In a new oral history of the 1996 animated film, Alan Menken reveals the late pop icon wanted to record songs like 'Out There' and 'God Help the Outcasts.'

By Christian Holub
June 21, 2021 at 01:27 PM EDT
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To this day, The Hunchback of Notre Dame remains one of the most unique animated films Disney has ever produced. The company took some notable risks with the movie, but Michael Jackson's participation wasn't one of them.

Released in 1996 at the height of the so-called Disney Renaissance period, Hunchback eschewed the princess movie fairytale archetypes of films like The Little Mermaid for a darker tone and political story based on Victor Hugo's 1831 novel. In a new oral history over at SlashFilm, the directors, animators, actors, and other filmmakers discuss the making of Hunchback in detail.

One anecdote stands out in particular. Composer Alan Menken, who's hailed by the other oral history participants for creating his best score with Hunchback, reveals that Jackson displayed a strong interest in the project. Previous Disney films like Aladdin had been successful at storming the charts with pop star covers of their songs, and Jackson was willing to try the same for Hunchback.

"I get a call out of nowhere from Michael's assistant, when Michael was at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York," Menken told SlashFilm. "He had to [deal with] allegations about inappropriate behavior with underage kids, and the breakup with Lisa Marie Presley. He's looking to change the subject. And he obviously loves Disney so much. So I mentioned Hunchback. He said he'd love to come to my studio, watch the movie, and talk about it. So we got in touch with Disney Animation. They said, 'Meet with him! If he likes it…well, see what he says.'"

Michael Jackson wanted to be a part of 'Hunchback of Notre Dame
Credit: LUKE FRAZZA/AFP via Getty Images; Everett Collection

Menken showed Jackson three songs: "Out There" (Quasimodo's desperate plea to escape his confines in Notre Dame and experience the real world and its people), "God Help the Outcasts" (Esmeralda's expression of solidarity with Quasimodo), and "Someday" (which plays over the end credits).

"Michael said, 'I would like to produce the songs and record some of them.' Wow. Okay. What do we do now? Michael left," Menken said. "We got in touch with Disney. It was like somebody dropped a hot poker into a fragile bowl with explosives. 'Uh, we'll get back to you about that.'"

Menken continued, "finally, predictably, the word came back, 'Disney doesn't want to do this with Michael Jackson.' I go, 'OK, could someone tell him this?' You can hear a pin drop, no response, and nobody did [tell him]. It fell to my late manager, Scott Shukat, to tell Michael or Michael's attorney. In retrospect, it was the right decision. [But] Quasimodo is a character… if you look at his relationships with his family and his father, I would think there's a lot of identification there."

Menken was probably right about Jackson's identification with Quasimodo. In the book Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson, screenwriter Tom Hedley recalled that Jackson was a big fan of the 1939 film adaptation of Hunchback of Notre Dame, and displayed interest in playing Quasimodo in a possible remake years before the Disney animated version materialized.

Disney and the Michael Jackson estate didn't immediately respond to EW's request for comment on this story.

Read the full oral history over at SlashFilm.

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