Beauty and the Beast



Alan Menken


Rating: 9.6


Note from the editor: We are very sorry for the overbearing length of the following article. The reviewer's enthusiasm for this particular album is unbounded, and he would permit absolutely no editorial trimming. Therefore, for a brief synopsis of the merits of the score, see the last paragraph of the article. For a long-winded, rambling and gushing thesis on why Beauty and the Beast should be owned by everyone everywhere, see the review in its entirety.



Following upon the huge success that was The Little Mermaid, Alan Menken was once again called upon to collaborate with lyricist Howard Ashman and make their magic in a film that was to be given the title Beauty and the Beast. Having set the standard high with The Little Mermaid and the way in which that movie seemed to capture the hearts of its audience, the order was a tall one. And, seeing that both movies were musicals, the score was sure to be song-oriented. This presented another problem. Sometimes the "rules" for writing good songs are much less defined than they are for writing a good purely instrumental score. Songs seem to have more power over the average movie-goer than scores, but often what makes them good is rather undefined. A score can frequently be analyzed to show its genius. But songs are usually too simple for this sort of scrutiny, and are rarely if ever aided by that type of attention. Thus it can be very hard to know for sure if an audience will deem a musical good or not. What Disney was asking Menken and Ashman to do was quite a task. Fortunately, the people at Disney (whether they knew it or not at the time) had such a combination of composer and songwriter as to bear comparison with such greats as Roger and Hammerstein and others, and the duo was more than up to the task.

As an introduction piece, "Prologue" is excellent. The underscore Menken created for this sets a perfect tone for the movie to follow. One of the more outstanding challenges facing film composers is how to create music that underscores dialogue without getting in its way. Masterful examples of how this can be accomplished abound, but I think this one certainly deserves a place in film score history as one of the most well done. The way Menken combines the high strings, xylophone and piano for the high notes is very delicate and "magical" sounding. The bass heavy textures come and go in the composition giving it all a very fantasy-like sound, and Menken also uses alternately the oboe, flute, cello, and double bass to contribute to parts of the melody in an exemplary way. David Ogden Stiers narrates the whole thing beautifully, and the script for it is written well and flows nicely.

From here throughout the rest of the songs we pretty much have nothing but some best and most loved Disney songs ever written. "Belle" is the first to show the fantastic work Paige O'Hara did as Belle throughout the movie. Full of character, yet soaring and refined, she is surely a standout on a nothing-but-standouts album. Taking place in the middle of town, Ashman had plenty of characters at his disposal, and he utilizes them well, wandering through moments of craziness and moments of strong emotion. Menken is a master of the crazy in animated music, and the way he switches between the upbeat and powerfully moving never ceases to amaze. "Belle (Reprise)" is very short, but soaring and moving.

Though both Gaston (Richard White) and his side-kick Lefou (Jesse Corti) both make appearances in the preceding track, on "Gaston" the duo rules the scene. Throughout the number, Lefou is trying to cheer Gaston up by telling him how great he is, a job Gaston gladly assists with. Richard White shows a wonderful amount of Gastons's character in his voice, and we can clearly hear the arrogance coming through the vocal chords, even apart from the clearly arrogant words. Put to triple meter, the song works as a sort of a waltz, and at parts is scored very much like the 19th century waltz, with the bass instruments accenting the one beat, and everything else taking the two and three beats. Ashman has some of his most witty and clever lines in this song, and quotables abound. "Gaston (Reprise)" has Belle's father, Maurice (Rex Everhart), coming in and telling everyone that Belle has been kidnapped. He is thrown out, and Gaston begins to concoct his scheme to have Maurice put into an asylum in order to convince Belle to marry him. The sung conversation between Gaston and Lefou is very humorous, and very classic.

Probably the second most well known song on the album (after "Beauty and the Beast"), "Be Our Guest" is a catchy and witty song in which Lumiere (Jerry Orbach) presents dinner to Belle. Jerry Orbach does a fantastic job as the French candlestick holder, and his voice is full of all the exuberance required of the character. Cleverly orchestrated and arranged accompaniment underscores well the very witty lyrics, and extravagant bravura is on display. The grandiose is presented fantastically as the whole kitchen shows off its abilities to Belle. In "Something There", Menken's competence in underscoring fantasy romance really shines through, and the innocence of this song is irresistible. Once again, O'Hara steals the show in her performance as Belle, and her mixture of confusion and joy at what she feels is shown very nicely.

The mob song shows Gaston at his full blown best. As he convinces the townspeople of the Beast's evil intent, the power behind his voice becomes very impressive. Though there is a moment (0:23) where the mixing lacks the punch that would be optimal here, most listeners will probably think nothing of it, and it does very little to detract. Menken combines underscore with dialogue in the middle of this song very impressively, and it not only adds noise, but creates an excellent bridge from one part of the song to the other. The most famous song on this very famous album, "Beauty and the Beast", as the title suggests, is the song that sums up the whole story. Though Menken's melody is appropriately simple and approachable, there are bits of orchestration that seem too pop-radio aimed. Namely, the piano chords that play relentlessly throughout pretty much the whole thing. Though perhaps a nice device, it screams soft pop to anyone who pays attention to the overused techniques of that genre. Still, there is some excellent woodwind work here, and the strings add a nice touch. However, musical preferences aside, there can be no doubt that Ashman did some of his best simple work ever on this song. His genius can be shown appropriately by merely quoting a few lines from "Beauty and the Beast": "Tale as old as time/ Tune as old as song/ Bittersweet and strange/ Finding you can change/ Learning you were wrong/ Certain as the sun/ Rising in the east/ Tale as old as time/ Song as old as rhyme/ Beauty and the Beast".

Definitely the most underrated aspect of the album is its score. Many people consider Menken to be nothing more than a tune-smith, but I am afraid that I could not disagree more. With Beauty and the Beast, Menken created a style that would prove invaluable to the many composers who need a style to work in, rather than inventing their own. As a fantasy fairy-tale, Beauty and the Beast is without peer. In The Little Mermaid Menken began to develop his fantasy musical style. Beauty and the Beast is the product. Menken's genius is in his ability to create an entire fantasy world. One that we find ourselves drawn to, and one that we would love to be a part of. Almost utopian in nature, this world is the essence of what fantasy is all about. At this point many would become uninterested in this musical world, saying that it lacks conflict and thus depth. They are completely right. This is where Menken begins his real manipulation. As the listener comes to care for this fantasy world more and more, he introduces something that seems out of place: danger. Having so masterfully built his world, the harsher types of music he presents have an even more powerful effect. We do not want this world to fall apart, and we do not want it to lose its innocence. Thus we are put directly into the mindset of the characters in the story. We feel the heartache that they feel as problems arise. We feel their fear and apprehension. Finally, we feel their jubilance at having come through the danger.

But that is only half of it. All of these things could be done, and have been done, with many types of music. But Menken works primarily in the animated musical scene, and is quite confined when it comes to style. He can never become too intense in his scoring, and must always keep everything child-like enough to fit the movie for which he is writing his music. But something that is very important to keep in mind is the difference in terms between "child-like" and "child-ish". Far too often composers resort to the child-ish to make their music appealing to children, creating moments of humor and such that lend nothing to the artistic whole. Menken avoids this trap completely in Beauty and the Beast, and every little bit of the score is a fascination to listen to.

"To the Fair" is probably the lightest of the score presented on the album. Its part is to build a fantasy world, and it does so admirably. Never straying far into either happy or sad emotion, it is stationary music, and probably the least interesting of the score on the album. Not that it is uninteresting in any form of the word. It just has less to recommend itself than any of the others. "West Wing" underscores Belles venture into the Beast's forbidden portion of his castle, his outrage upon finding her there, her flight and subsequent battle with the wolves. It is important to note that the original album did not include the wolf chase music. It seems that most all versions now for sale include it, but as a precaution it would be good to make sure that the track length is 4:25 to ensure that you get all of the score that you can. At first mysterious and curious, this track turns dark quickly. Belles flight and the wolves attack has very driving music as its background, and there are moments of strong emotion mixed in with the fast moving chase-like scoring.

"The Beast Lets Belle Go" is a tender bit of scoring that wanders through delicate orchestrations until it finds itself in an impressive crescendo before descending back into the quiet. Most of the woodwinds are used wonderfully on this track, with both the flute and oboe showing great expressiveness. For me, the highest highlight on a cd of nothing but highlights is "Battle On The Tower". It underscores the villagers attack on the Beast's castle, and the subsequent showdown between the Beast and Gaston. The first half shows what truly great child-like action scoring is. Sometimes humorous, sometimes scary, sometimes just fun, it is the best example of this type of scoring I have ever been able to find. The second half, however, is where this track really proves its worth. From 2:24 to the end is what I consider to be some of the most amazing music ever written for a film. The power in Menken's scoring is unmatched. Moving from driving rhythms to tear-jearking thematic reprisals, the track throws the listener through emotion after emotion, and doesn't let up. There is a superb and very short rendition of the Prologue theme right before going into one of the most stirring versions of Belle's longing theme to be heard on the album. Just as this reaches its climax, the music is hurled back into heavy brass scoring and snare rhythms, just before the best of the many examples of Menken falling music. Many just can't get past the songs on this cd, but I believe that this track is where Menken's genius is shown to its fullest extent.

As a wrap-up, "Transformation" ties everything up very nicely. Starting sadly, it soon becomes full of wonder as the Beast begins to transform. From there on, it is celebration. Yet the celebration music never reaches over-the-top in its attempts at jubilance, and Menken's restraint is perfect. Instead we get a kind of indescribable joy from the conclusion. The typical Menken choral climax at the ends works perfectly, and ends one of the best film music experiences you are ever going to find.

Well, unfortunately, that doesn't end it, and the inclusion of a pop version of the main song seems to be unavoidable in these type of movies. Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson both lend their pop-oriented voices to what was perfection. It probably would not seem so bad if put on an album of less artistic genius, but its inclusion here seems almost sacrilegious. The music is, of course, changed to the usual pop techniques, such as a boring as ever drum kit and synth writing that is unimaginative even for pop music. The result is, well, unfortunate. But don't despair, for the is hope! Lucky for you, the delete option exists on both Windows Media Player and iTunes, and even if you usually do your listening on a cd player, you can always burn a copy of the cd without the song. In the unfortunate event that you don't have a computer (how are you reading this, by the way?), or your computer doesn't have a cd burner, you will just have to skip it. Or maybe you will like it. Stranger things have happened. Maybe.

What more can I say? This album is groundbreaking in both its songs and score. The style was copied time and time again afterwards, but never, ever, with this kind of emotional success. Its songs are lyrically witty, and compositionally sound. The score, often considered lower quality, is also groundbreaking in its innocent and emotional style. Having stood the test of time, this work has emerged as probably the best thing Disney ever did in an animated movie. Beauty and the Beast is a masterpiece in every way.

-Colin Thomson


Track Listing:

Prologue
Belle
Belle (Reprise)
Gaston
Gaston (Reprise)
Be Our Guest
Something There
The Mob Song
Beauty and the Beast
To The Fair
West Wing
The Beast Lets Belle Go
Battle On The Tower
Transformation
Beauty and the Beast (Pop Single Duet)

5 comments:

Kritik said...

You should mail complimentary copies of this soundtrack to everyone who comments.

Colin Thomson said...

Perhaps when finances are no longer an issue in this world. Until then, I am afraid you will have to fend for yourself by buying it with your own hard-earned money. Don't worry, it is worth it.

Pleasant said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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Elkan said...

i,m so sorry that no won actully commented they just talked about there selves but thats fine any way i listened to that sound track from the library i think you did a very good jod