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Disney’s Musical Theatre: Snow White (Part One)

To start off the Disney’s Musical Theatre series, I wanted to start with Disney’s first feature film. Much has been written on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and its impact on animation, culture, and the film industry. However, one of the most memorable and key aspects of the film is its music. Several songs from the film have become classics and only a few notes take us back to the nostalgic feeling of watching the film for the first time or stepping inside Fantasyland and hearing the music. We picture the dwarfs walking across the bridge when we hear “Heigh-Ho”. We see Snow White and her prince kiss when we hear  “Someday My Prince Will Come”. These songs, written by composer Frank Churchill and lyricist Larry Morey, have had as great an impact on our culture as the film itself. They have helped set the standard for what a Disney film should look like and, more importantly for this discussion, what they should sound like.

Musical theatre historian John Kenrick describes a musical as “a stage, screen or television production using popular style songs to either tell a story (book musicals) or showcase the talents of songwriters and performers (revue)” Book musicals are traditionally the basis for musicals on the screen. Vaudeville is usually structured more like a revue, while the book musical is used to tell a definitive story through the use of song. At the time of Snow White’s release, vaudeville was much more popular than the book musical.

Show Boat, by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, is often considered the first book musical. In a book musical, each song has a specific role and place in helping to further the story. Examples of this include opening numbers, the “I Want” song for the protagonist, often a love ballad or duet, and ensemble numbers to close out Act One and/or Act Two. These aspects of the book musical were also used loosely in early feature animated films but were used more heavily as both mediums developed in later films such as Mary Poppins and the animated musical films of the 1990’s.

The film of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs does not begin with an opening song. Instead, we get the classic fairytale book opening and a quick scene with the Evil Queen and the Magic Mirror. None of this includes any singing. The following scene, however, features Snow White and her friends, the animals. What begins as dialogue quickly and seamlessly transitions into the first song in the film, “I’m Wishing”. As evidenced by the title, this is considered an “I Want” song. When Howard Ashman was writing the lyrics for The Little Mermaid, he gave a lecture about musicals and musical theatre history to Disney’s staff. In this lecture, he talked about how he gathered inspiration for “Part of Your World” from “I Want” songs of the past. He spoke not only of classics from the musical theatre canon, but also songs like “I’m Wishing” and “Someday My Prince Will Come”. The concept and practice of the Disney princess “I Want” song has become so prominent that it was recently parodied in the Disney film Ralph Breaks the Internet, and that began with Snow White. In this first song, Snow White sings of her desire to meet the love of her life. He quickly arrives and rather than making “I’m Wishing” a duet, an entirely new song begins, sung by the Prince.  This is called “One Song” and the tune is echoed throughout the film by both the Prince and Snow White.

Some time passes and after Snow White is almost killed by the huntsman and is banished from the kingdom, she gets her second song, titled “With a Smile and a Song”. This is the first time in the film where we get a chance to see Snow White’s personality and what she is like as a person and character. The song is especially revealing to the audience as she demonstrates her attitude and outlook on life to these animals, despite horrible circumstances. “With a Smile and a Song” is a perfect pairing with the next song, “Whistle While You Work”, which is where she cleans up the dwarf’s cottage. These two songs work together beautifully in showing the viewer more about Snow White, her kind and giving nature, and her pure infectious joy about life.

The next song, “Heigh-Ho”, is quite possibly the best known and remembered song from the film. This song functions as a way to introduce the other main characters for the film, the dwarfs. We immediately see that both the dwarfs and Snow White have a similar attitude about work: be positive and have fun even when the work may be hard.

“The Dwarf’s Washing Song” may be the most fun number in the film. In this song, each of the dwarves go up and wash their faces and hands before eating the food that Snow White made for them. This song does little to move the story along but does plenty in the way of allower the viewer to get more familiar with these unique and comical characters.

“The Silly Song” or “The Dwarf Yodel Song” is the first song of the film that seems to take place in the world of a revue. The song is reminiscent of songs present in early cartoons such as those of Betty Boop and Popeye and its function is merely to entertain as it does little else. The song is fun, however, and consistent with the personalities of the dwarfs established earlier in the film.

“Someday My Prince Will Come” appears directly after “The Silly Song” and is sung by Snow White. As the title implies, this song gives Snow White an opportunity to convey her feelings and hopes about the Prince to the seven dwarfs. This is another of the most well-known and remembered songs from the film and is the second “I Want” song. Most musicals only have one “I Want” song and during his lecture, Howard Ashman laughs and points out that “somehow they got away with two”. The film concludes with a reprise of “One Song” by the Prince and a chorus sings “Someday My Prince Will Come” as the Prince and Snow White get ready to live happily ever after.

The best thing I can say about Snow White is that the soundtrack and film do not get old. They are still as entertaining and enjoyable more than 90 years after they were released. They are Disney storytelling and music at its finest and are absolutely worth a rewatch or a listen anytime you need a reminder of that classic Disney nostalgia and sound. In the next entry, I will discuss the history of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on stage, deleted songs from the film, and the potential of the live-action remake that Disney has on the table.

Snow White (1937) poster
Snow White (1937) poster

Read: Disney Developing Live-Action Adventure Film ’Knights’

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