What do you do when you’re tasked with creating an “I Want” song for one of Disney’s most beloved princesses? La La Land songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul were given that very assignment for Guy Ritchie’s live-action Aladdin remake, and furthermore, the order came from the very man who inspired their own entry into the world of music: composer Alan Menken.
“It was a tremendous honor for us and a very terrifying proposition,” Paul tells EW. “We grew up with Aladdin and those renaissance Disney animated musicals — Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, the Alan Menken-Howard Ashman canon… so we were obviously so excited to play in the world of Aladdin. At the same time, it was really scary, and we said we didn’t want to screw this up for our generation and every generation to come. We didn’t want to be the ones to ruin the legacy of Aladdin.”
Luckily for Pasek, 33, and Paul, 34, Menken became the “thread” that connected the 1992 animated version with Ritchie’s remake. “Alan knows this story and these characters inside and out, so we just need to drop into his vision and be good students and support his vision,” Paul says.
Aladdin, which opened to more than $200 million at the worldwide box office over Memorial Day weekend, stars Mena Massoud as the titular street rat, Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine, Will Smith as the Genie, and Marwan Kenzari as the evil Jafar. While much of the plot echoes the animated film, new characters, expanded scenes, and original songs help refresh the tale and serve up a different ending.
To find inspiration for Jasmine’s new solo song, Pasek and Paul say they went back to the animated film, where one line in particular stood out to them. “When Jafar is trying to force Jasmine into a marriage with him in the third act of the movie, he speaks to her in a misogynistic way, saying ‘Speechless, I see. A fine quality in a wife,’” Pasek explains. The line served as the catalyst for “Speechless,” the power ballad Jasmine belts out after Jafar reminds her of her place in the palace and as a woman in Agrabah. Once in her room, she goes to the balcony overlooking the city and the oceans she can’t reach, singing, “I won’t be silenced / You can’t keep me quiet / Won’t tremble and you try it / All I know is I won’t go speechless.”
“She won’t be silenced, and she will not only find her voice, but she will let it ring,” Pasek says. “And that’s the incredible part about Jasmine, that she’s not necessarily searching for her voice, she’s just making a declaration that she won’t let anyone take it away from her.”
“Speechless” is one of three new songs Pasek and Paul wrote for Aladdin, but the other two didn’t make the final cut. (They might make an appearance on the home video release.) One of the eliminated songs was a solo number for Jafar that Pasek and Paul say “fell away pretty early in development” but would have been part of the extended opening number of “Arabian Nights.” The other track was “Desert Moon,” a duet crafted for Aladdin and Jasmine to take place after Aladdin is captured by Jafar and doesn’t show up to the midnight palace courtyard meeting he arranged with Jasmine.
“Alan wrote a really beautiful piece of music and we were really thrilled to get to write some lyrics for it; both [Massoud and Scott] sound amazing on it,” Paul says. “It’s a really beautiful song, and we do hope that people will get to hear it, but it’s one of those things where the pacing of a musical and getting to the action, there just ended up not being room for it.”
Menken also drafted Pasek and Paul to write the “One Jump” reprise sung by Aladdin in the third act of the film, and to flesh out “Arabian Nights,” which Smith sings at the beginning of the film as he introduces the tale of “Aladdin, the princess, and the lamp” and the audience flies through the labyrinths of Agrabah and glimpses its various inhabitants. “Because of how Guy wanted to shoot the opening number, it needed to be expanded a little bit to cover more time, and he wanted to go into the marketplace and see the people,” Pasek says. “We got to try and match as best we could the flavor of the original but just add more content in and out of the streets of this incredible, magical world.”
Aladdin is just the start of Pasek and Paul’s collaboration with Disney, and the duo have been brought on to revamp the music for a live-action Snow White movie. “We’re taking the original  animated film and updating it by writing new songs, reinterpreting some of the old songs, and creating a fully fleshed-out, robust live-action musical,” Pasek says.
“It’s a challenge because you’re really trying to expand something that so many people know so well and has been a part of so many people’s lives,” he adds, “but it’s been really fun because ‘Heigh-Ho’ in the original film is a very short song but we’re trying to expand it a little bit in this version. So getting to play around with that is really exciting.”