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Aladdin directors and Alan Menken remember Robin Williams

Alan Menken and directors John Musker and Ron Clements reflect on a classic

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Buena Vista/Courtesy Everett Collection

The Disney Renaissance was already underway by the time Aladdin arrived in theaters in 1992. The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast had charmed audiences of all ages while raising the bar for artistry, musicals, and sophisticated animated storytelling. But Aladdin was unprecedented in its own ways: it was by far the funniest movie that Disney had ever attempted, with inside jokes and pop-cultural references crammed into every scene. “It is a children’s film that works on two levels: as a candy-colored kiddie entertainment and as a more sophisticated joke delivery system for the grown-ups in the audience,” EW’s Chris Nashawaty recently wrote. “It was Robin Williams’ antic, pop-culture-riffing Genie who really invented that one-for-the-kids/one-for-the-adults joke formula that has become the contemporary blueprint of just about every animated film.”

Robin Williams was one of the biggest stars in the world when he agreed to voice the Genie. At the time, huge stars didn’t do cartoon voices. The most recognizable names in Mermaid and Beauty had been Buddy Hackett and Angela Lansbury. But Williams was built to play the Genie — or vice versa. He joined Scott Weinger (Aladdin) and Linda Larkin (Jasmine) to create a beautiful story of romance and friendship. After Aladdin, Hollywood understood the creative opportunities in teaming up with Disney and other animated studios to cut loose and be part of someting timeless.

With Aladdin: Diamond Edition available on Blu-ray combo pack Tuesday, EW has a clip of never-before-seen recording-booth footage of the two young actors that’s not part of the new product. And the special edition’s release convinced the film’s directors, John Musker and Ron Clements, and Alan Menken, who composed the score along with the late Howard Ashman, to convene in New York to reflect on the making of their classic. 

This reporter arrived with two pages full of questions, and I got through exactly… four questions. To my delight, the old friends simply ran with the conversation, and I held on tightly like it was a magic-carpet ride. Musker and Clements, who’ve also co-directed Mermaid, Hercules, and The Princess and the Frog, can’t help but finish each others sentences. Menken sprinkles his sentences with musical interludes. For any animation lover, it was a wish come true.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Take me back to post-Beauty, pre-Aladdin — and I know they overlap—

JOHN MUSKER: Huge overlap. 

RON CLEMENTS: Most of these films take three to four years to do.

ALAN MENKEN: Actually, Howard [Ashman] and I were developing Aladdin while we were doing Little Mermaid. And then also, Harold’s illness played into this period. Then, Beauty and the Beast kind of inserted itself, if I remember. Essentially, we developed [Aladdin], it was shelved, and then before Beauty and the Beast was done, it resumed. We had had such a great experience working with John and Ron, that we continued our collaboration.

CLEMENTS: After we finished Mermaid, it was like, “What are we going to do next?” We actually pitched a project that we were interested in. The studio wasn’t that interested. 

MUSKER: Well, it turned out Spielberg had the rights to this book. It was We’re Back, a book about dinosaurs that we wanted to do as a feature. They came back and said, “Can’t do it, forget it…” 

CLEMENTS: “…But here’s three projects we’re interested in. Pick one of these three.” One was Swan Lake, and we thought that was too close to Mermaid. One was a project called King of the Jungle, which was about a lion king in Africa, and we thought that doesn’t sound— 

MUSKER: Who in the world would want to watch that!

MENKEN: That’s never going to work! 

CLEMENTS: And the third one was Aladdin. And we were very familiar with Aladdin because while we were doing Mermaid, I remember hearing the score. We weren’t involved with it but we knew Howard was developing it, and it was a great score. 

MUSKER: So we said yes to Aladdin, but we brought some of our stuff to it. By the time we got on it, they had moved away from Howard. Howard had written a 40-page treatment, had a story approach to it. They had songs. 

MENKEN: And a lot of what was in that version now is in the Broadway show. Because it was more of a Hope/Crosby road picture kind of tone, with sidekicks and wide-cracking.  

MUSKER: By the time we came aboard, they had a script that Linda Woolverton had done that was a little bit more based on Thief of Bagdad. There was no music in the script that we read, and it was more of a live-action-y approach. We felt like, “No, we want to go back to Howard and Alan’s approach,” but with some variations. We played the princess a little differently and introduced some new characters. 

CLEMENTS: I guess you’d say there were three versions of Aladdin. There was Howard’s original version. Then, there was our first version, which included songs that are in the movie now, like “Arabian Nights” and “Friend Like Me.” And it included “Proud of Your Boy,” which we really loved that song, [about] Aladdin’s relationship with his mother.

 

MENKEN: And eventually “Prince Ali.” It was actually written, sadly, on Howard’s hospital bed. He was at St. Luke’s. I brought him a keyboard and we were writing. And there was one other song that got cut. It was Howard’s last song pretty much, called “Humiliate the Boy.” 

MUSKER: It was a song for Jafar, the villain.

CLEMENTS: That was the first time we met with him after he learned that he was ill, and I remember being a little like, “Can he write a song?” And then you guys wrote “Prince Ali.” Great, great song. Just full of so much fun.

MUSKER: He said, “My brain is okay.” That’s what he said to us.

MENKEN: It was hard. One of the toughest things. From Beauty to Aladdin, that aged all of us to go through that. But “Humiliate the Boy”: we all look at it as a metaphor for what Howard was going through. It’s this song in which Jafar is stripping everything away from Aladdin. And everything was being stripped away from Howard at the time.  

CLEMENTS: It’s Howard’s last song. And it’s a great song, but it’s very dark.

MUSKER: So we were working on Aladdin while Beauty and the Beast was being worked on. Our movie was very much a comedy, and Beauty and the Beast, they had the work-in-progress screening at the New York Film Festival, I think. It became a cause celebre and everyone loved this… it was very romantic, sincere, and passionate. We thought, “Uh-oh, we’re doing this comedy that pushes the fourth wall and has a dozen winks at the audience? How are they going to react to this after this wonderful, beautiful, sincere love story. Will people buy it?”

CLEMENTS: In a way, that’s the good thing that these things do take so long to do. After Beauty and the Beast, it may have been harder to do Aladdin. We want more Beauty and the Beast, but Aladdin was sort of set by that point. It was going to be what it was going to be. 

MENKEN: But there was – what did you call it? — Holy Thursday and Black Friday.

[Laughter]

MUSKER: He’s alluding to when we showed the movie to Jeffrey Katzenberg.

CLEMENTS: We showed it to him on a Thursday.

MUSKER: A year and a half before the the movie was going to come out, here’s the whole movie in storyboards.  

CLEMENTS: Robin Williams was in it and some of the songs were in it.

MUSKER: It’s a rough assemblage before there was much animation in it. And [Katzenberg] was a little cryptic in his initial reaction. We didn’t screen it with a whole roomful of people; it was just him. He said, “That’s a lot of movie, guys.” We were like, “Is that good or…?” We went to lunch thinking, “Well, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” Because when we worked on The Great Mouse Detective, when we first showed that to him, he stopped the projector after 10 minutes. “Wait, stop, stop. I don’t want to see any of the rest of this. I’m not involved. I don’t know who’s who.” So on Aladdin, he ran the whole movie. We talk to him later and we said, “Well, Jeffrey, you didn’t say anything? We didn’t know if you liked it.” [He said] “I have too much respect for you guys not to [run the whole movie] but believe me, it does not work.” So he sort of said, start over. Really? It’s a year and half and we have to start over? 

CLEMENTS: We were in crisis mode. We sort of started over, but some things came back. Some songs came back right away. We kept “Arabian Nights,” although its condensed version. And we kept “Friend Like Me.” But “Humiliate the Boy” left, and even more painful was “Proud of Your Boy,” the song that Aladdin sang to his mother left, because Aladdin’s mother left. That’s when Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio came on and very quickly retooled the story. We lost Aladdin’s mom. Aladdin grew up a little bit. His relationship with Jasmine, which was there before, became much more of a focal point. Music wise, we were sort of in a place where maybe we got maybe half.

MENKEN: There’s a graveyard of songs, many of which, because of the Broadway show, we’ve been able to resurrect.  

MUSKER: You had lost your big collaborator.  

MENKEN: I lost Howard, which was actually six months before Beauty was released. But Beauty was done essentially, as far as his work at that point. He was convinced that Beauty was not going to be a hit. 

MUSKER/CLEMENTS [Together]: Really? 

MENKEN: Yeah. “They’re going to screw it up.” You know Howard. He was a cynic. But Aladdin was in a very pivotal phase, and I heard the results [from the Katzenberg screening]. I stepped in to try and write a new ballad, music and lyrics, for Aladdin in the spot where “Proud of Your Boy” used to be, a song that he would sing to Abu. I wrote a song called “You Can Count On Me.” But it just wasn’t the right spot. Whatever it was, it was decided — and I was working on Newsies at the same time, I think — to pair me with Tim Rice. I love his work with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and Evita. Tim was an antidote for the anxiety and the angst that was going on, because he’s just very… 

MUSKER: Low-key. 

CLEMENTS: Unflappable. 

MENKEN: Oh, he’s flappable. I flapped him. But he’s not a type-A flappable. And he’s definitely funny and charming. Very quickly, we began working on three song moments, one to replace the sidekick number, which was “Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim,” again, which is in the Broadway show. We decided to take the marketplace moment, put a song in there, which we called “One Jump Ahead.” And I gave it that same kind of vaudeville style of the number that Howard and I had written and I wanted to have that same tone that Howard and I wrote in. So I sent that with a dummy lyric to Tim, and I sent two others. One was a song for Jafar called “Why Me,” which we took as far as actually recording and storyboarding, but it never ended up staying. And the third was “A Whole New World.” I flew over to London with Chris Montan and had a few days working with Tim. And he had whipped out these lyrics and they were working. They were good. “A Whole New World,” it was very obvious that it was a pretty major song. 

CLEMENTS: I don’t know how music people do this, but I remember Chris Montan saying, “This is going to be a huge, huge hit.” Good, but how do you know that? [Laughs]  

MUSKER: We always had the idea that there would be a song under this magic-carpet ride, and we were influenced a little bit by the Margot Kidder thing in Superman

MENKEN [singing]: “Can you read my mind…” Great theme.

MUSKER: It was the date-of-all-time kind of sequence, so that shaped our thinking a little bit on that. And then Howard said it’ll be kind of a Beguine number, but I don’t really know exactly what that means.

MENKEN: Sort of like a Spanish feel. I was also influenced by Tim’s work, and I knew “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.” I liked that sort of South American, Spanish feel. Da-da-da-da-dum. So I really wanted to incorporate that into the feel. The development of this song is an amalgam of so many different impulses, but after all that tumbling, it really kind of landed. 

NEXT: Robin Williams really was the Genie[pagebreak]

Did Aladdin feel like a risk at the time, in the sense that you’d put out these two animated films that were successful in every possible way, and they were quote-unquote princess movies. Here, you’re kind of veering off toward aiming for the boys? 

MUSKER: Well, it was a comedy with a boy protagonist.

CLEMENTS: And the idea of Robin Williams as Genie, I think it was John’s idea to begin with, it wasn’t really looking to change animated movies as much as it might have changed animated movies. But it was looking for some animated hook that would make it something that you couldn’t do in a live action, something that would really take advantage of the medium. But by the very nature of Robin Williams being the Genie, that set a tone. And we didn’t want to limit him. We wanted him to be able to do as much as he could, which meant that the tone was going to be very different than the other Disney classic films. So it was risky. And jumping into it, the big question was — we kind of felt this is going to be very funny, this is going to be entertaining — but will the audience really care? Will they get involved with the story? Will they care about the characters? Somehow they did. It sort of works on multi levels. Somehow in animation, it still was emotional and the music certainly—

MENKEN: We put emotion in. We snuck it in. Like that one little moment, which we had a little tussle over, after “One Jump Ahead,” I wanted to take [sings] “Riff-raff, STREET-RAT, I don’t…” Even if it’s the tiniest thing, I knew that would give the signal that we really want you to care. 

MUSKER: Emotional investment in Aladdin’s predicament and his plight. 

CLEMENTS: And really, the Genie was Robin Williams. When he first came in, he was like, “Should I play this with an accent? Should I create a character?” And it was like, “No, really, the Genie is sort of like a stand-up comedian who’s been trapped in a lamp for 1,000 years and is suddenly released and is looking for an audience and wants to perform.” And that’s Robin. 

MUSKER: I think Robin as a person, he wanted to make people laugh. It was like a Genie, like a wish-granter: I know that people enjoy humor, so I’m going to give them the gift of my comedy. So I feel like, yeah, he really was the Genie. 

MENKEN: As far as the songs went, Howard and I were both concerned, because our conception of the Genie was kind of like a Fats Waller character. It was very much like, “Ya feets too big, ohhh mama, yeah, your feets too big.” So I wanted it to be, “Well, Ali Baba had them forty thieves, Scheherazade had a thousand tales.” And I made it very clear to Robin, “I want you to really perform it like that.” Knowing that there’d be improvisation, I wanted to make sure we got that basic track. And so Robin dutily learned both “Prince Ali” and “Friend Like Me,” every note, singing it in that style. Came into the studio and sang everything I wanted. Everyone sat very patiently saying, “Alan, did you get everything you need? Good. Now can Robin have some fun?” And then, Wow.

CLEMENTS: The Genie was let out the bottle. It was written for him in the sense that you read the script, you got the sense, yeah, this is what Robin Williams does. But at the same time, we were thinking that’s just going to be the starting point. Some people don’t realize that animation is really great for improvisation because the voices are recorded first. And what Robin did, he’d come in and he’d just start playing in front of the microphone. I don’t think we ever worked with an actor that gave more in the sense of that, you know… 

MUSKER: He was physically spent. 

CLEMENTS: We would record the scenes several times and he’d do many variations and we’d feel like we’ve got more than we can ever use. But he kept going, “I’ve go another idea, I’ve got another idea.” He kept expanding. 

 

MUSKER: His first scene, he did it about seven times the way we wrote it. And then we said, “Okay, why don’t you play with it?” We ended up with 25 takes of that first scene. All his material was transcribed. Literally, every single word that he said, and we would sit down with Eric Goldberg, who was the animator of the Genie, and we literally circled our favorites and put it together.

He was such a huge star at this time, not long after Good Morning, Vietnam.

CLEMENTS: Certainly the biggest star we had every worked with in terms of something like that.

MUSKER: Eric Goldberg animated some scenes from [Robin’s] comedy album to show Jeffrey Katzenberg, to say, “This is what we want to do.” Because at first, he was like, “I don’t know… Robin for this? This isn’t what I was picturing.” And then Eric animated these things and Jeffrey loved it, and we showed Robin and he said, “I’m in.” But it was different for the studio to have a big star.

After Robin, it became cool to do animated films. Suddenly Tom Hanks is in Toy Story… 

MUSKER: [Aladdin] is a bit of a dividing line. Tom Hanks and Mike Myers is Shrek. Stars became easier to get as a result of this, I think. 

CLEMENTS: It did change things. John and I started as animators, and we know how important a voice is. A really good voice just inspires you and it comes to life in your mind and it makes the animation really easy to do. There’s certain voices that are really ideal for animation, and Robin had one of those voices. We had always thought that Robin would be great in animation. We had even thought really briefly of Robin doing Scuttle in The Little Mermaid. And then in very early drafts, we had a dolphin character  

MUSKER: Ariel had a sidekick dolphin, and we were thinking Robin Williams. But they said, “You have too many characters in this movie; you have to cut one.” So we sort of cut the dolphin, but we gave some of the dolphin’s personality to Ariel. 

CLEMENTS: But at the same time, that wouldn’t have really taken advantage of Robin. He needed really the right kind of part. 

MUSKER: Sure, but we were influenced a little bit at the time too by the movie Beetlejuice. He was a trickster type character and whenever he came on the stage, it was just… 

Showtime!

MUSKER: Showtime! It just seemed like so much fun. When he came, everything lit up. So indirectly, I think that sort of influenced what we were doing on Aladdin

Alan, you obviously had an idea with Howard for the score and what the sound of this film was going to be. Then you get this awesome entrance of Robin to play the character, who found something special but he wasn’t the Fats Waller voice you had in mind. Was there an alchemy that you had to adjust?

MENKEN: Yes, absolutely. The numbers were intended to be a real wink at a very specific kind of style and very specific kind of performer. And it became something different. 

MUSKER: It’s great on Broadway now, and that’s closer to the original conception, so you can kind of have it both ways. 

MENKEN: In retrospect, I wouldn’t trade the opportunity to work with Robin Williams for anything. The thing with Aladdin was we had such a wealth of material between all these different versions. It was just choosing what to keep. Originally, we ended the movie with a reprise of “Arabian Nights.” 

MUSKER: And Jeffrey was like, “Hey, they’re done! The audience is on their way out of the theater.” So we had to kind of shorten that. 

CLEMENTS: And there was a bit originally where the narrator revealed himself to be the Genie. We took that out, so now, the narrator is just the narrator. But the original idea was that he was going to become the Genie.

I think the unsung heroes of Aladdin are the two men in the marketplace: “Another suitor for the princess.”

MUSKER: That’s me.

CLEMENTS: I have a line too: “On his way to the palace, I suppose.” Originally, we intended to model those two characters after Siskel and Ebert, but Ebert’s glasses proved problematic.

MUSKER: So now we’ve started sticking ourselves in our various movies. 

CLEMENTS: When people we know see that, they’re much more excited about that than any other aspect of the film. 

I have to ask you, Alan, about the live-action Beauty and the Beast.

MENKEN: They’re editing it now. 

Are they just taking all the songs from the movie?

MENKEN: The songs from the movie are in. Actually, none of the songs from the Broadway made the film. I would’ve taken “If I Can’t Love Her,” but the problem is that was for a very specific moment to end Act I of the Broadway show. There’s a moment where the Beast drives her away and he regrets that. But I think Bill [Condon] built a more promising moment for the film, which is when he lets her go and he watches her leave. And as he watches her leave, he sings. 

MUSKER: So you wrote a new song?  

MENKEN: A new song with Tim Rice. There’s actually three new songs written for the movie. It’s called “Forever More,” and there’s also a song called “Days in the Sun.” 

MUSKER: Is it based on any of the melodies from the film? 

MENKEN: Similar. Sort of a cousin of “If I Can’t Love Her.” So yes, there’s new songs and I’ll be scoring that in the spring. It’s exciting. 

I have to ask you two about Moana, because I saw the cute video last week announcing the casting of the new Disney princess. 

MUSKER: It’s our first CG feature. All the other ones we’ve done were hand drawn. This one’s CG. And it’s a musical. There’s a musician Opetaia Foa’i who’s got a band called Te Vaca. He’s doing the music with Lin-Manual Miranda, who’s done Hamilton here on Broadway. It’s been exciting. Sort of a coming-of-age story set 2,000 years ago in the South Pacific. You know, when we started at the studio, we were trained by the Nine Old Men, and they were in their early 60s. Now we’re in our early 60sA lot of the young animators come into the field who saw our movies as kids, so it’s kind of crazy. But that’s how it was when we came in and we had seen Snow White and Pinocchio, and we got to work with Eric Larson and Frank Thomas and those guys who animated those films. And we really learned literally at the drawing board, the master-apprentice thing where they would do animation and they’d put a sheet of paper over it and show you how it could be stronger and better. And in a sense we’re kind of doing that now, trying to impart the lessons that we learned from those guys on to the younger generation. 

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