A Haunting Melody: Grim Grinning Ghosts

When the crypt doors creak

And the tombstones quake

Spooks come out for a singing wake

Happy haunts materialize

And begin to vocalize

Grim grinning ghosts come out to socialize…

So begins the music to the single greatest theme park attraction ever built. The Haunted Mansion revolutionized what was possible in dark-ride entertainment, elevating it to an art form. While much of that success is due to the Imagineers’ unique ability to blend cutting-edge technology with centuries-old practical effects, it would be foolish to underestimate the importance of the attraction’s music.

Variations on the song “Grim Grinning Ghosts” (music by Buddy Baker and lyrics by Francis Xavier Atencio) play throughout the attraction. The style and presentation of the song vary depending on the room you are in, ranging from a slow, slightly off-key dirge in the foyer, and a waltz performed on the organ in the Grand Balloon, to the rollicking sing-along heard in the cemetery. It’s a constant presence, enhancing and tying the disparate narratives within the Haunted Mansion into a cohesive whole.

The Boy from Springfield

Hailing from Springfield, Missouri, Norman “Buddy” Baker started his music career early, beginning his piano studies at the age of four (though some articles say six). By 11, he’d picked up the trumpet. He began studying under E. W. Peter’s and Mickey Marcell at Drury College. He followed that musical passion into a doctorate from Southwest Baptist University. During this time, he began composing pieces for local nightclubs.

After relocating to California, Baker began composing music for radio programs. A 1960 article in the Springfield Daily News related his rise in the musical world, stating, “During Baker’s climb toward the summit of his chosen profession he has worked with personalities whose names most Springfieldians hear with a feeling of awe. He has conducted musical programs for Jack Benny and Bob Hope, arranged for such name bands as Bob Crosby and Stan Kenton…”

His transition into a Hollywood composer was in part fueled by his distaste for the rise of rock and roll, as he related, “I left the recording field six years ago because I couldn’t stand rock ‘n roll, which was taking over the business. About the only place left where one could write music was in the Hollywood studios.”

After making music for television programs like The Jack Benny Show, Baker was brought into Disney to assist George Bruns with music for the Davy Crockett series. As noted in his official D23 biography, “From there, Buddy went on to score more than 50 films, including Toby Tyler, The Gnome-Mobile, and The Fox and the Hound. He also scored such animated featurettes as the Oscar®-winning Donald in Mathmagic Land and the original three Winnie the Pooh films. As the Studio ventured into television, Buddy contributed to such series as Walt Disney Presents and Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. He then moved into the theme park arena, beginning with the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, scoring Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and the Carousel of Progress.”

X Marks the Spot

I’ve written previously about Francies Xavier “X” Atencio and his composition of Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me). An animator turned Imagineer, Atencio was not musically trained and did not even suspect that he had any aptitude for music until he worked for Disney, once saying, “I didn’t even know I could write music, but somehow Walt did. He tapped my hidden talents.”

The child of Agapito and Ida Atencio, X grew up in the historically Mexican coal town of Walsenburg, Colorado. As noted by Creepy Kingdom, “Jesus M. Abeyta, X’s great-grandfather, first brought his family to nearby Trinidad, Colorado around 1864, according to an account signed by former state senator Jose Miguel Madrid. Before that, Abeyta was born in Abiquiú, New Mexico in 1820 while it still belonged to a nascent nation called Mexico. Jesus’ father and grandfather also hailed from New Mexico dating all the way back to 1757, a historical period that saw Abiquiú play host to the last of the major witchcraft trials that began centuries ago in Europe.”

His grandfather worked as Las Animas County Assessor, while his father became the editor of El Clarín, a Spanish-language newspaper. X originally planned to follow his father into the world of journalism, but decided to study art instead. When he received a job at Disney, it was celebrated at home with an article in the local newspaper which read, “This coveted position of honor and recognition of artistic ability is much treasured by young Atencio and both his grandparents and parents are very proud of his achievements and accomplishments in the artistic line.”

That a man who possessed no musical or lyrical training should go on to write songs is remarkable enough. The fact that he wrote two of the most popular songs in the company’s long history, lyrics which have worked their way into the popular imagination, is the sort of twist that seems only possible in the world of Disney. 

Despite his surprise when Walt Disney suggested he write the song (Atencio felt sure that the Shermans would be given the project), he attacked the project with gusto. As Bob Weiss, president of Walt Disney Imagineering, recalled, “That was how X worked — with an enthusiastic, collaborative attitude, along with a great sense of humor. His brilliant work continues to inspire Imagineers and bring joy to millions of guests every year.”

Speaking with the website Laughing Place, Atencio recalled that Dick Irvine and Marty Sklar brought him into the Haunted Mansion project, stating “They knew I had done Pirates, so they wanted me to move onto the next assignment. And there again, Claude Coats and Marc Davis had worked out the continuity of the ride, and everything like that, as they did on Pirates. My job was to figure out what was going to be said in it.”

Part of that script work involved creating the song Grim Grinning Ghosts, which he stated presented its own challenges.

“When Buddy and I did the music for this, the graveyard for instance, we had a cacophony of sound, because each little vignette had it’s own little music bit in it,” he said. “But it didn’t work, so finally Buddy had to put a general sound throughout. We got the Grim Grinning Ghosts theme working through the whole ride so we could concentrate on the things like the busts singing.”

As in Pirates of the Caribbean, they were also faced with striking a delicate balance between the macabre subject matter and Walt’s desire to keep the park family friendly. As Atencio related to D23, “We researched Japanese spooky stuff, and Walt didn’t want any blood and guts. In the song “Grim Grinning Ghosts,” I say, “Come out to socialize.” That was the key to it. They terrorize but their main point was to socialize. Walt bought that idea. That was the hook, the Disney angle. “Socialize” is the key word.”

Creepy creeps with eerie eyes start to shriek and harmonize…

Over half a century since Baker and Atencio composed their masterpiece, Guests are still tapping their feet to the morbid melody they created. It’s been featured in Disney fireworks shows, movies, and a variety of albums. It has even been covered by artists like Barenaked Ladies and featured in video games. A true classic in every sense of the word.

As Halloween approaches, let’s join our voices in a spooky verse:

If you would like to join our jamboree

There’s a simple rule that’s compulsory

Mortals pay a token fee

Rest in peace, the haunting’s free

So hurry back we would like your company

Life’s a Balloon: Remembering Dame Angela Lansbury

When October began, my plan was to fill the month with the history of spooky Disney songs. Then Dame Angela Lansbury died on October 11, and things changed. Next week, we’ll get back into the seasonal posts, but this week I wanted to spend a little time paying tribute to one of the true icons of stage and screen.

I have indistinct memories of encountering Lansbury as the indefatigable Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote as a child in the 80s, but I didn’t truly come to appreciate the genius and charm of the show until I was an adult. Instead, like most people my age, I first fell in love with her work in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. She provided the voice of Mrs. Potts, a resident of Beast’s castle who performed the show-stopping titular song. 

Tale as Old as Time

Mrs. Potts

As Kevin Fallon noted in his tribute in The Daily Beast, “To the child version of me, she was warmth personified. Her mumsy tenderness exuded from this singing, talking teapot, like the steam from a drink the character herself might pour. She created a Mrs. Potts that was on our level and familiar, but Lansbury brought with that an awe-inducing gravitas. She reassures Belle. She dotes on Chip. She calms the Beast. But make no mistake about the regality she’s earned: When Mrs. Potts starts singing the first bars to “Beauty and the Beast,” it was clear that she was ushering in something important.”

There are so many little moments in her performance that became unforgettable. Her delivery of the line, “Goodness sakes is that a spot?” in Be Our Guest is hilarious. Then there is the end of Something There when she patiently says to Chip, “I’ll tell you when you’re older.” It’s so gentle and maternal that you can’t help but feel like everything is going to be okay. 

In hindsight, there’s something especially poignant about this, given that the lyrics to the songs were written by Howard Ashman in the final days before his death. Lansbury took his beautiful words and brought them to life, and without her performance it seems unlikely that the film would have made the history it did, becoming the first animated film ever nominated for Best Picture. 

Lansbury performed Beauty and the Beast at the Academy Awards, alongside Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson. As producer Don Hahn remembered, “We tried to guide voters to the title song. Celine Dion, who was unknown at the time, was drafted out of Canada to sing the song because we couldn’t afford a big singer. Actually, we were worried about her singing it alone, so we paired her with Peabo Bryson, who was a bigger star at the time. So that song was put front and center in the run-up to the awards, and that’s the one that won.”

With due respect to both Dion and Bryson, Lansbury’s voice and Ashman’s lyrics were all that the song needed, and it went on to win the award. It was a stunning accomplishment, which owed no small debt to the love that Lansbury had for her family. As noted by ClassicFM, Lansbury “considered her role in the Disney film, as a gift to her three grandchildren.”

Eglantine, Eglantine Oh How You’ll Shine…

Bedknobs and Broomsticks

Beauty and the Beast was not Lansbury’s first performance in a Disney film. That came in the form of Miss Eglantine Price in the 1971 film Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

To be honest, I didn’t see this movie until college, when my then-girlfriend (and now wife) showed it to me. We watched a VHS copy in her bedroom, and I fell instantly in love with it. 

It is, without question, a strange film. Olivia Truffaut-Wong summed it up perfectly in her tribute to Lansbury when she wrote, “Bedknobs and Broomsticks is full of horrifying problems solved by silly solutions. Three orphans have to leave London to escape the war, but they’re taken in by a woman who takes witch classes by correspondence. They magically travel to the cartoon Isle of Naboombu only to find themselves lost underwater in the lagoon, but the fish there dress in three-piece suits and go clubbing, so it’s really not so bad. And the Nazis try to invade England but are beaten back by an apprentice witch on a broomstick and an invisible army of animated armor. To recap: In Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Lansbury plays a single, childless, singing-and-dancing, Nazi-fighting witch.”

While it never attained the widespread adoration and critical acclaim of Mary Poppins, it remains a delightful bit of whimsy with brilliant animation and endlessly singable songs written by the Sherman Brothers. 

In 1969, Lansbury wrote a note to producer Bill Wash to describe her excitement about the prospect of being in the film, stating, “I think the script has so many marvelous facets, character, humor, heart and an opportunity for rare inventiveness in so many areas . . . .  And the songs Dick and Bob have written for Eglantine are charming and just what was needed. So, all things being equal, do hope I’m ‘Your Girl’.”

It was a role that carried special emotional significance to Lansbury, who left London as a teenager to escape Nazi bombing. She later recalled, “Like Miss Price, I was in England when World War II broke out. My mother gave me a choice of being evacuated from London to a boarding school in the country or studying acting at home. I chose the latter without hesitation.”

In another of the many tributes written after her death, David Sims cited her performance in Bedknobs and Broomsticks as the definitive example of her genius for acting and charm as a performer. He wrote, “Released to mixed reviews, it was at best a modest success, but I watched it constantly on VHS as a child. Lansbury might’ve been one of the first actors I could immediately recognize. On rewatch, it’s certainly a strange hodgepodge of a children’s film, but it succeeds on the back of Lansbury’s unique charm: She’s steely but somehow warm, playing an oddball who’s nonetheless instantly lovable…part of what made Lansbury such an exquisite performer was her commitment to utter silliness…Eglantine Price is a surprisingly complex character for a kids’ film laden with special effects and animated sequences: She’s frosty and resistant to intimacy, but not written off as a sad spinster or a dotty loner. Lansbury makes her both funny and sympathetic, giving a fantastical, high-energy movie some needed emotional grounding.”

Life’s a Balloon

Mary Poppins Returns Balloon Lady

If I were to pick a single Lansbury performance that holds the greatest emotional resonance to me, it would have to be her brief cameo in Mary Poppins Returns. She appears in the film’s closing moments, portraying the Balloon Lady, who sells balloons in the park. 

Speaking of the role, Lansbury said, “There’s a lot more to Balloon Lady than just selling balloons. She’s a sort of a magical character and I think she knows what’s gone on and when she sends people up with a balloon she knows where they’re going, if they should go up or if they shouldn’t. So in that respect there’s something a little bit mysterious and interesting about her and that’s an appeal to me. A mystery is my business as you know.”

It’s impossible to watch without feeling emotional. When she tells the character of Michael Banks that he’s forgotten what it feels like to be a child, you get the sense that it is something that Lansbury never lost and that regaining it is as simple as reaching out and taking a balloon. 

It’s hard to imagine a more fitting swan song to her Disney career, and one that seems to encapsulate the warmth, grace, and charm that defined her entire career. As we all remember Dame Angela Lansbury, I’ll leave you with a few lines from the Mary Poppins Returns song Nowhere To Go But Up:

Life’s a balloon

That tumbles or rises

Depending on what is inside

Fill it with hope

And playful surprises

And oh, deary ducks

Then you’re in for a ride

Look inside the balloon

And if you hear a tune

There’s nowhere to go but up

Choose the secret we know

Before life makes us grow

There’s nowhere to go but up

If your selection feels right

Well then deary, hold tight

If you see your reflection

Your heart will take flight

If you pick the right string

Then your heart will take wing

And there’s nowhere to go but up…

A Midnight Jamboree with the Headless Horseman

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad

In the annals of American entertainment, few names have achieved the stature of Bing Crosby. His smooth, baritone voice always sounded effortless, bringing a casual charm to everything he sang. Over the course of his career, he had close to 400 charting singles, with approximately 41 achieving reaching number one. Four performances (White Christmas, Swinging on a Star, Pennies from Heaven, and Don’t Fence Me In) have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and by some estimates has sold as many as 500 million records. Fourteen of his songs were nominated for Academy Awards, including four wins.

But his talents didn’t end with music. Crosby appeared in 70 films, including the popular “Road To…” series with Bob Hope. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as Father Charles “Chuck” O’Malley in Going My Way, and was nominated for his reprisal of the role in The Bells of St. Mary’s.

Despite such a prolific career, his only Disney credit came with the release of 1949’s The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, based upon The Legend of Sleepy Hollow from Washington Irvin’s book The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. and The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Crosby provided the narration for the Sleepy Hollow segment, as well as voicing the characters of Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones.

In the film, Crosby performs the song Headless Horseman, which tells of the haunts that come to the village of  Sleepy Hollow on Halloween. The most frightening of all is the Headless Horseman, who has grown “tired of his flamin’ top” and has “got a yen to make a swap. So he rides one night each year to find a head in the Hollow here.”

The song itself was composed by the successful songwriting duo of Don Raye and Gene de Paul.

The Boogie Woogie Vaudeville Boy

A member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Don Raye was born in Washington D.C. on March 16, 1909. He earned his chops touring Europe and the United States on the vaudeville circuit. As noted in his bio on Shazam, “After starting to write songs to liven up his act, Raye realized that his work was not only good enough to sell to others, but that this might constitute a better living than the vaudeville stage…In the mid-’30s, he was collaborating with Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin, as well as bandleader Jimmie Lunceford, and had developed a swinging style as a songwriter. Among his early hits was “Down the Road a Piece,” a neat little amalgam of bluesy rhythm and vivid, catchy lyrics that was picked up by Freddie Slack and Will Bradley, and covered by everyone from Glenn Miller to Count Basie.”

Raye had a gift for incorporating things like slang into his lyrics, such as in his hit Beat Me Daddy, To the Eight Bar, first recorded by Will Bradley and His Orchestra, and then by the Andrews Sisters, both in 1940. The latter group would immortalize his biggest hit, The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy a year later as part of the Abbott and Costello film Buck Privates.

He continued writing music for films, and began collaborating with Gene de Paul. 

Writing Singy Kind of Songs

A decade younger than Raye, Gene de Paul was born in New York City and trained as a classical pianist. Like Raye, he served in the United States Army during World War II. Later in his career, he wrote music for Sesame Street (such as A Singy Kind of Song), but would write a number of hits in the 1940s, including You Don’t Know What Love Is, and the Academy Award nominated Pig Foot Pete

In the 1950s, he teamed up with Johnny Mercer to write the music for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and the duo would later combine their talents on Broadway for the musical L’il Abner. But before that, he was a frequent collaborator with Raye. 

In 1941, the pair wrote Cow Cow Boogie (Cuma-Ti-Yi-Yi-Ay) for Abbott and Costello’s Ride ‘Em Cowboy, which would become a hit for Ella Fitzgerald and the Inkspots. They also wrote I’ll Remember April (featured in the same film) which became a hit for Chet Baker, Bing Crosby, Bobby Darrin, and others. 

In the early part of the decade, Disney began their work on a possible feature film of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which was interrupted by the outbreak of war. As Jim Korkis wrote on Cartoon Reasearch, “After the war in late 1947, the studio was still financially struggling so Walt decided to pair the story with another adaptation being developed, The Wind in the Willows, as his final package feature. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad was released October 5th, 1949.”

Raye and de Paul were brought on to write music for the film, having contributed to 1948’s Disney film So Dear to My Heart. Early on, voice actor Thurl Ravenscroft was considered to sing Headless Horseman, and Disney would later release a record of him performing the piece. However, Bing Crosby had been brought onto the project (along with Basil Rathbone for the Wind in the Willows segment) to help ensure the film’s financial success, and it was determined that for consistency Crosby would provide all of the vocal parts for the Sleepy Hollow segment (except for those of the female characters). 

Bingo from Bingville

Hailing from Tacoma, Washington,  Harry Lillis Crosby, Jr. earned his lifelong nickname as a child. A fan of the comicstrip The Bingville Bugle, Crosby was known to giggle uncontrollably while reading it, which lead a neighbor to dub him “Bingo from Bingville.” Eventually, it would be shortened to just “Bing,” a moniker which would become a household name worldwide. 

This story was later confirmed as fact, but was not the initial tale Bing told to a curious Joan Blondell in 1937. At the time, he related, “”Well, I’ll tell you, back in the knee-britches day, when I was a wee little tyke, a mere broth of a lad, as we say in Spokane, I used to totter around the streets, with a gun on each hip, my favorite after school pastime was a game known as “Cops and Robbers”, I didn’t care which side I was on, when a cop or robber came into view, I would haul out my trusty six-shooters, made of wood, and loudly exclaim bing! bing!, as my luckless victim fell clutching his side, I would shout bing! bing!, and I would let him have it again, and then as his friends came to his rescue, shooting as they came, I would shout bing! bing! bing! bing! bing! bing! bing! bing!” 

An enormous fan of singer and actor Al Jolson, Crosby first got an up close look at the legendary performer as a prop boy at the Auditorium Theater in Spokane, Washington. Years later, the two would perform together on a memorable duet of Irving Berlin’s classic Alexander’s Ragtime Band

He began performing in groups around Spokane, and according to a Mental Floss article, managed to become a huge success twice. They wrote, “…he and partner Al Rinker cut out for California to try to make it big in Hollywood in 1925. Rinker was the brother of jazz singer Mildred Bailey, who set him and Crosby up with some connections, and they were soon performing as part of a revue called The Syncopation Idea. Their talent was spotted there by the incredibly popular king of jazz, Paul Whiteman, who hired them. They had been in Los Angeles less than a year. When overnight success struck again for Crosby, it was after he decided to get serious as a solo act. He debuted on national radio September 2, 1931, and had 10 of the top 50 songs of that year.”

Volumes could be written about Crosby’s life and career (and indeed have been), but it is enough to note that there are few performers who match the stature and worldwide reach that his career achieved. The song White Christmas alone would have been enough to secure his place in the great pantheon of entertainment history. It’s to all of our benefit that he did so much more, including bringing life to one of Disney’s spookiest songs.

The year The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad was released, Crosby would release a 10” record of Headless Horseman. As we venture further into the October Country, I’ll leave you with the lyrics as Crosby performed them.

Now gather ’round

While I elucidate

On what happens outside when it gets late.

’Long about midnight

The ghosts and banshees

Get together for their nightly jamboree.

There’s ghosts with horns and saucer eyes

And some with fangs about this size,

Some short and fat,

Some tall and thin.

Some don’t even bother to wear their skin!

Ho ho! I’m tellin’ you, brother:

It’s a frightful sight

To see what goes on in the night!

When the spooks have a midnight jamboree,

They break it up with fiendish glee.

Ghosts are bad, but the one that’s cursed

Is the Headless Horseman: he’s the worst.

When he goes a-joggin’ ‘cross the land

Holdin’ a noggin in his hand,

Demons take one look and groan

And hit the road for parts unknown,

And there’s no wraith like a spook that’s spurned.

They don’t like him and he’s really burned!

He swears to the longest day he’s dead

That he’ll show them that he can get a head!

So close all the windows,

Lock the doors;

Unless you’re careful, he’ll get yours.

Don’t think he’ll hesitate a bit

’Cause he’ll clip your top if it’ll fit,

And he likes them little, likes them big,

Part in the middle or a wig,

Black or white or even red:

The Headless Horseman needs a head!

With a hip-hip and a clippity-clop,

He’s out lookin’ for a top to chop,

So don’t stop to figure out a plan:

You can’t reason with a headless man!

So after dark, you kids be good!

Stay at home, the way that you should,

‘Cause right outside, and waitin’ there,

Is the Headless Horseman. Beware!

Man, I’m gettin’ outta here!

The Best Disney Villain Songs Pt. 2

The Great Mouse Detective

Last week, we embarked upon a sinister journey to explore the best Disney villain songs ever written. In part one we looked at songs like Friends on the Other Side from The Princess and the Frog and Hellfire from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This week we’re venturing even further into the darkness with sinister snakes, manipulative mothers, and the Master of Menace himself, Vincent Price. 

Are you ready? I certainly hope so. Things are about to get wicked…

Poor Unfortunate Souls – The Little Mermaid

Physically inspired by the legendary drag artist Divine, and voiced by the late, great Pat Carroll, Ursula is a powerhouse, the sort of character you can’t take your eyes off of, even as she lures you to your doom. What’s worse? You find yourself smiling and laughing as she pulls you under. 

Her showstopping number Poor Unfortunate Souls was penned by one of the great musical teams of all time–Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Menken wrote the music, while Ashman penned the lyrics. Though it seems hard to believe now, the song was not originally part of the movie soundtrack. Instead, Ursula was to have performed a song called Silence is Golden. Fortunately for movie-goers everywhere, they transformed it into the number we know and love today. 

On the album Howard Sings Ashman, fans can hear a demo of Ashman performing the piece. It’s a true treat to hear his interpretation, and one can instantly recognize much of the snark and sass that Carroll later brought to the song. It’s no coincidence. Carroll stated in interviews that she asked Ashman to perform the song for her before she recorded it. She was so taken with many of his mannerisms that she added them to her interpretation (with Ashman’s happy blessing). 

The Mob Song – Beauty and the Beast

When people think of the villain song from Beauty and the Beast, they tend to mention the rollicking number Gaston. It’s an endlessly singable ditty that is always a crowd pleaser, whether sung by Jerri Corti and Richard White in the 1991 animated masterpiece, or by Josh Gad and Luke Evans in the 2017 live-action remake. It’s a personal favorite, but to my mind is not a truly villainous song. 

It’s primarily performed by LeFou as he tries to bolster Gaston’s spirits. We don’t see the full corruption inside of Gaston until the performance of The Mob Song. In it, he whips up the townsfolks’ fear, inciting violence against Beast and the other members of the castle. The song is even more chilling when we see how readily the people give themselves over to the hysteria, becoming willing to commit atrocities based on the absurdities Gaston has made them believe. 

Once again, this bit of musical mastery is the work of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. It was composed in the waning days of Ashman’s life. He would die from complications of AIDS eight months before the movie debuted. An article by D23, the official Disney Fan Club, relates a bit of history about how Ashman wrote the lyrics in those final days, stating, “Because of Ashman’s failing health, he opted to stay put near his doctors in his hometown of Fishkill, New York—about 60 miles north of New York City, meaning the rest of the creative team had to be flown in to work on his turf.” 

It’s hard not to see parallels between the lyrics Ashman wrote and the circumstances of his life. The D23 article goes on to relate “It was Howard who really shifted the focus to make it about the Beast,” explains Tom Schumacher, former president of Walt Disney Feature Animation, now president and producer for Disney Theatrical Group. “That the Beast has made a tragic mistake [and is] looking for redemption… that was constructed by a man who at that time in the AIDS crisis knew he wasn’t going to get out. “A lot of that found its way into the heart of this movie,” agrees Ashman’s collaborator, composer Alan Menken. “And I think in some ways that came out in lyrics.” After the film’s release, legendary CBS anchorman Dan Rather—in an article written for The Los Angeles Times, drew a comparison between the AIDS crisis and the cursed Beast’s knowledge that his chance to be human again was ticking away. Said Rather, “You feel the Beast’s loneliness and desperation a little more deeply. He’s just a guy trying as hard as he can to find a little meaning, a little love, a little beauty, while he’s still got a little life left.”

Seen in this light, The Mob Song becomes all the more unsettling given the national hysteria that surrounded the AIDS epidemic, when the public often treated patients like outcasts. It’s a tribute to his genius that Ashman was able to transform that pain into such beautiful art.

Mother Knows Best – Tangled

At the risk of making this a Menken-centric list, there’s simply no way to talk about great Disney villain songs without mentioning Mother Knows Best from Tangled. Alan Menken wrote the music, and multi-Tony nominee and Grammy Award winner Glenn Slater provided the lyrics. 

Speaking to William Bibbiani, Menken described the challenge of writing the song, saying, “…it needs to be established that she loves her mother and her mother loves her, and also you’re dealing with a subtle kind of emotional abuse that is clearly a much more serious and subtle element than you can give value to in a Disney song, a song for Disney. You have to sort of scale it back to her simply being a manipulative mother, and lighten it so that they can still have a mother/daughter relationship. If you think about it that’s a lot of modulating that has to happen with that.”

Of course, as brilliant as the song and lyrics are, it’s actress Donna Murphy who brings the piece to life. A two-time Tony winner (who has been nominated a total of five times), Murphy’s performance as the manipulative, self-centered Mother Gothel is almost reminiscent of Momma Rose from the musical Gypsy, and it comes out in Mother Knows Best as she tries to convince Rapunzel that everything she is doing is for her good. 

In an interview with SheKnows, Murphy said, “ I think that her humor helps, which when I first read the script I thought, “You know what? She is one of those people who cracks herself up.” I thought it was entertaining. I remember, Byron [Howard] and Nathan [Greno], the writer-directors, saying to me, “It’s a great image.” They said that they think she’s somebody who envisions herself periodically being hit with a spotlight. And then they literally did it in the Mother Knows Best number. I think she is an entertainer.”

Trust in Me (The Python’s Song) – The Jungle Book

Have you ever thought to yourself, “Man, I wish a demented, murderous version of Winnie-the-Pooh would sing me a lullaby with murderous undertones”? Of course, you have. Well, you’re in luck, because that’s exactly what you get in Trust in Me from The Jungle Book.

The song is sung by the character of Kaa, the secondary antagonist of the film, whose voice was provided by Sterling Holloway, best known as the voice of Winnie-the-Pooh and Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire Cat. 

Written by Richard and Robert Sherman, the piece was actually an adaptation of the song The Land of Sand, which was written for Mary Poppins, but never used. Bobbie Sherman, Robert Sherman’s son, notes on his webpage, “The Sherman Brothers had a monumental task ahead of them. They had to take a series of grim scenarios and somehow find a way to “Disney-fy” them. Somehow they had to make the songs sound happy and funny, even though the story dealt with the dark topic of a feral boy’s survival at the mercy of the often ruthless, cutthroat creatures of the jungle. What the Sherman Brothers came up with were five remarkable songs that both provide a happy (albeit sometimes haunting) tone. And yet, their songs delve far deeper into original Kipling text than anyone at the studio might have imagined possible.”

Holloway’s unmistakable voice helps make the piece feel slightly lighter than the lyrics would suggest. Though Kaa is attempting to lure the character of Mowgli to sleep so that he can eat him, it’s just not possible to be too intimidated by Pooh Bear. 

Goodbye So Soon – The Great Mouse Detective

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and so it is with our little venture into the dark heart of Disney. However, we will leave you with one of the most under-appreciated films in the Disney canon. Released in 1986, The Great Mouse Detective is a clever homage to the mysteries of Arthur Conan Doyle and his immortal Sherlock Holmes. 

Honestly, there are two songs that I could have picked for this final entry, as The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind is an utter delight. With music by Henry Mancini and lyrics by Larry Grossman and Ellen Fitzhugh, the song celebrates the villainous Ratigan’s past crimes as he plots his next great venture. 

For sheer menace, however, I’ve got to go with Goodbye So Soon (also by Mancini, Grossman, and Fitzhugh). It plays as Basil (the Sherlock Holmes-like character) and his partner Dawson are about to be killed. The song itself is a study in contrasts. Backed by an upbeat horn section, the great Vincent Price (best known for his long career in gothic horror films) croons a song of victory as Basil and Dawson await a rather ghastly fate. 

Price’s performance is delightfully smug, peppered with a mock sense of regret, a flawless compliment to the lyrics and music. It’s such a perfect little song, that I can think of no better way to end our two-part journey than with the lyrics:

Goodbye so soon

And isn’t this a crime?

We know by now that time knows how to fly

So here’s goodbye so soon

You’ll find your separate way

With time so short I’ll say so long

And go

So soon


You followed me, I followed you

We were like each other’s shadows for a while

Now as you see, this game is through

So although it hurts, I’ll try to smile

As I say

Goodbye so soon

And isn’t this a crime?

We know by now that time knows how to fly

So here’s goodbye so soon

You’ll find your separate way

With time so short I’ll say so long

And go

So soon