Snuff Out the Light (Yzma’s Song): Part Three: Eartha Kitt

When a company has been in the entertainment industry for as long as Disney (who celebrate their one-hundredth birthday this year) it’s inevitable that there will be forgotten or abandoned projects. Kingdom of the Sun is one such project, a story based on Mark Twain’s Prince and the Pauper which was ultimately transformed into The Emperor’s New Groove. 

While the finished product bears some similarities to what the public eventually saw, they were fundamentally different films, and there will always be a sense of “what could have been” when it comes to thinking about it (even if The Emperor’s New Groove did turn out to be one of the most delightful film’s in the company’s history). 

Perhaps the greatest sense of loss comes in the form of “Snuff Out the Light,” the song that the character of Yzma (as performed by Eartha Kitt) was to sing. Over the last few weeks, we’ve taken a deep dive into the history of the song, including the history of the abandoned movie and the song’s composition by rock and roll icon Sting.

This week, we’ll take a closer look at Eartha Kitt, who took Sting’s music and words and brought them brilliantly to life. 

From Humble Beginnings

A biography of Kitt on the Internet Movie Database paints a stark picture of her difficult early life, stating, “An out-of-wedlock child, Eartha Kitt was born in the cotton fields of South Carolina. Kitt’s mother was a sharecropper of African-American and Cherokee Native American descent. Her father’s identity is unknown. Given away by her mother, she arrived in Harlem at age nine. At 15, she quit high school to work in a Brooklyn factory. As a teenager, Kitt lived in friends’ homes and in the subways. However, by the 1950s, she had sung and danced her way out of poverty and into the spotlight.”

She first gained recognition as part of the Katherine Dunham Dance Group, where she became a featured dancer and vocalist. A world tour soon followed, and she was subsequently offered a job at a Parisian nightclub. While there, she began to amass a notable fan base, including Orson Welles, who cast her in a production titled, “An Evening With Orson Welles” and would later refer to her as the “most exciting woman in the world.” A review in the Stars and Stripes newspaper said, “Eartha Kitt, whose haunting rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Hungry Little Trouble” blends beautifully with the poetry of “Faust,” quite literally steals the show. The petite 22-year-old South Carolinian invariably draws applause by her singing of “Yo Creo Yo Tengo un Amor” (I Think I Have a Love), a song she wrote herself. Her brief recital between the dramatic portions of the production is certainly worth the price of admission.” 

Kitt eventually returned to New York and found success at the Village Vanguard and Broadway. Soon, best selling records followed with titles like “Love For Sale,” “I Want to Be Evil,” and the perennial holiday favorite “Santa Baby.” 

By 1960, she had earned a walk on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but her biggest contribution to pop culture would come seven years later when she appeared as Catwoman in the classic series Batman. Unfortunately, her career would soon make a massive turn after she spoke out against the Vietnam War while at the White House. As a result, she became blacklisted in the United States.

Despite the consequences, Kitt’s daughter Kitt Shapiro stated that she never regretted the decision to speak out. In an interview, Shapiro stated, “ She said she would have done it a thousand times. She was asked her opinion, and she said, “I thought when someone asked my opinion, they actually wanted to hear what I have to say. Especially in the house that represents our rights to have freedom of speech.” She never regretted it, but she always was disappointed in the outcome.”

Over the years, Kitt published a number of memoirs. The first, Thursday’s Child, was published in 1956. The second, Alone With Me, was released in 1976, and Confessions of a Sex Kitten followed in 1989. 

While theatre remained her lifelong passion, her performance for Disney would introduce her to a whole new generation of fans. 

Pull the Lever, Kronk!

According to the Oral History of the Emperor’s New Groove, Michael Eisner originally wanted Barbara Streisand to play the role of Yzma. While Babs would have brought an undeniable flair to the role, I think Disney fans would agree that Kitt was the woman born to play the role. Kingdom of the Sun director Roger Allers was thrilled to have her as part of the project, recalling, “…I was so happy to cast Eartha Kitt in the role. With these older divas, you can be a little afraid of getting in the room. With Eartha, at our first meeting, I’d just come back from a research trip to Peru, and I brought her back a bunch of Peruvian textiles — these wonderful geometric patterns — as a gift, and she immediately opened up.” 

Allers later recalled his sorrow about losing Kitt’s performances in Kingdom of the Sun. 

“I mean the one song “Snuff Out the Light,” we were almost done with that in animation,” he said. “Sometimes I just think, Oh, just for curiosity’s sake they should just release it, to show people this song with Eartha Kitt as the Yzma character. It’s locked away in the archives somewhere. It kind of drives me crazy.”

Even when Kingdom of the Sun fell apart, Disney decided that Kitt would remain part of the new film. Storyboard artist Chris Williams stated, “We recognized that two things were really working well from Kingdom of the Sun: David Spade as Kuzco and Eartha Kitt as Yzma. “Well, what if we just started with those two things? Just hold on to those two things and build from them.”

Despite the difficulties associated with Kingdom of the Sun, Kitt adored playing the part of Yzma in The Emperor’s New Groove. According to director Mark Dindall, “Yzma always kind of grew out of Eartha’s wonderful personality. I do remember thinking when we were first going to pitch her the new idea, I wonder if she’ll think this is too silly, just nonsense and ridiculous. We had the scene where they go down to the Secret Lab, on a storyboard in the story room….She instantly locked in. Nothing like that’s ever happened to me with an actor.”

It was a role that she adored according to her daughter. 

“…as she got older, she played Yzma in The Emperor’s New Groove, Kronk’s New Groove, and The Emperor’s New School on television on Disney and ABC,” Shapiro said. “That was a character she truly enjoyed playing because it was so much fun.”

The love for role was returned from audiences and critics, with Kitt eventually winning two Daytime Emmy Awards for her performance in The Emperor’s New School. 

And to think, it all began with a project, and a song, that was scrapped. 

Snuff Out the Light: Part Two: Sting

In last week’s blog post, we talked about the film Kingdom of the Sun, which was re-worked into The Emperor’s Groove. In particular, we looked at the song “Snuff Out the Light” to have been performed by Eartha Kitt as Yzma.

This week we’ll take a closer look at the man who wrote the song: rock and roll icon Sting. 

The Man from Northumberland

Plenty has been written about the rock and roll career of Sting, born Gordon Matthew Sumner. More than a few books have been devoted to that very tasks, so I won’t try to smash all of that information into a single blog post. But here are a few essentials.

Sumner was born in Northumberland, England on October 2, 1951. The eldest child of a hairdresser and milkman/engineer, he fell in love with the guitar when a friend of the family left his instrument with the family. 

He began his career in music during college, playing jazz during his free time with the Phoenix Jazzmen, New Castle Big Band, and in a jazz fusion group called Last Exit. In early 1977, he formed the Police, blending reggae, punk, and jazz into a brand new sound that would effectively change popular music. By the time they disbanded in 1986, they had released five albums (beginning with Outlandos d’Amor and ending with Synchronicity), wong five Grammy Awards, and two Brit Awards. In 2003, they would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 

Sting began his solo career shortly before the Police broke up, releasing the album Dream of the Blue Turtles in 1985. Improbably, his solo career proved just as revolutionary and successful as his work with the police, adding another 12 Grammys to his collection.

Meeting the Mouse 

On the surface, Sting working with Disney seems like an unlikely pairing. In Vulture’s, “An Oral History of the Emperor’s New Groove” they note, “After the breakup of the Police, Sting had become a massive international solo star. Meanwhile, Elton John’s songs for The Lion King had proven to be unforgettable. It only made sense that the company would now approach another star to do something similar: to compose a broad variety of songs to enhance a film’s musical-theater-style appeal — which was, after all, part of the Disney formula.”

At first, he had mixed feeling about the prospect of working with the company, stating, “”I had concerns about working for a big corporation. But two of my close friends, Elton John and Phil Collins, had worked with Disney and they encouraged me to do it. Like everybody else, I had grown up with Disney movies and I was aware that it had a legacy with a very long reach. I was intrigued by the idea that people would be watching the movie and listening to my songs in 20 or 30 years’ time. Also, writing for animated characters was a challenge that appealed to me.”

Rogers Allers, director of Kingdom of the Sun, remembered, “ had put a year or more in before I had the idea of asking Sting if he would like to do the music. On one of his albums, he had something that was Latin American–sounding. We met with Sting at his home in England which is sort of near Stonehenge. I met his wife Trudie. They were very gracious people. Pretty shortly after that, Trudie came up with the idea of doing a documentary about Sting’s experience on a Disney film. She and her filmmaker J.P. Davidson would come periodically and canvass us, film things, interview people. They got to watch the whole up and down of the movie.”

According to John Paul Davidson, director of The Sweatbox (the documentary detailing the disaster that was Kingdom of the Sun), Sting’s work on the film may have been some of the best of his career. Allers was also enamored of the pieces he created, taking special note of Yzma’s song. 

“I love the one he wrote for Yzma, ‘Snuff Out the Light,’ where she goes down to the catacombs and has a song and dance with all the mummies,” Aller said.

Unfortunately, it and the other five songs he came up with were all ditched when the movie changed direction and transformed into The Emperor’s New Groove. As noted previously, Sting was understandably less than thrilled with Disney’s decision to cut his work. An article in the Guardian quoted him as saying, “”At first, I was angry and perturbed. Then I wanted some vengeance. We couldn’t use the songs in this new film because the characters they were written for didn’t exist anymore.”

Luckily for Disney, the bad feelings didn’t last long and Sting contributed two new songs that would appear in The Emperor’s New Groove. He noted, “After about five minutes of ranting and raving, I thought, ‘OK, let’s get back to work. Let’s try to make this thing happen.’”

But there were still hiccups. Sting didn’t care for the plot of the new film. Instead of a re-telling of Twain’s Prince and the Pauper, it told the story of a theme park being built in the heart of indigenous land. Sting saw it as an affront to his beliefs, stating, “ I told them I was resigning because it was the exact opposite of what I stand for. For the past 12 years or so I’ve been involved with the problems in the Amazon and the destruction of the rain forests. The people who live there don’t have any human rights or legal protection, and I’ve been raising money to try and provide that. More than saving trees, we’re trying to save people’s lives. I’ve spent years trying to defend the rights of indigenous peoples and they wanted to march over them to build a theme park! I wasn’t going to be a party to it.”

Changes in the story re-assured him. As fans of the movie will no doubt recall, Emperor Kuzco never builds Kuzcotopia, instead building a simple small cabin near his new friend Pacha’s home instead.  As a result, Sting did contribute a pair of songs to the final product. The end results were “Perfect World” and “My Funny Friend and Me,” the latter of which was nominated for Best Original Song at the 73rd Academy Awards, but lost to Bob Dylan’s “Things Have Changed.” 

Looking back on the journey, executive producer Don Hahn stated, “Sting was a real mensch. When he saw the movie changing from the thing he signed up for, he sent a nice letter saying, “I didn’t sign up for this, good luck.” But Randy wasn’t going to let him resign. He was like, “Okay. We’ll talk next week and then we’ll send you the new assignment.” Sting would say, “No, you don’t understand.” Randy and Mark were persistent about keeping him involved. In the end he had some really great work in the movie. But I think it’s a difficult memory for him, because he wanted to do what Elton John did on Lion King.”

Finishing the Story

Next week, we’ll take a look at the final piece in the story of “Snuff Out the Light,” the performance of the one and only Eartha Kitt as Yzma.

Snuff Out the Light (Yzma’s Song): Part One: Kingdom of the Sun

It’s a simple fact. Villains get the best songs. Dr. Facilier sang “Friends on the Other Side.” Ursula had “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” Mother Gothel gave us “Mother Knows Best,” and Scar provided one of the most haunting performances in Disney history with “Be Prepared.” Each steals the show.

Unfortunately, some of Disney’s most captivating villains don’t have their own songs. Maleficent. The Evil Queen. The Horned King. But what about the evil sorceress Yzma? Equal parts comic and nefarious, she is the primary antagonist of Disney’s 40th animated feature, “The Emperor’s New Groove.” Voiced by the legendary Eartha Kitt, it would seem like a no-brainer to give her a musical number in the film. And yet…none appears.

The Emperor’s New Groove (released in 2000) is less of a musical than many of the Disney films that went before it. The song “Perfect World,” performed by Tom Jones, is featured at the beginning and end of the movie, but that’s about it. Even the Oscar-nominated “My Funny Friend and Me” does not appear until the film’s credits. 

But that wasn’t always the plan. For much of its life, the movie was envisioned as a musical, which would have included a stunning song, “Snuff Out the Light” performed by Yzma. So, what happened?

The Kingdom of the Sun

In 1994, director Roger Allers saw the debut of the smash hit The Lion King. At this point, he and writer Matthew Jacobs came up with the idea for a new film: Kingdom of the Sun. The movie was to be set in the kingdom of the Inca.

Despite its South American setting, the movie was to draw its plot from a quintessentially North American source: the writings of Mark Twain. The story would adapt Twain’s novel The Prince and the Pauper. The part of the prince, named Manca at the time, would be voiced by David Spade, while the pauper, Pacha, was to be performed by Owen Wilson. 

In the story, the film’s villain, Yzma, sought to revive the shadow god Supai in the hopes that he would restore her youth. To do so, she must sacrifice Prince Manca, who bears the symbol of the sun. The song “Snuff Out the Light” details her motivations:

When a woman acquires a certain age

And the men who adored you no longer swoon

It pays to avoid the sunlit days

And live by the light of the kindly moon

But the moon grows old just like us all

And her beautiful years are done

So now she prays through endless days

To take her revenge on the sun

When I was a girl at my daddy’s side

Papa, the royal mortician

Revealed to me in secret signs

The mark of the magician

And daddy was no dummy

Did outrageous things with a mummy

And often the stiffs that he would drive

Would look better dead than they did alive

I studied well I learnt the trade

I thought my looks would never fade

If I could find that recipe

To give eternal youth to me

It was always my ambition

To use papa’s tuition

And gain some small remission

From the vagaries of time

Every little ray of sunshine robs me of my youth

Who to blame? Who the one? Who to curse?

You know the only one to blame

Would be my enemy the sun

Snuff out the light, claim your right

To a world of darkness

Snuff out the light, neophytes

Of a world of darkness

Supai baby, turn me on

Every wrinkle soon be gone

I could squeeze myself with glee

The promises you made to me

I’ve really stopped at nothing

Murder, treachery and lying

Whatever it takes to keep my looks

You really can’t blame a girl for trying

Snuff out the light, claim your right

To a world of darkness

Snuff out the light, neophytes

Of a world of darkness

Snuff out the light, claim your right

To a world of darkness

Snuff out the light here tonight

Apparitions of eternal darkness

Spiraling in circles through the night

Creatures of beguiling blackness

No more squinting in the light

Bats and owls and coiled sea dragons

Crocodile and carrion beasts

Swirling in the growing darkness

Join us in the coming feast

Spectre wraith and apparition

Spirit demon phantom shade

Salamander serpents, dog-faced devils

Dance and watch the dying sunlight fade

The music for the movie, including “Snuff Out the Light” were composed by the team of David Hartley and rock icon Sting (aka Gordon Sumner). 

Unfortunately, the movie suffered numerous setbacks during production. Disagreements about the plot led to significant revisions, with Disney feeling that the original concept was too similar to other Prince and the Pauper adaptations. Complicating matters further, the film received a poor response from test audiences and CEO Michael Eisner expressed displeasure with it. 

Director Mark Dindal, the man responsible for the Warner Brothers’ film Cats Don’t Dance, was brought in to assist with the movie. His vision differed drastically from Allers, who wanted to emphasize drama over comedy. The disagreements eventually led Allers to quit the film, causing Eisner to threaten to shut down production completely. 

A complete re-tooling of the movie began. The plot was drastically changed, and John Goodman replaced actor Owen Wilson as Pacha. The songs composed by Hartley and Sting were scrapped from the film, as they reflected the original plot. Sadly, this included “Snuff Out The Light.” It was a development not well received by the musical superstar, who commented, “At first, I was angry and perturbed. Then I wanted some vengeance.” 

Fortunately, many of the discarded songs were included in The Emperor’s New Groove original soundtrack album, including Yzma’s grand number. 

Inside the Sweatbox

The chaos of the production was captured in a documentary titled The Sweatbox, directed by Trudie Styler (who also happens to be Sting’s wife), and John Paul Davidson. A review from states, “the first thirty-to-forty minutes of The Sweatbox unfolds as one might expect any in-depth look at the making of an animated film to go”…about forty minutes in, we witness the fateful day in which an early story-boarded cut of the film is screened for the heads of Disney Feature Animation, Thomas Schumacher and Peter Schneider. They hate the film, declare that it is not working, and begin a process of totally scrapping and reinventing huge chunks of the story. Characters are totally changed…voice actors are replaced, and the entire story is shifted around.” 

Unfortunately, most of the world would not be able to see the finished product. An altered and Disney-approved version was released as a featurette with the DVD release of The Emperor’s New Groove. Viewers would not get the chance to watch the original until it was leaked by an 18-year-old cartoonist from the United Kingdom. 

A review from Cartoon Brew states, “The Sweatbox is at turns infuriating, hilarious and enlightening. You’ll cringe in sympathy with the Disney artists as you see the gross bureaucratic incompetence they had to endure while working at the studio in the 1990s. The film not only captures the tortured morphing of the Kingdom of the Sun into The Emperor’s New Groove, it also serves as an invaluable historical document about Disney’s animation operations in the late-1990s. If any questions remain about why Disney fizzled out creatively and surrendered its feature animation crown to Pixar and DreamWorks, this film will answer them.”

The story of Kingdom of the Sun and, by extension, “Snuff Out the Light” casts a fascinating light on the production process of an animated film, revealing the conflict, politicking, and struggles that go into creating a work of art. But it is still only part of the story when it comes to the music. 

Next week, we’ll dig deeper into the men who wrote the music for Yzma’s song: David Hartley and Sting.