Mickey Mouse and music are inextricably intertwined in my mind. It’s impossible to think of the groundbreaking 1928 film ‘Steamboat Willie’ without also thinking of the song “Steamboat Bill” (written by The Leighton Brothers and Ren Shields, and popularized by Arthur Collins), and the old American folk song “Turkey in the Straw” (which has roots as far back as 1795 and, in the manner of most folk songs, has a particularly convoluted history).
Then there is the 1929 ditty “Minnie’s Yoo-Hoo”, composed by Walt Disney and Carl Stalling. The song first appeared in the cartoon short ‘Mickey’s Follies’ and later became the theme for the early Mickey Mouse Clubs.
In those cartoons, Mickey was cheerful but prone to get into trouble. He constantly found himself in a fix, but his scrappy, resilient nature always won out in the end. The jaunty soundtrack tunes seem almost as much a part of Mickey’s personality as the antics and misadventures he gets into in the films. They’re the type of songs you might have heard on vaudeville, in a saloon, or at an Appalachian barn dance. In other words, they were songs of the people, perfectly matched to Mickey’s ‘everyman’ persona, like that of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Little Tramp’ character.
They’re also the type of songs you might expect a young Walt Disney to love. Though he went on to become a titan of animation and a business tycoon, his early days were that of a young boy from America’s mid-west. As a teen, he was a bit of a vaudevillian, performing as a Charlie Chaplin impersonator and engaging in a two-man comedy act. Like Mickey Mouse, he constantly found himself in some sort of a fix as he struggled to break into Hollywood, constantly fighting against poverty and failure, relying on his wits and innate talent to succeed. In many ways, Mickey was an animated analog of Walt Disney himself, so the music that represented the Mouse would naturally need to fit the man as well.
Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway
In March of 2020, Disney opened Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It was the first ride-through attraction devoted to Mickey Mouse, a trackless dark ride that makes it feel as though Guests have stepped right into a cartoon short. As such, music was a key part of the attraction’s development. The resulting song, “Nothing Can Stop Us Now”, is a modern classic that not only sets the mood for the entire experience but is a perfect throwback to those early Mickey cartoons.
The song was written by the husband-and-wife team of Christopher and Elyse Willis. Both have a considerable history with the Disney company. Christopher scores The Lion Guard animated series, as well as the Disney Mickey Mouse Shorts. He also earned an Emmy nomination for his song ‘Jing-A-Ling-A-Ling’ from Duck the Halls: A Mickey Mouse Christmas Special. Elyse has worked as a vocal contractor on The Lion Guard and Disney Mickey Mouse Shorts, and also performs in the Los Angeles Master Chorale, where she regularly performs at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
In an interview with Collider, Elyse stated, “Both Chris and I have similar musical backgrounds and the aesthetic that we like and grew up with, with classical music, the Great American Songbook, musical theater, and definitely, for me, tons of Disney.”
Christopher elaborated, “Apart from being really obsessed with music and classical music, I’m English and I grew up very into comedy and Monty Python. When I have lyrical ideas, they might be a bit tortured and a bit clever, and Elyse’s interests lean a bit more Broadway and a bit more Disney heritage. I might have views on lyrical things, but Elyse is a great musician, so she’ll have views on musical things. There’s an overlap, but a little bit of a difference, as well.”
When writing the song, Elyse states that the pair wanted it to be memorable, but not in an annoying way, which meant striking a balance between a catchy melody, and an overly simplistic jingle. Christopher noted that, when writing the number, they thought, “We want it to be a Mickey shorts type of song and a Great American Songbook kind of song. We love all of that stuff. Let’s not worry about whether it’s catchy or not. We’ll just write a good song.”
Given the importance that both Christopher and Elyse placed upon the Great American Songbook, it’s worth taking a moment to explain just what they are talking about.
The Great American Songbook and Tin Pan Alley
The Great American Songbook Foundation defines the songbook as, “the canon of the most important and influential American popular songs and jazz standards from the early 20th century that have stood the test of time in their life and legacy. Often referred to as “American Standards,” the songs published during the Golden Age of this genre include those popular and enduring tunes from the 1920s to the 1960s that were created for Broadway theatre, musical theatre, and Hollywood musical film.”
Looking through a list of composers and lyricists in the Great American Songbook is to explore a veritable smorgasbord of talent: Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gerswhin, Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II, Lorenz Hart, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Duke Ellington, Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, Johnny Mercer, Frank Loesser, Fats Waller, and Dorothy Fields, to name just a few.
The songs of the Songbook are part of the collective unconscious, melodies that are so omnipresent in American culture, that we seem to know them without even knowing how. Pieces like “As Time Goes By,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” or “Singin’ In the Rain,” have been performed by countless artists over the years. They are as much a part of American heritage as stories about Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, or Johnny Appleseed.
Much of this music can be traced to the area known as Tin Pan Alley in New York City. As noted on the page Tin Pan Alley: American Popular Music Project, “The first music publisher to move to the block was M. Witmark and Sons, who moved uptown from 14th Street to 49-51 West 28th Street in 1893, becoming the first publisher to set up shop in the block…By 1900, Twenty-eighth Street knew the largest concentration of popular music publishers any single street had known up to that time, 14th Street not excluded. Music publishers occupied buildings on both sides of West 28th Street, and some could be found in offices around the corner on Broadway, or just west of Sixth Avenue. At one time or another, between 1893 and 1910, the following publishers were located on the Alley (note that several moved from one address to another). The source for these addresses is David A. Jasen’s Tin Pan Alley: An Encyclopedia of the Golden Age of American Song (Taylor & Francis, 2003) as well as copies of covers of sheet music on file at the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, in the “Brill Building” research file.”
As the page goes on to state, “Without exaggeration, it can be asserted that this is the block where the popular music industry as we now know it began…” A 1903 article by Roy L. McCardell states, “Tin Pan Alley?” – it’s twenty-eighth street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, the centre of the song publishing business in this country, and it gets its name from the jangling of pianos that are banged and rattled there day and night as new songs are being “tried on.” Every day you’ll see noted people in the musical comedy world hunting in the “Alley” for songs that will add to their fame.”
Irving Berlin and the Rules of Songwriting
With this brief history in mind, let’s look at how The Willises embraced this songwriting tradition in the composition of “Nothing Can Stop Us Now”.
Perhaps the quintessential songwriter of both the Great American Songbook and Tin Pan Alley, is Irving Berlin. Songs like “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, “Cheek to Cheek,” and “Putting On the Ritz” are perfect examples of the form. Berlin would define the nine essential rules of songwriting:
- The melody should remain within the range of the normal human voice.
- The title should be easily remembered
- The song should be gender neutral so that they are able to be sung by anyone.
- The song should contain ‘heart interest’, even if it is comic.
- The song must be original, not derivative.
- The lyrics should deal with ideas or emotions that are common to everyone
- The song should be written in a way that is singable to everyone with a lot of open vowels.
- The song must be simple. As Berlin states, “Simplicity is achieved only after much hard work, but you must attain it.”
- Finally, the songwriter must look at the composition as work, and be willing to write, write, and re-write.
With those dictums in mind, let’s take a look at the lyrics of “Nothing Can Stop Us Now”:
Nothing can stop us now.
I’ll tell ya how
We’re gonna make it happen.
Let’s take a ride
And spend a day in the countryside.
Good times are here to stay
Let’s get away
And have a perfect picnic.
We’ll sing a song,
And absolutely nothing will go wrong.
We’re heading down the open highway,
And we’re glad you’re going my way.
Everything is just so peachy keen.
Nothing can stop us now.
I don’t know how
It can be any better.
We’ll travel hand in hand
Across this wonderland.
Strike up the marching band
Can stop us now!
It’s easy to see how the lyrics and title fulfill Berlin’s rules. They deal with very human feelings of anticipation and joy as Mickey and Minnie get ready for their perfect day in the country. There’s a hint of romance and playfulness to the words, as well as a sort of longing that gives the song its heart feeling.
The melody does not drift too high into the musical register, nor does it go too low, meaning that it can be sung or hummed by virtually any listener. As to Berlin’s statement about open vowels, one only needs to look at the title “Nothing Can Stop Us Now” to see how effectively they embraced open and near-open vowels in the song’s lyrics.
The lyrics are deceptively simple, hiding the deep craft that went into writing them. The process was enhanced by the particular musical backgrounds. As Elyse explained, “Chris is a pianist and a composer, and he thinks lots and lots about harmony and what makes a good melody. I’m a singer, so I’m thinking about the sing-ability of a song and the way the words work.”
Taken altogether, the song seems a perfect example of songwriting craft, adhering closely to the rules that Berlin laid out, which helps place it directly in the tradition of the Great American Songbook.
Though it is still a relatively young song, it’s easy to imagine that the piece will become a long-established part of the Disney canon, one that fans and music lovers alike will cherish for generations.