Da Doo Blog

Writing and cutting

Maybe you haven’t noticed, but I’ve been struggling mightily with sustaining this blog. I don’t know if it’s writer’s block or just plain laziness but I find myself with all sorts of more important things to do lately.   The fact that none of those more important things are very important is irrelevant.

I’m not sure that Howard loved writing.  He wasn’t one of those people who kept a lifelong diary or forced himself to sit at his desk everyday, the way many writers work.  He didn’t noodle around on the typewriter or computer unless he had something to say.  In fact, between projects, Howard was much more likely to be shopping, reading, cooking, entertaining or talking through ideas (some good, some great, some nuts).

Howard at work

Howard was really happiest when adapting material.  He kind of pulled his musicals out of the source material.

I recently had a chance to sit in on a reading of the first Ashman/Menken musical, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.  When I came home, I took a look at Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, the show’s source material.  Working with Mr. Vonnegut’s full approval, Howard cut out characters, reshaped the plot line, moved scenes all over the place, and somehow wound up with a musical that is as true to the heart of that novel as it could possibly be.

Howard had a short attention span and he always said he wrote for people with short attention spans.   That’s why his shows move so quickly and why they’re so tight.  Writing economically isn’t the same as writing quickly or not editing your work. The trick is to find what needs to be said, say it well and stop before you lose your audience.

But Howard put a different energy into writing lyrics. The wordplay and economy of writing the words for songs fascinated him.  And once he got started, he didn’t want to stop.  Like working a puzzle, writing a good lyric is an intricate mind game.  And it’s not enough to offer internal rhymes and brilliant wordplay, the lyric of a song for a musical also has to move the plot forward and be in character.

Still, a pro has to know when it’s time to cut.  So Howard cut songs he loved.  It happened in Little Shop with “We’ll Have Tomorrow.”  To me, it’s the mark of a true professional; cutting out something you love from a book, a song, a show to make the whole work better.   Broadway is sprinkled with the bodies of cold, dead, great songs cut in previews.  It’s the stuff of legends.

As is Howard’s mighty temper.  One day at Disney, when Howard wasn’t in town, three executives who shall go unnamed, decided that one of Howard’s songs was too long.  So they set about cutting it.   Clip, cut, slash they went, until a lowly assistant mustered up her courage.  “Um, I think you should maybe let Howard do the cutting.”  Good call.  They did.  And Arabian Nights has withstood the test of time.









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Posted on: November 20th, 2013 by Sarah Ashman Gillespie 8 Comments

8 Responses

  1. [...] Angie S posted a long and well-reasoned analysis of Arabian Nights as a response to one of my blogs that set me to [...]

  2. Angie S says:

    Believe it or not, this started out as a much longer writing, but I thought I’d spare everyone my rambling. (I tried, anyway :} ) I figure I’ll elaborate if anyone wants it. This has bugged me for awhile (obviously, heh).

    The saddest part about the lyric change in “Arabian Nights”, is that they broke Howard’s rhyming scheme for the song – and I’m not sure they ever noticed. The pattern is: “…faraway *place*/…camels *roam*/…don’t like your *face*/…hey, it’s *home*”. He carried that pattern through the other verses of the original version (indeed, it was pretty long), one of which was later used in DisneyTV’s _Aladdin_ spin-offs (“…incredible *feats*/…hour or *so*/…wild in the *streets*/…here we *go*”).

    It’s disappointing that, although it’s going to Broadway with the (mostly) expanded lyrics (skipping a verse that has something even worse than “where they cut off your ear”, LOL – Howard was fearless), it still retains that careless rewrite – and now that verse clashes more than ever.
    (cut: “…style/…quo/…smile/…no”),
    “…place/…roam…/…intense (face)/…home”. CLANG

    If someone wrote the new lyric from scratch, they were never credited. I’ve speculated that maybe they’d lifted it from an “Arabian Nights” reprise that hasn’t seen the light, because he *did* use the shorter rhyming pattern for all of those that I know of (“…short and *sweet*/…down the *street*/…/…to the *tale*/…tomorrow’s a *sale*”) – compare “…and im*mense*/…is in*tense*”. But I have no way of knowing, since such a lyric was never published. I doubt it was Tim Rice, because I think, as a lyricist, he’d notice the rhyming pattern Howard had established. That, and the change was made after the film’s theatrical release, and I think he’d have finished his other projects with Disney by then. My (albeit pessimistic) assumption is that someone either just made it up off the top of their head – maybe a sound engineer, or an executive – or this (unqualified :p ) individual just grabbed it out of one of Howard’s unfinished pieces. If anyone knows otherwise, please reassure me. ;p

    To add my input to Chris’ comments (that I haven’t already addressed above): first, the change to “Arabian Nights” was made some time between the theatrical release in Nov ’92 (the original lyric was still there in late December when I first saw it – I was 14 – and I have a distinct memory of the startled chuckle it gave me) and the VHS release in Oct ’93 (I didn’t know the songs that well yet, and I couldn’t find the line that made me laugh for the life of me… it took me a couple of viewings to realize it was because it simply wasn’t there anymore). Howard was gone even before the theatrical release, much less the VHS.

    Second, I’m pretty sure the “galloping hordes” lyric was Howard’s, simply by deduction. There would have been time between the demo and the final cut for him to have changed it, and that wouldn’t be the first time he’d changed lyrics between the demo and the final (“Part of Your World: Reprise”, for one, was rewritten entirely), and there’s no existing final recording to say otherwise. And the rhyming pattern is still intact (cough ;p ).

    But, the mystery of “who wrote the mismatched lyrics??” persists to this day. :p

  3. Chris says:

    Thank you, Sarah, for keeping Howard’s legacy (and memory!) alive and sharing with all of us these sorts of personal tidbits. They are so wonderful! I’m always delighted when I see a new blog post. I try to check every few weeks to see if any have popped up.

    I do have a question or two: Was Howard left-handed? The photo above makes it seem as though he was. (I’m a leftie myself. For some reason, it always delights me to find out people I look up to were, too.) Also, were the revised lyrics for Arabian Nights (“Where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense”) and the change between the demo to the final track in Prince Ali (From “he once slew 70 Turks. Mustaches, sabers–real jerks! Who gave those bad guys the works? Why, Prince Ali!” to “He faced the galloping hordes, a hundred bad guys with swords! Who sent those goons to their lords? Why, Prince Ali!”) penned (or approved) by Howard? And was there any pressure from the studio to have those lyrics changed? I’ve always wondered about this.

    Thanks so much! I love the site and all the hard work you put into it. :)

    • Thank you Chris. I truly appreciate your note. Howard wasn’t left handed but if it’s any consolation, I am! He wrote the original treatment and lyrics for Aladdin in 1988 and, to my knowledge, never knew that Disney intended to make the film (they passed the first time around). So as far as I know, he had nothing to do with the rewritten lyrics.

      I am trying to get it together to post some more and with your words as inspiration, I promise to try.

      • Chris says:

        Thank you so much for the response! Howard’s involvement with Aladdin has always been much less talked about than his involvement with Mermaid and Beauty. I wish the Disney company would do a retrospective on a potential Aladdin blu-ray release that went in-depth into Howard’s original draft, songs and story, the changes that came later and Tim Rice’s role in writing the later songs.

        As an aside: I was born in ’91, so, I was the perfect age for Aladdin when it came to video in ’93. It was my boyhood favorite. The older I’ve gotten, the more critical of the final film I’ve become, but, I will still always have that nostalgic love for it. (I can still recite every line to this day!) A big part of me wishes we had gotten Howard’s version of the film, though. I was obsessed with Jafar, the villain, as a child and it always disappointed me that he didn’t get a ‘big’ villain song, and I always remembered thinking to myself, “I wish Jafar had gotten something like ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’ to sing…” When I first heard ‘Humiliate the Boy,’ it was like my childhood wish had been granted! I was disappointed to hear that ‘Humiliate the Boy’ was one of the few Ashman/Menken songs from the original Aladdin score to NOT make it into the Broadway show. Ah, well.

  4. Mimi says:

    I defiantly agree that the old lyrics were better. I was vert lucky and happend to come across a copy of the original cd before the lyrics were changed.

  5. John Verderber says:

    Creating characters and a story, rather than adapting them, is really, really hard, and I admire anyone who can do it well, especially in the musical theater. Comden and Green created BELLS ARE RINGING entirely; James Goldman created those wonderfully miserable people in FOLLIES.

    And then after that comes the rewriting, and in Comden and Green’s case, the lyrics (and THOSE rewrites). Adaptation is tricky, but I agree with Howard, far less frustrating. (After you get the rights…) Great blog entry!

  6. Michael says:

    Arabian Nights is one of those songs that goes unnoticed relative to the other tunes in Aladdin due to it being a prelude. Yet it’s melody and lyrics are so easily remembered and hummed. Another timeless and classic piece. Oh, and I don’t like how they changed the lyrics

    “Where they cut off your ear
    If they don’t like your face
    It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home”

    Took away a bit of realism, dark humor and character from the song.

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