Mulan: The story behind 'I'll Make a Man Out of You' and its other hit songs
Let’s get down to business to get the story behind the music of Mulan.
Over 20 years ago, Disney paired lyricist David Zippel and composer Matthew Wilder in what Zippel calls “the best blind date I’ve ever had” when the studio asked the pair to collaborate on the music for the animated film, Mulan. The film, a story about a young Chinese woman who goes to war disguised as a man in place of her father, came near the end of the Disney animation renaissance in 1998 and even earned an Oscar nomination for Zippel and Wilder in the short-lived category of Original Musical or Comedy Score.
Zippel had worked with Alan Menken on Disney’s previous animated film, writing lyrics for Hercules, but this time they were pairing him with a new talent — Wilder, who Disney scouts had discovered at a theatre festival in Canada. After a brief meeting where they quickly hit it off, the two became a part of the Mulan team over four years before the film’s 1998 release. For Wilder, one of the first orders of business for devising his score was to become familiar with “the vocabulary of Chinese instrumentation.” As he explains, “We knew we weren’t going to be writing a five-tone scale musical. My go-to references were Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Loewe and Gilbert & Sullivan. There was so many other references that had taken the Asian motif and brought it into the 20th century, and I was leaning heavily on anything and everything I could get my hands on.”
Zippel says the experience of writing the score for an animated film is actually very similar to the process of writing a stage musical. Zippel and Wilder would meet with the production team to go over storyboards, hash out which moments needed songs or were natural fits for musicalization, go off and create a demo, which would be set to animation, and make tweaks from there. This meant writing and re-writing songs, occasionally tossing things out the window altogether.
One moment in particular that never made it to the final version was a song for Eddie Murphy’s character, Mushu, Mulan’s sidekick in the form of a diminutive dragon. The song was called “Keep ‘Em Guessing” and featured Mushu advising Mulan on how to maintain her undercover act as a male soldier. “We wrote three different versions of it,” explains Zippel. “But that’s because we didn’t understand at that point that it wasn’t that [Eddie Murphy] wasn’t liking our songs, he just didn’t want to sing in the film.”
Here’s an inside look at the process behind some of the songs that did make the final cut:
‘I’ll Make a Man Out Of You’
Though Disney is known for their ballads, songs like “Beauty and the Beast” and “A Whole New World,” a more upbeat tune has endured since the film’s release. The training montage song of “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” remains a perennial favorite, with Hawaii teens recently re-creating it shot for shot and Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley saying she listens to it to get pumped up for shooting lightsaber battles.
Like the character of Mulan, the song is an unlikely hero. “I never thought a song as quirky as that was going to attract as much attention as it did,” says Wilder. Yet, it seemed almost charmed from the start with Wilder and Zippel landing on what would become the final version of the song the first time they presented it to Disney. “We came in with the first draft of the song and everybody said, ‘Oh my god, this is good, we’re excited.’ We were very lucky with that one,” remembers Zippel.
The title, in all its ironic glory, came first, which then inspired the rest of the music and lyrics. “Matthew and I were just trying to find a really original take on a training montage that was fun and funny; that wasn’t obvious,” says Zippel.
“We knew it needed to be masculine and muscular and hence the drums, all the military aspects of what were factored into a very odd pop song,” adds Wilder. “And a rather odd structure. But the lyric was leading on that one.”
When it came to writing the music, Wilder says he used an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach. “I knew I wanted it to sound large and I knew what the tempo and the cadence of the piece was. I had a very extensive Asian sample library. I was sort of mixing and matching East meets West where I was taking drum cadences from traditional Chinese drums and then marrying that with military snares, etc. and just kept building and building and building so it became this cacophonous effect of a Chinese marching American band,” remembers Wilder.
Moving from the demo Wilder recorded himself to the final orchestrations, the song transformed into a huge affair with an over 100-piece orchestra and a male choir all overseen by rock arrangement legend Paul Buckmaster.
The song started with the lyrics and Zippel said he knew he’d hit on something great when he devised the title, ironically contrasting Mulan’s gender with the concept of what it means to be a man. Zippel notes, “It was trying to be ironic and humorous and in character at all times.”
Perhaps the most iconic portion of the song is the call and answer section of the chorus where voices intone “Be a Man” in between lyrics like “you must be swift as a coursing river” and “with all the force of a great typhoon.” Wilder says, “Those first three chords in the chorus were really the stepping off point of ‘Be a Man.’”
Zippel adds the naturalistic descriptions of masculinity — the raging fire, coursing river, great typhoon, and so forth — came from an attempt to get inside Shang’s head space. “I was just trying to be in character for the captain and how an Asian captain would lead his group differently than how a Western captain would call his troops,” he says. “This was a chance to put some specificity into it. This is a song a little bit about hyper-masculinity and the whole idea of Mulan punctures that idea. This was a chance to have those two issues head-to-head.”
“It was a training sequence, and whether you’re talking Private Benjamin or GI Jane, [imagine] taking that and putting it into an Asian motif,” adds Wilder. “We were trying to marry the idea of that hyper-masculinity as if it were a Marine moment, but instead of it being Marines, it was the Chinese army.”
The ballad that was to take its place alongside other Disney princess tunes like “Part of Your World” and “Colors of the Wind” was the first tune Wilder and Zippel penned for the film. Wilder remembers preparing a demo of the song set to hand-drawn animation to screen for then-Disney chief Michael Eisner. “He preceded to tell me when the song first started, he thought, ‘This is something that’s going to be really, really special and when it got to the chorus, it plateaued.’ It did not do what he was hoping it would do,” remembers Wilder. “He sent me back to the drawing board with the parting shot that I needed to break the glass ceiling.”
With a little more tinkering the pair landed on the final version of the song, but ultimately only half of it made it into the film. “They wanted to cut the scenes shorter because they felt the ballad was slowing the momentum of the film down,” says Wilder. “Originally I remember them talking about wanting to cut the song altogether, and David and I fought tooth and nail to keep it in.”
It was a battle well worth fighting because some 15 years later, it was Reflection that proved to Zippel the impact of Mulan‘s music. While hosting a dinner party at his apartment in New York City, a visiting family brought their 15-year-old son who asked if he had written Mulan. “He started to get all choked up, and I said ‘What is it?’ And he said, ‘I was going to commit suicide because I was gay, and I didn’t know how to tell my parents. I didn’t know how to tell anyone. I heard the song ‘Reflection’ and the lyrics ‘When will my reflection show who I am inside?’ gave me the courage to tell my parents who embraced me and accepted me and it changed my life.’” recounts Zippel. “That moment alone made being a songwriter worth my whole life. That our song had that effect on him was wonderful and very powerful.”
‘A Girl Worth Fighting For’
“A Girl Worth Fighting For” marked an opportunity for Wilder and Zippel to lead the way on the storytelling.
“With all of its irony, [it] was a comedy song. The way we created it so it doesn’t end; it just stops upon them discovering the horrors of war. I thought that was a really powerful moment,” says Zippel. Wilder adds that the abrupt end to the song directly inspired and informed the narrative and how the animators would bring that moment to life.
The song also brought an unexpected vocal cameo for Wilder. Gedde Watanabe, who voiced one of Mulan’s compatriots, Ling, got into the studio to record the track and was unable to land the vocals. “They threw me in to be his sound-alike, to be the guy that voices his character,” recalls Wilder. “That was a real high point for me because I didn’t see that coming. When I hear the song, that’s the moment that comes to mind. I wound up becoming part of the singing cast, which was just so much fun and so unexpected.”
‘True To Your Heart’
The end-credits song was originally penned for Hanson, but the beloved ’90s boy band didn’t end up making the deal. Wilder and Zippel were excited and astonished when they were asked to tweak the song they’d written to have a Stevie Wonder feel. Mulan allowed them to work with many performing heroes and legends, including legendary dubbing artist Marni Nixon — but Stevie Wonder took things to the next level.
Wilder still vividly remembers their recording sessions with the music legend. While sitting in the studio waiting for Wonder’s arrival, he remembers, “some guy walks in and sets up a keyboard and then walks out with saying a word.” After several hours passed, Wonder finally arrived and Wilder says, “I peaked my head out into the hallway in time to see him floating down this long hallway in this floor-length dashiki. He looked like an African god.”
Neither Wilder nor Zippel knew precisely what Wonder might contribute to the song. “Initially we had asked if he’d play harmonica on the piece,” says Zippel. “Then he said, ‘I really like this song, I’d like to sing on it too. That was the coup de gras, that just made us so happy.”
“He basically told us at that moment, ‘I’m here for you. I’ll do whatever you want. This sounds like a song I would’ve written back in the ‘70s and I’m into it,’” adds Wilder. “We spent the next two days with Stevie Wonder at our beck and call. I have outtakes from the recordings of him playing harmonica and warming up; it was an incredible experience.”
Zippel and Wilder hold nothing but fond memories of their time working on Mulan, which celebrates the 20th anniversary of its release this month. The two have not relinquished the idea of doing something further with the piece. When asked if they might be involved on the forthcoming live-action adaptation of the film, which has conflicting reports as to whether it will include music, they both say they have no idea what’s happening there.
As far as the stage goes, Mulan Jr. is available for schools and community theaters to perform, but would they want to take the show to Broadway? “In a heartbeat ,” responds Zippel before Wilder mysteriously adds, “There’s something being chit-chatted in backrooms right now that we’re not at liberty to talk about. We have a deep, deep, deep passion for this piece. [We would love] to have the opportunity to expand the score and see it up on stage. That would be a dream.”