Deconstructing Disney: AIDA Part 3

This is Part 3 in a series of posts that examines Disney’s Aida in detail. Aida has a book by Linda Woolverton, David Henry Hwang and Robert Falls, lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Elton John.

Act 1 Scene 1 (Continued)

Aida

Heather Headley as Aida in the Original Broadway Production

What happens next in the show is, in some ways, a surprise: we find ourselves in the middle of a book scene. It’s surprising because, although there are three writers credited to the book thereby indicating that dialogue would indeed play an important role in the show, this musical seems to have set itself up as a rock opera. Now, in one moment, perhaps a little too far into the show, it’s asking us to change our expectations in regard to the way this story is being told, not as a rock opera but as a book musical that uses rock music instead of a conventional “Broadway” style score, a sub-genre also known as the rock musical. Some will, at this point, enter into a debate about the use of rock music to tell a story that is set in Egypt’s Old Kingdom. Others will counter with the point that “Broadway” style music didn’t exist back then either and argue that the criticism is moot. That, of course, can be countered with the argument that a more conventional score might be based in part in a conventional “Broadway” musical vocabulary, but that since the days of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, such a score would be influenced by the musical styles of the characters that inhabit it and the world in which it takes place. Advocates of this score might counter than the same thing is done here, as we’ve already seen in the “Overture” and opening number.

My concern around the issue is that a very clear choice has been made on the part of Disney Theatricals and the creative team to use contemporary popular music styles to tell this story and I can’t see any artistic justification for it. Yes, this choice will appeal more to the ‘pop-fan audience’ at whom the show was originally aimed (according to the production history article on Tim Rice’s website), but what happens when pop music moves on and the show gets left behind? Rock musicals set in ancient worlds aren’t known for their timelessness. Furthermore, the question arises whether popular music structures and styles really help to create drama when used in the context of a book show. I think not: all it really creates is a seductive, but artificial energy that hooks an audience but doesn’t really cut them to the core. In rock opera, the complexity required by the form demands that popular musical structures become adapted to suit the requirements of the storytelling, so the problem solves itself. Jesus Christ Superstar, for example, works because it follows the principle that form follows content, otherwise put: content dictates form. As postmodern take of the gospels, deconstructed and framed by the experiences of Judas Iscariot, the rock opera format is the perfect choice for the show, even when the original concept of Jesus literally being a rock star is abandoned and the idea becomes a conceptual metaphor for the narrative.

When Aida suddenly introduces a rather shoddy book scene after apparently setting itself up in the rock opera mode, it becomes clear that there is no such vision holding the show together. I think it would take an immensely talented librettist to reduce an operatic narrative like this into a musical theatre book without making the course of events seem superficial and contrived. Here we have Linda Woolverton contributing the primary material. Woolverton was best known at the time for her contributions to the screenplay of Beauty and the Beast and its subsequent stage adaptation. Add a few more Disney films, some low-budget children’s television and a couple of young adult novels to the mix and you have her entire writing resumé at the time of her appointment to the creative team of Aida in your head. That body of work does not represent a librettist with the skill to craft a book for a project such as this. Proof positive that Woolverton wasn’t up to the task comes with the addition of David Henry Hwang to the creative team, along with the fact that director Robert Falls seems to have made enough contributions to earn himself a credit too. Even with all those heads around the table, we don’t seem to get a book that rises above mediocre, signpost writing. Certainly not in this first scene, at any rate, in which we Aida is brought on board and has her first interactions with Radames.

This brings us to the next song, “The Past is Another Land”. Starting off as an interaction between Aida and Radames and ending as a soliloquy for Aida, the song consists of a verse and three choruses, stopping once for a snippet of dialogue. I think the introductory verse is perhaps the best lyric we’ve seen in the show so far. It’s perfectly tailored to character and situation and really is the kind of statement that might make Radames pause for thought given the thirst he has for something more, as expressed in the previous song. This is followed by the first chorus, during which Aida muses poetically about the conquering of Nubia:

The past is now another land far beyond my reach
Invaded by insidious foreign bodies, foreign speech
Where timeless joys of childhood
Lie broken on the beach

This is followed by dialogue that is meant to show that Radames’ interest in Aida is peaked by her dignity in this situation, before he once again forces the shackles onto her wrists so that she can disembark in Egypt as a slave. I think the dialogue would play better if it immediately followed the verse, where it would be clearer that it is Aida’s spirit that impresses Radames, rather than her lament of her lost childhood and broken dreams. That leaves the option open that it is pity that shifts his attitude towards her and that is simply not the case, nor would it be an appropriate foundation on which to build this narrative.

Aida

Heather Headley singing ''The Past is Another Land'' in the Original Broadway Production

That would leave the three choruses of the song to play against what could be a filmic montage that takes us from this cabin to the docks for the start of the following scene. The two choruses that follow are written in meter that approximates the rhythm of the first chorus, but which makes allowances for variation. This is a great proposal on Rice’s part, who wrote the lyrics before passing them onto Elton John to write the music, but I feel that the variation in the third chorus (dealing with the unknown future), which is the one that really works, would be more pointed if the meter used in the first chorus (dealing with the past) was strictly followed in the second (which deals with the present). I also feel that there should be a bridge between the second and third choruses, something that delves deeper into Aida’s mind in the present moment and something that ties up with some later aspect of the score, a motif that could be developed throughout the show. The first thing that springs to mind is the middle section of “Elaborate Lives”, which would fit the piece musically and really push Aida’s soliloquy to a climax in the final verse. Nevertheless, the song as it is is a strangely haunting piece of work, not least because of John’s musical setting of the lyric, which manages to balance the tricky relationship between a popular music style and character writing.

NEXT UP: Another Pyramid!

Purchases from Amazon.com

FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: 1. Aida Original Concept Album CD. 2. Aida Original Broadway Cast CD. 3. Disney on Broadway Book. 4. The Making of Aida Book. 5. Disney’s Aida Vocal Selections.

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