It goes without saying that a good cinematic score should complement and accentuate the film hosting it, and a musical is often only as impressive as its songs. However, it’s fairly unusual that a film’s score exalts its subject matter so expertly that it has you weeping two minutes into the prologue. What kind of musical has a prologue for that matter, let alone one so potent?
The answer, of course, is Beauty and the Beast; the second film of the late-’80s-early-’90s Disney renaissance, a movement that owes its success in no small part to the combined genius of lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken. Ashman’s lyrics are illuminating and confoundingly clever, while Menken’s music does more emotive legwork than any other you’re likely to hear.
When the duo were charged with the task of matching the charm and vitality of their score for The Little Mermaid to save the floundering (excuse the pun) non-musical prototype of Beauty and the Beast, Ashman, conscious of his ebbing mortality, was initially keener to pursue his concept for Disney’s subsequent feature Aladdin than begin work on Beauty. Of course, any article delving into the wonderful work of Howard Ashman must unfortunately mention the sad fact of his early death at 40 due to AIDS-related complications, but there are surely few better ways to honour Ashman’s melodious lyrics, and Menken’s evocative score, than by delving into the overwhelming power and, well, beauty of the following songs. So now, we invite you to relax, let us pull up a chair, as One Room With A View proudly presents… an ode to the music of Beauty and the Beast.
Notably, the first piece of music to feature in the film was the last to be written, a decision based largely on the idea that the introduction should in some way encapsulate the film as a whole, which would be easier once the rest was complete. Nonetheless, Menken already had his inspiration: Camille Saint-Saëns’ ‘The Carnival of the Animals’, specifically the ‘Aquarium’ movement, which donates its main theme to the prologue, as well as instrumental ‘The West Wing’, and throughout as a haunting refrain. Already apparent in this first 120 seconds is the sense that Beauty and the Beast’s score possesses its own bizarre agency. In the final seconds of the prologue, just as the film segues into its first real number (‘Belle’), the strings creep up like a question mark, this knowing wink of instrumentation serving as an answer to the narrative: “For who could ever learn to love a beast?”
Ashman and Menken always intended the film’s score to lend itself to stage performance, so every song was recorded with the orchestra and voice actors performing simultaneously, investing each number with the energy and cohesion of a live show. ‘Belle’, however, transcends the impact of a simple stage performance, entering the canny, intricate realms of operetta. The overlapping words and melody lines bustle for attention, and yet somehow clearly establish several main characters and set up the basic plot, all in the space of five minutes.
The impact of Howard Ashman’s approach to exposition in songs cannot be understated – numbers such as this one forever changed Disney’s approach to songwriting. No longer were musical numbers mere pleasant ditties, spliced in to conjure merriment or menace; they were now a means to further the narrative.
‘Belle’ also features a satisfying dose of dramatic irony, as the titular character predicts her own future via the plot points of her favourite book (“far-off places, daring swordfights, magic spells, a prince in disguise!”) and again when LeFou tells Gaston “no beast alive stands a chance against you… and no girl for that matter,” nicely predicting the allegiances of the climax.
This song also highlights the canny use of leitmotifs that occur throughout the score; certain phrases are repeated with varying tone, tempo and instrumentation, intrinsically linked to specific characters or moods. A perfect example is when Gaston first bursts onto the scene – immediately we hear more bold swaggering brass, and once Gaston hits his stride figuratively, the tempo changes literally: into a march. This approach is not only useful for establishing vastly different characters within the same song, it also serves as an almost Pavlovian memory aid; something that will prove invaluable in later instrumentals.
Aside from the technical brilliance evident in these first perfect five minutes, Menken and Ashman also demonstrate and generate an immediate underlying empathy with the heroine. The smooth elegant sweep of the music and ardour in Belle’s words contrasts with the quaint village setting and cries from the farcical locals. Immediately, we already know this character; her everyday life and secret passions are as clear as our own.
The song transforms again in its reprise to effuse Belle’s longing for adventure and acceptance. As Belle switches from frustrated mocking of Gaston’s advances to pouring out her hopes, the note value almost doubles, elongating the melody in accord with the song’s new direction. This is what Menken would refer to as a ‘Want’ song – most musicals, and certainly every Disney musical, will have one of these.
Following this Sound of Music-esque summit, the sound contracts almost as deftly as it swelled, giving us enough intimacy to hear Paige O’Hara’s breaths. This isn’t something that’s immediately noticeable on a first listen, but if this video of Ashman coaching Jodi Benson on Little Mermaid‘s ‘Part of Your World’ is anything to go by, you can expect that every nuance has been crafted fastidiously.
‘Gaston’ is a masterclass in comedic songwriting. The lyrics shine here, showcasing perfect scansion and impossibly clever rhyming, perhaps even funnier in its sinister reprise: “No one plots like Gaston/Takes cheap shots like Gaston/No one persecutes harmless crack pots like Gaston!” It is easily the most quotable thing to sing in a drunkenly emboldened attempt to impress your friends, and therefore the most disappointing when you inevitably forget the words. This is also possibly the only song from a children’s film to ever feature the word “expectorating”. Ten points to ‘Gaston’!
‘Be Our Guest’
The irresistible energy of ‘Be Our Guest’ encourages a kind of bizarre hand-dancing and finger-waving that only ever occurs when full-on boogieing would be deemed inappropriate, but the sheer joyous force of it prevents you from keeping still.
There’s much to heap praise on here (in what is arguably the most memorable song of the film): the building momentum; the synchronicity between the music and action; and the serendipitous way the whole thing comes together, from the impressive scale of the unified instruments and vocals, down to the tiniest details, such as the pipe noise for brewing tea, reminiscent of early Disney short Steamboat Willie.
Throughout, ‘Be Our Guest’ provides a distinctive, unmistakably French ambience with the droll introductory accordions, the bold, cabaret bravado, the can-can-esque breakdown and operatic wailings. Aside from all this, it’s also the inspiration for one of the finest parodies ever.
It’s hard to believe ‘Something There’ was created almost as an afterthought, to replace the musical void left by dropped number ‘Human Again’. It’s not a song people immediately remember from Beauty and the Beast, but it contains some of the simplest, loveliest lyrics of the whole film, and in this way proves the potency and purpose of musical numbers in films altogether.
To set the scene: two characters are growing together, but aren’t one hundred per cent sure of the other’s feelings; plot-wise, meanwhile, it is impossible for them to fully confide in another character, or the entire dénouement of the film is gone. So what can they do, to ensure these burgeoning emotions aren’t lost on the audience? Sing!
One of the tenderest, most straightforward lines is uttered by the Beast, in his only singing opportunity of the movie: “No, it can’t be/I’ll just ignore/But then, she’s never looked at me that way before.”
As with the reprise of ‘Belle’, you sense that some attentive direction has occurred behind the scenes; Robby Benson’s voice errs into a less gruff, distinctly more human tone as the Beast contemplates how Belle might have feelings for him, a clever foreshadowing of the finale’s message on love’s transformative powers. Also resurfacing is the wonderfully self-referential dramatic irony (“true that he’s no Prince Charming”).
‘The Mob Song’
‘The Mob Song’ is horrible and electrifying in equal measure. Strings and brass trill in rousing peaks, ensuring – along with some stellar voice acting and chorus vocals – that even someone who had never seen the animation would have a pretty clear picture of what was going on. Not to be outshone by the rest of the soundtrack, this number boasts its own shrewd lyrics (“Here we come, we’re fifty strong/And fifty Frenchmen can’t be wrong”) and an infectious melody. It feels a bit wrong to be bobbing your head along to a song clamouring for one of the title characters’ heads, but I guess that’s the point of mob mentality: you just kind of get swept along.
‘Beauty and the Beast’
Knowing that it would be the film’s lead track, and primed for adaptation into one of those yodelling pop renditions you hear over the credits, Ashman and Menken poured their combined genius into creating the only Oscar winner from an equally laudable bunch. Paradoxically, this is the most intentionally simple song of the soundtrack, and yet probably took the longest to write.
The lyrics (“Bittersweet and strange/Finding you can change/Learning you were wrong”) surely secure Beauty and the Beast’s place as the most mature Disney film, extolling the heartache of experience, rather than the youthful paeans and naïve wanderlust of most Disney songs.
Indeed, the core of the tale is less about simply falling in love (as in the Disney films of yore) or being yourself (as their modern counterparts would enthuse); it is about having the courage to show vulnerability and accept your mistakes. Perhaps this is why Angela Lansbury was the perfect vocalist for the job; her voice is warm, yet frail, melodious and with an impressive range (two octaves – now you know). Despite being initially reluctant to perform a song she considered her voice unsuitable for, with encouragement from Ashman and Menken, Lansbury’s first interpretation of the title track was both impressive enough to use, and to seal her casting as Mrs Potts.
Beauty and the Beast’s prominent orchestral score, with its recurring leitmotifs, makes it almost reminiscent of an opera. Indeed, this is what elevates the film’s score above most others: the music acts as a narrator, rousing more than just a simple stirring of emotions; the repeated themes serve as a subtle trigger for your memory.
Reminiscent of Peter and the Wolf, certain characters are also assigned an instrument or theme, making an easy task of visualising the film from the soundtrack alone. For instance, Cogsworth’s appearance is often heralded by a sort of Baroque harpsichord ditty edging its way into the main body of a song, mirroring his tightly-wound charm. Similarly, the characters’ feelings are intrinsic to the music accompanying them. This may seem like a fairly obvious statement to make about a movie soundtrack, but the way Menken weaves this number of melodic strands together is certainly not.
‘The West Wing’
‘The West Wing’ perhaps illustrates this best. Listen carefully to the beginning, when Belle has just wandered off from a jubilant Lumière and Cogsworth, and you’ll hear two uncertain bars of ‘Be Our Guest’. The dying embers of the last song still linger, reflecting Belle’s merry, emboldened mood, prompting her natural curiosity to take her to the one place she mustn’t go. But the jolliness is distorted, and once the menacing horns, sneering oboes and ethereal flutes take hold, it feels like the audio equivalent of watching ink disperse in water. Later, as Belle first discovers the enchanted rose, the opening strain of the title track cuts through the sinister atmosphere to deliver a glimmer of hope.
This segment seamlessly blends the strains that run throughout Beauty and the Beast to create one of the most haunting, dramatic, and well-crafted pieces of orchestral music Disney has ever produced, in the process creating the template for all future filmic efforts to establish a “magical” or “fantastical” setting.
Strains of ‘To The Fair’ – the soundtrack to Maurice’s earlier encounter with the nearby forest’s resident wolves – can be heard as Belle makes the same unlucky acquaintance after fleeing the West Wing. Following the Beast’s heroic lupine showdown to rescue her, a more sombre, gentle line of ‘Belle’ creeps in, perhaps as a reminder of the heroine’s past longing for adventure contrasting with the far less winsome reality of her present.
‘To The Fair’, ‘Battle On The Tower’, ‘Transformation’
‘To The Fair’ itself has inklings of ‘Something There’ and ‘Belle’, while elements of ‘Battle On The Tower’ are undoubtedly reprisals of ‘Be Our Guest’, giving fleeting comic relief before segueing into more ominous tones. The classical theme of the prologue returns at the beginning of ‘Transformation’, which in turn has echoes of Pachelbel’s famous ‘Canon in D’, cementing the ageless quality the earlier nods to Camille Saint-Saëns introduced. The overall effect is unifying, providing the film with a sense of cohesion.
Few scores have done as much to assist their films; the music is a constant presence, a hidden character, like the unearthly magic driving the plot. It conveys the protagonists’ thoughts and feelings as effectively as any of the most captivating animation or poetic dialogue. As Howard Ashman is said to have noted: “telling stories with music is central to what Disney is, and here’s how you do it.”