This is Part 4 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 2
The next scene begins with another book segment, thankfully one that is less contrived than the interaction between Aida and Radames in the previous scene. We are introduced to Mereb, one of Radames’ slaves, and Zoser, Radames’ father, whose ambitions for his son include marrying the Pharaoh’s daughter, Amneris so that his future in the palace will be secure. During the book scene, when Radames is present, Zoser’s plans seem to end with that ambition, but during the following song, it is revealed that Zoser is, in collaboration with the other ministers, helping his cause by slowly poisoning the Pharaoh with arsenic. This is another aspect of a theme that was introduced in the the previous scene: that all things are not as they seem in Aida. This is reinforced by Radames’ treatment of the women slaves in this scene, saving them from certain death in the copper mines by sending them to work in the fields, an act that surprises Aida because of its decency.
The song that follows, “Another Pyramid”, serves to establish Zoser’s character further and to inform us of his political undermining of Egypt’s theocracy. The name given to the character is undoubtedly a nod to the the real Egyptian pharaoh Zoser who, along with his head architect, Imhotep, was responsible for conceiving the first Egyptian pyramid.
The song, known for its choreographed staging, doesn’t allow Zoser much complexity and unfortunately reduces him in some ways to a cartoon villain, like Scar in The Lion King. Starting with a reggae vamp, it eventually builds through the dance break to a strong rock finish – once again a choice that would suit the demands of a rock opera perfectly, but which seems odd when placed into a book musical, which requires a rather different, more organic integration between the libretto and the score.
The lyrics of “Another Pyramid” are messy to the extent that they seem exist in contradiction to the process that was followed in the writing of the songs for the show, with Elton John composing music to lyrics written and passed on to him by Tim Rice. In other words, it seems like the lyrics were forced to fit the music, even though we know the process was completed the other way round. Look, for example, in the awkward way the title is incorporated at the end of each of Zoser’s series of verses.
There is also this invocation of ‘the Hawk God Horus’ which makes me wonder whether Rice is trying to be clever by throwing in the name of an Egyptian deity, but failing because he doesn’t really know the conventions of the mythology: although, as would be the case in a theocracy, Horus is a god that is associated with the king and is indeed identified with the king during his lifetime, it is Osiris that is associated with the afterlife. Neither seems to be a god that deals in prophecy, so one is left to wonder through what oracle Zoser divined this information. The other option is to wonder whether Rice is really being clever and allowing the character to make the mistake, a flaw in the cover-up of his less admirable deeds for the benefit of his son, to whom he is singing this lyric. But then why doesn’t Radames pick up on the inconsistency? Is he so upset to hear of the Pharaoh’s illness? Certainly, the brief inter-verse dialogue that sees him exit indicates that he is – but perhaps that is a fortunate accident in theatre-making rather than a considered decision.
The rest of the song manages to incorporate trite expressions (“each dog must have its day”), poor linguistic choices for the sake of meter (“just like his fathers did”), self-conscious Rice-isms (“Summon Egypt’s greatest builder re: another pyramid”) and a statement that is just plain confusing:
We’ll extend fair Egypt’s power
Egypt’s glory strength and style
We shall have our finest hour
Far beyond the mighty Nile
He must have a vault that’s grand by
Any standards, floor to lid
Put five thousand slaves on stand by
Build another pyramid!
The opening of the first stanza quoted above reads logically, given what we’ve heard about Egypt’s exploitation of Nubia and their quest to explore and map the areas around the Nile. The second stanza also makes sense (the awkward fourth line notwithstanding) and throws in a delightful rhyme to boot. However, one wonders about the lyric that links the two. Who is the ‘we’? Egypt? Zoser and the ministers? Zoser and Radames? And why is this ‘finest hour’ ‘far beyond the mighty Nile’? Surely the triumph that Zoser is seeking is within Egypt itself? The answers to these questions remain evasive.
Musically, as mentioned above, the song makes use of reggae to create (one assumes) the sense of political unrest that underscores Zoser’s words. It’s an interesting choice, given reggae’s use as a tool of political protest – although I don’t think that that its use as such in the real world encompasses out-and-out treachery. The fact that the show is a book musical rather than a rock opera also forces one to wonder how a Jamaican musical style from the 1960s makes its way to Ancient Egypt, but – as I’ve implied in the third post in this series – I think this kind of anachronism is a key feature of the score, the validity of which can be debated back and forth in relation to the form that has been chosen to communicate this narrative.
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