1943. One of their performances was a medley of songs from Snow White, but composer Frank Churchill's name was suppressed for fear it would be misunderstood by the SS as a provocation (Winston Churchill was Prime Minister of the UK and an enemy of Nazi Germany). Although Theresienstadt wasn't an extermination camp, over 33,000 people died of disease and malnutrition and nearly 90,000 more were sent to death camps – including all of the Ghetto Swingers, who were sent to Auschwitz (only pianist Martin Roman and guitarist Coco Schumann survived).
Despite her strict Disney contract, Caselotti can be heard briefly in The Wizard of Oz (1939) during the Tin Man's "If I Only Had a Heart" (she croons the falsetto line "Wherefore art thou, Romeo?") and in It's a Wonderful Life (1946) singing in Martini's bar while a distraught James Stewart is praying. Both roles are uncredited.
Ilene Woods as Cinderella in Cinderella
1950Thirteen years after the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney would need another princess to rescue the studio from the threat of bankruptcy. Films that are now recognized as classics, like Bambi, Pinocchio and Fantasia, were box-office disasters that plunged the company into millions of dollars worth of debt. It was also the first film to take advantage of the newly created Walt Disney Music Company (the studio would retain rights to the songs rather than sell them to other companies for sheet music publication) and to employ Tin Pan Alley songwriters, who cornered the market on popular songs of the early 20th century. This was probably why Disney opted for a more radio-friendly voice that would fit in with the smooth Jazz voices of the era like Ella Fitzgerald rather than the operatic style of Adriana Caselotti's Snow White.
Like Caselotti, however, Ilene Woods' role as Cinderella was full of surprises. The big band singer was friends with songwriters Mack David and Jerry Livingston, who wrote many of the songs for the film along with composer Al Hoffman, and agreed to help them out with their new project by demoing some tracks. She never realized she was in the running for the lead part until she got the role. Here's a look at some memorable songs from the movie:
"So This Is Love": Cinderella and Prince Charming perform this song after a whirlwind romance at the ball. Talk show host Mike Douglas did the singing voice for the prince, who was played by William Phipps – a familiar face in Sci-fi films and westerns.
"A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes": Cinderella's only escape from her harsh life as a scorned servant girl is through her dreams. Although Disney wanted to suit popular tastes with Woods' voice, the film makes use of classical music. The theme of the song was based on Franz Liszt's Etude No. 9 "Ricordanza" of his solo piano piece the Transcendental Etudes. This song captured the spirit of Disney so effectively that it's still used in Disney promotions.
"Sing Sweet Nightingale": After the ugly stepsisters' massacre this song during their music lessons, Cinderella beautifully sings it to herself while scrubbing the floors as soap bubbles float around her. Part of the beauty is in the layered harmonies that Woods sang to accompany her own vocals. According to Woods, Walt Disney was probably the first person to use double-tracked vocals, a technique that would later be used by The Beatles.
And, of course, you can't talk about Cinderella's music without mentioning "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo." Woods recorded a demo of this song, but the fairy godmother (played by Verna Felton) performed it in the film during Cinderella's magical transformation before the ball. It became a hit song for Perry Como and The Fontane Sisters (the trio appeared on his TV show dressed as mice along with Woods to preview songs for the movie). A version by Jo Stafford and Gordon MacRae also landed on the charts at #19.
Mary Costa as Aurora in Sleeping Beauty
1959Despite playing the lead role as Briar Rose/Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, the last fairy tale under Walt Disney's personal supervision, Mary Costa's screen time clocked in at a meager 18 minutes. Luckily, she was able to squeeze in two memorable songs: "Once Upon a Dream" and "I Wonder."
"Once Upon a Dream" was composed by Sammy Fain, a pop music composer who co-wrote Bing Crosby's "Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella," and written by Jack Lawrence, a celebrated songwriter who penned Frank Sinatra's first solo hit, "All or Nothing at All." The song is a duet between Costa and Bill Shirley, who voiced Prince Philip (he also dubbed Jeremy Brett's vocals for "On the Street Where You Live" in My Fair Lady – a well-kept secret until Brett admitted it in 1994).
Lana Del Rey covered the song for Maleficent (2014), a dark re-imagining of the tale with Angelina Jolie as the title antagonist and Elle Fanning as the fair princess.
Composed by George Bruns and written by Winston Hibler and Ted Sears, "I Wonder" is Rose's song to her animal friends in the forest, wondering when she'll find someone to love.
The three-year search for the voice of Sleeping Beauty ended at a dinner party when Costa entertained fellow guests with a performance of Doris Day's hit "When I Fall in Love." One of those guests was Walter Schumann, the music director for Disney Studios, who was on the hunt for an Aurora. Costa remembered: "The next day, I came to the studio and there was a booth with everyone I would be working with for the next three years. They asked me to sing and do a bird call. But I had a Southern accent. So they said, "Do you think you could talk with a British accent?" "Oh yes, I could!" [with a British accent]. My father and I loved to pretend we had British accents. The next day, the phone rang and everyone in my family raced to get it. It was Walt Disney and he said, 'You have been hiding the Princess Aurora in Glendale!' I had the job."
Though she didn't carry the childlike trill of Snow White's singing, her soprano voice was a return to classic form for Disney and perfectly melded with the film's orchestral score, based on Tchaikovsky's 1890 ballet The Sleeping Beauty. George Bruns was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture and the movie was nominated for a Grammy Award (only in its second year) for Best Soundtrack Album. Both lost to Porgy and Bess.
Costa continued to a successful opera career with lead roles in La Traviata, Candide and La Boheme. She even performed at John F. Kennedy's memorial service at the special request of first lady Jackie Kennedy.
Jodi Benson as Ariel in The Little Mermaid
1989It took 30 years for another Disney Princess to emerge from the studio... or from the sea. Taken from Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale The Little Mermaid, Ariel was a mermaid who longed to trade in her fins and become human to be with Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes). It's hailed as the film that brought Broadway to Disney and marked the beginning of the Disney Renaissance period - a decade-long stretch of creative and financial success that once again endeared the company to the public with 10 animated films.
Broadway soprano Jodi Benson met Disney lyricist Howard Ashman while they were working on the short-lived musical Smile. He encouraged the entire cast to audition for the part of Ariel, and Jodi won it after a year-and-a-half wait. Ashman partnered with composer Alan Menken to create memorable songs for The Little Mermaid, including "Under the Sea," which won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, "Poor Unfortunate Souls" and Benson's number "Part of Your World."
"Part of Your World" captures Ariel's dream to leave her aquatic life behind and "be where the people are." Despite being one of most enduring songs to come from any Disney feature, it was nearly cut after it tested poorly for a group of bored children. Studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg demanded its excision but writers/directors John Musker and Ron Clements insisted it would be like tearing "Over the Rainbow" out of The Wizard of Oz (which really almost happened). When a further-developed second screening entertained kid viewers and made adults weepy, the song officially became part of the movie.
Paige O'Hara as Belle in Beauty and the Beast
1991Belle was the latest Disney Princess hot on Ariel's heels, or fins, when an adaptation of the traditional French fairy tale Beauty and the Beast went into production just after The Little Mermaid. Jodi Benson nearly became the first actress to voice two Disney Princesses when she was considered for Belle, but the studio wanted a voice that sounded more mature and opted for Broadway actress Paige O'Hara.
To bring another fairy tale to life, Broadway-style, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman teamed up again to create the music for the film like "Be Our Guest," "Belle" and "Something There," but it was the movie's title theme, sung by Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson, that was the greatest success. Believe it or not, Bryson was the big-money draw for this song. Dion was not the renowned performer she is today and was hired for practical reasons. In other words, she was cheap.
The pop ballad duet version won the Golden Globe, Academy Award and Grammy Award for Best Original Song and peaked at #9 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Within the film, the song was originally written in a rock style for Angela Lansbury's Mrs. Potts to sing. Although she was a seasoned Broadway veteran, she was concerned the unfamiliar style paired with her aging voice would not go over well. Menken and Ashman instructed her to sing it the way she envisioned it and she nailed it in one take.
As for O'Hara, she remembered a piece of advice she received from a fellow Disney Princess, Cinderella's Ilene Woods: "You'll get older, Belle will stay the same, it'll be part of your life till the day you die and it's an incredible blessing."
Linda Larkin as Jasmine in Aladdin
1992Like the princesses before her, Linda Larkin was pretty clueless about the enormity of the movie she signed on for: "I really didn't know what I was auditioning for. I didn't know it was going to be this big movie. I thought it was going to be something like Duck Tales (laughs). I had no idea."
Aladdin was supposed to be another collaboration for Disney's composing/songwriting dream team Menken and Ashman, but Ashman died from complications with AIDS before the film went into production. He did write a handful of songs during the planning stages but many were cut when the plot was significantly altered, except for "Arabian Nights," "Friend Like Me" and "Prince Ali." Lyricist Tim Rice, known for his collaborations with Andrew Lloyd Webber, was brought in to work with Menken. Together they created "A Whole New World," the love theme for Aladdin and Jasmine.
Jasmine was the first Disney Princess to have two different actresses portray her: Larkin for her speaking voice and Lea Salonga for her singing voice. But there's no bad blood between the two. "I'm not a singer!" Larkin told Media Mikes. "And this is something that a lot of people don't know. This was the first time in a Disney movie that they separated the acting voice and the singing voice. Prior to that they had only auditioned singers. They only auditioned people who could do both." It was also the first Disney animated feature to tout a major mainstream star. A post-Hook, pre-Mrs. Doubtfire Robin Williams stole the movie with his antics as Genie.
Salonga and Brad Kane (for Scott Weinger's Aladdin) performed the magic carpet song in the movie and Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle recorded the pop version. The Bryson/Belle duet topped the Billboard Hot 100, even surpassing Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You," which had dominated the charts for 14 weeks.
The song also won the Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Original Song and the Grammy Award for Song of the Year.
Larkin on how she hopes Jasmine will be remembered: "Hottest Princess Ever. Truly, I don't think she'll need to be 'remembered' - she'll be alive and new for every generation to come."
Irene Bedard as Pocahontas in Pocahontas
1995Alaskan actress Irene Bedard filled the title role of Pocahontas, the first animated Disney character to portray a real historical figure (and the first official American Princess), in the fictionalized account of the love story between the Native American princess and the English Captain John Smith (Mel Gibson). As with Linda Larkin's Jasmine, Bedard only provided the speaking voice while Broadway actress Judy Kuhn did the singing. Despite playing two sides of the same princess, they were never in the studio at the same time. Bedard also never got to meet any of her fellow actors because she did her recordings alone. She didn't even get to meet co-star Mel Gibson at the movie's premiere: he was busy filming Braveheart.
Composer Alan Menken found another lyricist partner in Stephen Schwartz (who would go on to songwrite and compose for the Broadway smash Wicked) for the score, which included the hit song "Colors of the Wind," sung by Kuhn in the movie as Pocahontas tries to explain the wonders of nature to John Smith, and by Vanessa Williams for the soundtrack. Williams' pop ballad version peaked at #4 on the Hot 100. Menken also earned another set of awards for his cabinet when it won the Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Original Song and the Grammy Award for Best Song Written for a Movie.
The real showcase for the movie, however, was supposed to be the love theme "If I Never Knew You," sung as a duet by Pocahontas and John Smith when Smith is falsely imprisoned for murder, but it was pushed to the end credits and performed instead by Jon Secada and Shanice. (The Kuhn/Gibson version was reintegrated into the movie as a special feature option for the 2005 DVD release.)
Ming-Na Wen as Fa Mulan in Mulan
1998If this Disney Princess's voice sounds familiar, that's because a fellow member of the Disney royal court is doing the singing. Princess Jasmine's Lea Salonga performed Fa Mulan's vocals while ER alumna Ming-Na Wen voiced the character. Partly based on the poem The Song of Fa Mulan, the story follows a Han Dynasty-era Chinese girl who bravely disguised herself as a man so she could go to war in place of her elderly father.
Behind the scenes of Mulan, another battle was waging. Stephen Schwartz, who worked with Alan Menken on Pocahontas, was busily penning songs for the movie when he got an earful from angry Disney execs over his work on The Prince of Egypt for DreamWorks Animation. They demanded he pull out of his commitment to the rival company or he would be replaced on Mulan, despite the fact he was part of the original creative team and traveled to China for inspiration. They weren't bluffing: he was replaced by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel. (One of his songs, "Written in Stone," is available through the Mulan Jr. musical). Jerry Goldsmith composed the score.
A pre-"Genie in a Bottle" Christina Aguilera covered "Reflection" for the soundtrack but had to prove she had the necessary vocal range first. She practiced Whitney Houston's "Run To You" so she could hit the right note for the song, which ended up being her first song released in the US and initiated her record deal with RCA.
Wen recorded most of her scenes in isolation, even the ones between Mulan and her beloved dragon sidekick Mushu (Eddie Murphy). She and Murphy never even met while working on the film.
Anika Noni Rose as Tiana in The Princess and the Frog
2009The role of the first African-American Disney Princess could have gone to Beyonce Knowles, but the superstar singer refused to audition. Not so for her Dreamgirls co-star Anika Noni Rose, who auditioned not once but three times and landed the singing and speaking part of Tiana, a waitress who accidentally turns into a frog while living in 1920s New Orleans. She beat out other hopefuls like Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys and Tyra Banks.
Although Disney was returning to the Broadway musical-style of its late-'80s/'90s Renaissance period - and re-embracing hand-drawn animation - the company didn't enlist veteran Alan Menken to compose the Cajun blues and gospel-flavored music for the film, but Pixar's frequent composer Randy Newman.
Tiana sings the solo "Almost There," telling her mother she doesn't have time for love when her dream is to open her own swanky restaurant. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song, along with Dr. John's "Down in New Orleans," but lost to "The Weary Kind" from Crazy Heart.
Pop/R&B singer Ne-Yo wrote and performed Tiana and Naveen's (Bruno Campos) love song "Never Knew I Needed" for the end credits and soundtrack. The singer was able to watch a few finished scenes from the movie for inspiration, but it almost had a reverse effect when he heard Newman's score. "I was almost a bit intimidated because I'm a huge Randy Newman fan and listening to his stuff I was like, 'Why am I here? What do you all need me for?'" he admits.
Rose grew up as a Disney fan but couldn't quite relate to the princesses who didn't share her struggles or her skin color. When she finally saw Tiana, the likeness hit her hard. "I cried hard and I had to like fix makeup and get myself back together. I was so moved. I didn't know she was going to look so much like me. I'm so honored by that, that they felt my face was the face to base her on, that I will leave this as my legacy. It's amazing every single day to me."
Mandy Moore as Rapunzel in Tangled
2010For the studio's 50th animated feature film Tangled, the long-haired maiden Rapunzel of German lore was given a contemporary edge on the big screen as the first computer-generated 3D Disney Princess. Aside from having the obvious singing chops to tackle the part, Mandy Moore could also relate to the princess locked away in the castle. Becoming a pop star at such a young age, she knew what it was like to live a sheltered life. "I wasn't sequestered in a tower or anything," she said. "But I think I lead a much more sheltered life than my friends even. So I could relate to maybe the naiveté and that sense of wonder of, 'Wow... everyone is good.'"
Back on the Disney payroll again, composer Alan Menken tapped into a folk-rock influence for the film's score. Rapunzel's flowing hair and craving for freedom brought Joni Mitchell to mind. A life-long Disney fan, Moore almost didn't audition for Tangled because she knew competition was stiff. Coincidentally, she performed Mitchell's "Help Me" for her audition.
Menken helped her get into character and bring the music alive. She explained: "He's brilliant and he's so hands on and so involved. Not only in the composition of the music, but actually... line for line, or word for word, saying, 'I want this word to punch' or 'I want the emphasis to come at the end of the line.' He was really good at being a great guide for what he sort of specifically wanted out of each song. It was really helpful to me, not ever having done music for a character before."
Moore and her onscreen paramour Zachary Levi (Flynn Rider), recorded "I See the Light" with a 65-piece orchestra for when Rapunzel is finally free to see the floating lanterns light up the sky. Because Moore was already a pop star, there wasn't a need to enlist any other singers to cover it for a mainstream version. Composed by Menken and written by Glenn Slater, the song was yet another contender for the Academy Award for Best Original Song, but it lost to Randy Newman's "We Belong Together" from Toy Story 3. It did win the Grammy Award for Best Song Written for Visual Media.
Kelly Macdonald as Merida in Brave
2012The 3D computer-animated film Brave follows red-headed princess Merida in a battle against an arranged marriage in 10th century Scotland. The movie was animated by Pixar, but released by Disney, making Merida royalty in two kingdoms as the 11th Disney Princess and the first Pixar Princess.
Reese Witherspoon was originally slated to play Merida but had to back out, leaving the speaking role to Kelly Macdonald (Boardwalk Empire, No Country for Old Men) and the singing role to Julie Fowlis, both natives of Scotland. For the first time, however, this princess doesn't actually sing in the movie – the songs are used as a backdrop to her actions, along with Patrick Doyle's Scottish-inspired score performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.
Fowlis sings "Touch the Sky" as Merida gallops through the countryside, climbs mountains and slings arrows, and "Into the Open Air" as she bonds with her mother Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) who has been turned into a bear and struggles to learn how to catch and eat fish.
It was new territory for the Gaelic folk singer, who had never sung in English before. She even thought the call from Pixar to perform on the soundtrack was a prank. "It was a bit of a risk as they didn't know what I sounded like in English – I barely know myself," she told Herald Scotland. "It was a bit of a learning curve because not only was the style different to what I'm used to, it was like acting rather than singing."
Mumford & Sons collaborated with Birdy for the movie's closing song "Learn Me Right" and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Song Written for Visual Media. The group later added additional lyrics to the song and re-titled it "Not With Haste."
Although the music didn't win any major awards, the film won the Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film of the Year, and the soundtrack made it to #33 on the US chart.
As for Macdonald, the whole Disney Princess thing was a foreign concept - her idols were more Calamity Jane than Cinderella. Even after voicing the part of the bow-and-arrow toting heroine, she still doesn't identify herself as a member of the royal lineage: "I know there's going to be lots of other Meridas around the place, around the world, doing the voice, and so, it is weird to think of her in Disney Princess terms - I had never thought of her that way."
Kristen Bell as Anna and Idina Menzel as Elsa in Frozen
2013At this point, the only way Disney could top itself was to give us two princesses for the price of one. Adapted from Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale The Snow Queen, the smash hit Frozen is the story of Anna (Kristen Bell), a fearless young girl who must save her kingdom from an eternal winter caused by her magical sister Elsa (Idina Menzel).
Alan Menken briefly had the role of composer on this project until Christophe Beck took over. Husband-and-wife songwriting team Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez were hired to write the songs for the movie, including the popular number "Let It Go," which won the Academy Award for Best Original Song.
Menzel performed "Let It Go" as Queen Elsa finally embraced her magical abilities after being banished from her kingdom, while Demi Lovato recorded a pop/rock version of the song for the closing credits. The Lopezes thought Lovato's turbulent past struggles with bulimia and addiction would help her understand Elsa, another young woman with a secret. Both versions charted on the Billboard Hot 100 – Lovato's peaked at #38 while Menzel made history as the first Tony Award winner for acting to ever break into the top 10 (at #5). It was also the first song from a Disney animated film to crack the top 10 since Vanessa Williams' "Colors of the Wind" for Pocahontas climbed to #4 in 1995.
Bell and Menzel had both auditioned for the role of Rapunzel in Tangled. This time around, they had directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee in tears with a duet of Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings" before they were even cast as the Frozen sisters. In the movie, they perform "For the First Time in Forever," first anxiously awaiting Elsa's coronation, later when Anna pleads for Elsa to be her sister again.
Bell attributes the popularity of the film to the relatability of its characters. Instead of trying to preserve a unique, otherworldly quality of the classic Disney princesses, the modern heroines like Anna are more down-to-earth. She said: "I always loved Disney animation, but there was something about the females that was unattainable to me. Their posture was too good and they were too well-spoken, and I feel like I really made this girl [Princess Anna] much more relatable and weirder and scrappier and more excitable and awkward. I'm really proud of that."
June 27, 2014
More Song Writing