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PART OF YOUR RAINBOW

In 1939, a children’s fantasy film with striking Technicolor sequences came out in theaters.  Although critics recognized it as a solid entry into the year’s canon of releases, the movie was not financially successful.  Nonetheless, despite its initial box office shortcomings, THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) went on to become regarded as one of the finest examples of a movie musical ever made.  Its characters have become archetypes and its plot has become a sort of road map often used by writers and filmmakers as the basis for developing their own stories.[1]

In mounting THE LITTLE MERMAID and subsequent musicals, Disney seemed to find tremendous inspiration in the way OZ presents its songs.

The one number that OZ is perhaps most famous for is Judy Garland’s soulful “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”  As the song proved so effective in OZ, similar types of songs made their way into musicals on both film and stage.

Howard Ashman, the lyricist on both LITTLE MERMAID and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST says the following about the traditional “Over the Rainbow” style song as it is used in musical theater:

“Early in the evening, the leading lady sits down on something and sings about what she wants in life and the audience falls in love with her and roots for her to get it for the rest of the night.[2]

A veteran of musical theater and lover of musical films, Ashman brought to the Disney animated feature a distinct sense of how musicals and their songs function.  Clearly, Ashman had a particular affinity for “Over the Rainbow” and for its purveyor, Judy Garland.  The influence of Garland and on “Over the Rainbow” permeates LITTLE MERMAID and all other 90s Disney musicals in a significant way.

Ariel’s singing “Part of Your World” at the beginning of LITTLE MERMAID to express her yearning to be a human is a clear regurgitation of and homage to Garland wishing to escape her drab Kansas life in “Over the Rainbow.”  Understanding how and why “Rainbow” is such an effective musical number and understanding what specifically Disney borrowed from it in order to create LITTLE MERMAID, provides insight into the workings of musicals as a storytelling form.

What Howard Ashman describes in the above quote is what is traditionally known in musical theater as the “I Want” song.  To spring from what Ashman gives as a definition, the dramatic function of the “I Want” song is to establish empathy and rooting interest for the main character.  Common storytelling wisdom preaches that an audience loses interest in a narrative if they do not care whether the protagonist gets what he/she wants.  Because this particular type of song establishes what the main character desires and because it gives the audience insight into why he/she is worthy of attaining that desire, the “I Want” song is an indispensible aspect of most musicals.[3]

THE LITTLE MERMAID uses “Over the Rainbow” as a huge guidepost for its own “I Want” song, “Part of your World.”  First and foremost, MERMAID’s creators have imbued their heroine, Ariel, with many Judy Garland-esque qualities.  The reason Garland found success as a movie star was her ability to project – not just in a loud sense, but more specifically, in an emotional sense.  She possessed a voice that audiences could read a great deal into — a sweet, but commanding voice that instantly evoked that strong sense of empathy and compassion.  Indeed, it was not her physical or vocal perfection that made her a star, but her knack for emotional projection.[4]  When one listens closely, one can easily discern the similarities between Garland’s voice and that of Jodi Benson – the voice of MERMAID’s Ariel.  They both possess the same saccharine, slightly operatic quality.  Such is a vocal quality that Disney has imposed upon all of its female leading characters since Arial.

Likewise, 1990s Disney musicals model all of their “I Want” songs upon the staging and execution of “Rainbow.”  In MERMAID, while singing “Part of Your World,” Ariel sits on the sea floor ground and leans against large rocks, the same way that Garland leans against haystacks in “Rainbow.”  Similarly, both leading ladies frequently stare up at the sky or out at the horizon – looking up and away to the better life that they so desperately yearn for.  Both numbers are also given a touch more grounding in that the heroines sing to their small animal companions – Garland’s Dorothy to her dog, Toto, and Ariel to her fish friend, Flounder.  In musical films, the main character lacks an audience to sing to, thus, for believability’s sake, it becomes important for them to have companions to melodize their feelings in front of.

Not coincidentally, when I found screen shots from every “I Want” song in every Disney musical released between the years 1989 and 1998, I made a captivating discovery.  In every single “I Want” number, the protagonist sits (or stands) on the right side of the frame while singing to his/her animal companion, who resides on the left – just like Judy Garland in “Over the Rainbow.”

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It is interesting to note that during the development of both THE WIZARD OF OZ and THE LITTLE MERMAID, their respective studio executives seriously considered cutting the “I Want” songs.  Louis B. Mayer felt during test screenings that “Over the Rainbow” slowed down OZ’s pace. [5] Many years later, Jeffrey Katzenberg, fretful over restless children during a screening of MERMAID, felt that “Part of Your World” bogged down the film.[6]  With some persuasion, however, both executives changed their minds and decided to keep the “I Want” songs in their respective pictures.

Had either of those songs been left on the cutting room floor, I wonder if I would have enjoyed the same childhood of singing my feelings in an attempt to emulate my favorite Disney musical characters.

 

 


[1] The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: 50 Years of Magic. Dir. Jack Haley, Jr. Turner Entertainment, 1990. DVD.

[2] Waking Sleeping Beauty. Dir. Don Hahn. Stone Circle, 2009.  DVD.

[3] Kislan, Richard. The Musical: A Look at the American Musical Theater. Englewood Place,

NJ: Applause Books, 1995. pp. 213-235. Print.

[4] Hollywood Singing and Dancing: A Musical History – 1930s: Dancing Away the Depression.

Dir. Phillip Dye.  Koch Entertainment, 2009. DVD.

[5] The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: 50 Years of Magic. Dir. Jack Haley, Jr. Turner Entertainment, 1990. DVD.

 [6] Waking Sleeping Beauty. Dir. Don Hahn. Stone Circle, 2009.  DVD.