This is Part 5 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 3
We now find ourselves in a hallway of the palace. As ordered, Mereb is taking Aida to Amneris and what transpires takes place in the style of one of those “in one” scenes that were developed by Oscar Hammerstein II in the musical plays he wrote with Richard Rodgers in order to keep the action moving apace downstage while scenes were being changed upstage.
The scene doesn’t do much to set up the song that follows it, almost arbitrarily planting in a cue after Mereb and Aida discuss Radames for a few lines so that we can see that he is somewhat different from other Egyptians in his treatment of the Nubian slaves. The song, “How I Know You”, is a duet by Mereb and Aida, during which Mereb reveals that Aida is the king of Nubia’s daughter and Aida begs him not to reveal her identity to anyone because she would be killed or used otherwise to subdue her father into giving away what little of Nubia remains free Nubian land.
Tim Rice’s lyric starts off well, but already begins to raise questions that are never answered in the lyric or in the book before the first verse is done. As Mereb describes his family’s abduction from Nubia, he says that Aida ‘witnessed (their) abduction’, presumably from the palace where his father worked ‘as advisor to the king’. Now, how was Aida spared being taken herself during this episode if she was close enough to witness it? And why does it seem that she did nothing about it? Surely Mereb’s family’s abduction was not an isolated event? No, it must have been part of a siege upon the palace. So what exactly happened here?
The marriage of the first stanza to the music works quite nicely, with the short phrases fitting neatly to the short phrases of the music. Musically, a pattern also seems to be emerging, whereby the Nubians sing in a musical language that is less driven by popular music forms, partly because of the orchestrations by Steve Margoshes, which aid this illusion. The marriage between music and lyrics in the second stanza doesn’t work quite as well: Rice starts making use of enjambments that are now split musically because of the pattern established in the first verse. This makes the lyric sound awkward and self-conscious, something that isn’t helped by the awkward and clichéd filler lyric about how Mereb’s reminiscence ‘surely ring a bell’ for Aida.
The rest of the song takes the form of a brief debate between the two about whether her identity should be revealed, even if only to the Nubians. Aida is dead set against this, but the argument feels unfinished and seems to hint at dramatic proposals that are never quite realised:
My only hope is silence
You’ve never seen my face
No you remain a princess
In any time or place
You don’t know me
The awkwardly phrased idea in the Aida’s first quoted line aside, there are other ideas that aren’t quite fulfilled in this lyric. The idea that Aida can say “You don’t know me” as a response to Mereb’s statement that she still looks like a princess – the line is after all a response to Aida saying that her face could be taken as that of any Nubian slave – makes one wonder what exactly Aida has gone through since Mereb was taken, what has changed her feelings about herself. Exploring that in a set of two verses would give greater psychological complexity to Aida, making this interaction go beyond circumstance and narrative by contributing to character and theme. It’s a missed opportunity.
After the song, some more dialogue follows that basically reinforces the idea proposed in the song. This doesn’t appear to be a particularly economical or focused scene. Finally, Mereb drops in an aside to Aida in regard to Amneris and Radames’ relationship:
MEREB: Just so you know, Amneris is more than that to Radames. She’s his betrothed.
AIDA: He’s to be married? When?
MEREB: The day his ship sinks and the royal builders refuse to make him another. Come; let’s get you to the Princess.
The line about the date of the wedding almost makes up for the really weak introduction of the topic into the dialogue. This scene, and the song that accompanies it, really need a lot of refining to become a tight dramatic sequence. It’s that kind of sloppy complacency that prevents Aida from being as good a musical as it could have been.
NEXT UP: Amneris, Princess of Egypt… or is that Anna Wintour?
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