Each of the 12 discs comes with a rich illustrated book, featuring new art by Lorelay Bove. The books include liner notes in which composers, musicians, animators and other production personnel recount previously untold oral histories of the music that underpins Disney's animation, unifying it every bit as much as the storytelling and art styles.
There's more than 47,000 words of liner notes in those pages, and more than 20 hours' worth of audio on the discs. Listening to the demos in which the legends of Disney music, from Ashman and Menken to the Shermans give notes to singers whose music I've thrilled to literally all my life is an incredible experience, like getting in a time machine.
The archivists who produced this collection went beyond all reason and commercial consideration in pulling this together (I know a few of them). They are part of the trufan machine at Disney who gild releases that celebrate craft and pride, spending money that isn't needed to maximize profit, but is definitely required to maximize art. Disney is full of those people, they're like the people who joined Google because "don't be evil" mattered to them. Like those googlers, these Disney personnel don't harbor any illusions about the company's complement of people who don't share their beliefs (or at least, wouldn't let them get in the way of profits). But they're there because they believe it and it matters to them. People with a sense of mission make everything worth caring about in this world.
The 20 hours of audio in this collection tell a story. Not the story in the movies — the story of the movies. The story of how successive generations of composers, musicians and storytellers taught their progeny all they knew, and of how their progeny ran with that knowledge, expanding the art, bringing in material from the stage and other studios and pop.
I've been listening to this for months, and every so often I've gotten the discs down off my shelves and paged through Bove's exquisitely painted miniatures, illustrations that have a direct lineage to Mary Blair, and let myself experience the work of people who cared about what they did and changed the lives of millions of others in so doing. I've owned a lot of Disney records over the years, starting with a scratched and worn-out "Official Album of Disneyland and Walt Disney World," but nothing, nothing comes close to this.
The folks at Disney music have posted some of the unreleased material for your listening pleasure, and provided us with some exclusive liner notes excerpts.
Here's "The Chimpanzoo," a track that didn't make it into Mary Poppins:
This never-heard Sherman Brothers track was originally part of the "high tea" scene at Uncle Albert's place. It describes a zoo where the humans are in cages and the animals walk around, wathcing them curiously. Walt Disney cut it to keep it from overshadowing "I Love to Laugh."
Next is "Le Jazz Hot," from Aristocats, performed by Ty Taylor:
From The Lion King's liner notes, producer Don Hahn explains how they cast an expatriate South African singer working as a carhop to feature in the soundtrack:
Lebo M was a South African singer, songwriter who had worked with Hans (Zimmer) on the soundtrack of a few films. He'd been parking cars in L.A. to make ends meet. He was going to be the perfect voice for the film, just one thing: Lebo had disappeared… as if by fate, Lebo dropped by to say hello just hours before we all arrived. Hans pulled him off the street and put him in front of a microphone. There wasn't even a glass divider to separate him from the room full of engineers and filmmakers eating Chinese food.
Hans played "Circle of Life" for us for the first time. We listened to it and then the directors, Rob Minkoff, Roger Allers and I huddled in the corner to talk. Hans thought he was getting fired. Instead, it was magical and we wanted more. This time they were after a cry in the wilderness that would beacon the animals to Pride Rock in the opening scene. It was a "John the Baptist" thing, only African." Lebo stepped up and gave his now famous cry that opens the movie and lives on in every stage version of the show since.
Here, composer Alan Menken tells the story of how he discovered his composing partner, Howard Ashman, was dying of AIDS:
Our mission was to create a new animated musical that could sit on the shelf alongside the earlier Disney classics, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty and so many others. In my heart I embraced this mission like I had no other previously in my life… The AIDS crisis was in full bloom, and none of us knew how this could affect our lives and those of our children. And I was unaware of how dark and imminent the cloud was over my dear collaborator, Howard.
At the Governor's Ball, following the Oscar ceremony, in which we had won Best Song for "Under the Sea" and I had won Best Score, Howard and I sat with our statuettes at the table and he said, "I want you to know I'm really happy tonight. And when we get back to New York we have to talk." I said, "Talk? Talk about what?" And he insisted that we would wait to talk after we got back.
A few days later he told me that he was sick and all the things I had been trying to ignore and not acknowledge, now came crashing down around me… But, at the time, the thing I most remember was Howard saying, "I'm so glad you won the Best Score Oscar and I'm so glad we've had this huge success. Now I know you're taken care of."
Finally, Randy Newman explains how he came to write his score for Toy Story:
I believe I was given the job because John (along with Chris Montan) at Disney Music felt that the picture, in that it was the first computer-animated feature, might benefit by having an orchestral score. John told me he liked the music I wrote for Ragtime and for The Natural and the orchestral arrangements I did for some of my songs. I said, "That's it? And the rest of it? Just crap I guess." He said, "No, no, it's all great." Anyway, he thought an orchestra might warm things up a bit should the film itself end up looking sort of techno and cold. It never did look that way.
"Strange Things." The Pixar people always emphasize that the characters in their films are adults and deal with adult emotions. That's really kind of a big idea. I always worry toward the end of their process when the picture is about to lock in terms of story, script and form if it's funny enough. They never worry about that. They worry about emotion. Whether an audience will feel it. Whether it's got, I think it's called "heart." Well, I can't say it, but I can do it with music. And, about "heart," you can't put it there, like you sometimes can a joke. It's got to proceed from who's up there on the screen and if we care about what happens to them. It must be hard to do, but they've done it over and over like no other studio ever has.