Imagine a landscape where “Part of Your World” doesn’t exist.
Ariel’s popular “I want” ballad and other songs from Disney’s 1989 classic “The Little Mermaid” kicked off a golden age of animation including “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” “The Lion King” and more, though would it have been the same without that teenage girl with a tail yearning to spend a day warm on the sand?
But “we almost lost it. We had to fight for it,” composer Alan Menken says of “Part of Your World,” one of many classic tunes he wrote with his late lyricist partner Howard Ashman. The beloved song – a nostalgic hit for anyone who grew up with the original film – appears on the soundtrack (out now) for Disney’s new live-action “Little Mermaid,” with Halle Bailey inheriting the role of Ariel from ’89 star Jodi Benson. Though if then-Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg had his way back in the day, the number would have been scrapped after mixed test screenings.
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But going to bat for emotionally resonant – and narratively important – songs “is what we do,” Menken adds. “It’s what we live for.”
The Oscar-winning duo of Menken and Ashman did the songs for “Little Mermaid” as well as best picture nominee “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin” in the 1990s – and for the recent live-action reimaginings, Menken teamed with Tim Rice for “Beast,” Benj Pasek and Justin Paul for “Aladdin,” and Lin-Manuel Miranda for “Mermaid.”
Menken says his goal with these high-profile Disney redos is “still keep the original as the emotional center of it, but to have these new songs that just expand the experience.”
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Miranda and Menken collaborated on three new numbers: “For the First Time,” a second solo song for Ariel; “Wild Uncharted Waters,” a ballad featuring Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King); and the Caribbean-flavored rap “The Scuttlebutt” with chatty bird Scuttle (voiced by Awkwafina) and crabby crustacean Sebastian (Daveed Diggs). To make room, two original tracks got keelhauled, “Daughters of Triton” and “Les Poissons.”
Director Rob Marshall didn’t think the latter especially would fit in a live-action world. The “Saturday morning cartoon” scene of a chef running around after Sebastian with a butcher knife “has zero to do with the story,” he says. And Menken wasn’t going to fight for that one: “I understand why possibly massacring fish in animation might be a little more palatable than someone doing it onscreen.”
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Of course, the big numbers remain. Fans would riot if Sebastian’s major tunes “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” were gone or Melissa McCarthy’s Ursula showstopper “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” “Part of Your World” takes center stage plus gets a key reprise later in the film with new lyrics by Miranda where Ariel sings about how things aren’t exactly better living outside of the water.
“Classically in a musical, when someone hits their lowest place in the story, you hear from them in a musical way,” Marshall says. “And Alan and Lin did a beautiful job of taking an unexpected part of that to give us her feeling at that moment.”
“Part of Your World” was an important song for both Menken and Ashman, who died from AIDS in 1991 at age 40. (His life story was the subject of the 2020 Disney+ documentary “Howard.”) “Howard saw Ariel as a normal contemporary teenage girl in this world,” Menken says. “And that was just what he brought to all of his work.”
Of the new tunes, Ashman “would’ve been tickled by ‘Scuttlebutt’ certainly,” Menken says. “I’d like to think he would’ve loved all of them, but saying that, when you thought you could predict his reaction, you were almost always wrong. Howard always had this incredibly perceptive perspective on things.
“Losing him was such a incredible loss. And yet I feel like we still have him. I feel like he’s still a part of my DNA in some way.”