John Musker Question Countdown #3

Do you think Howard would have been a good fit for Hercules, with its gospel and rock qualities? I think Howard would have had fun with the gospel and rock and roll approach we used for Hercules.  In all honesty, Howard was, in a way, very instrumental in the choice of that approach, even though we began work on Hercules a few years after Howard’s death. Allow me to elaborate.

After we completed Aladdin, Ron and I were trying to get Treasure Planet off the ground.  This was proving very difficult because neither Jeffrey Katzenberg, nor his then head of development, Tom Schumacher, were very keen on the idea.  After some desperate pleading and re-pitching to Michael Eisner, Jeffrey relented a bit. Whether or not Jeffrey would have stayed true to his word, he promised us we could do Treasure Planet after we completed another film for him first, which we could select from a list of films in development.  So we looked at the list and saw Hercules.  It had been pitched at a “Gong Show” by animator Joe Haidar.  We thought it would be our opportunity to do a “superhero” movie, Ron and I being comic book fans. The studio liked us moving onto that project and so we did.

We thought it should be a musical, but the question was, what musical approach would work for the story.  This is where Howard comes in.  I thought back to two things: one was Howard’s earlier statement to me that if he had a choice of “black” or “white” in terms of music, he would be drawn more to “black” music.  Secondly, and more importantly, whenever we visited New York we would ask Howard what show he would recommend us seeing.  On one such trip in 1988 during the production of Mermaid, Howard strongly suggested we see Gospel at Colonus**. He said that it was the best thing on Broadway at the time.  This was a show created by Lee Breuer and composer Bob Telson.  It was a take on Oedipus at Colonus a Greek tragedy by Sophocles (and yes… it’s that same Oedipus dude we joked about when we did Hercules, where, after taking the heroine Meg on a date to see a new play, Oedipus Rex, we had him comment, “Man… I thought I had problems…”) This Oedipus at Colonus used the device of a black Pentecostal preacher and his choir to tell the story of the tragic Greek figure Oedipus, his sin, and his redemption. It used “call and response” and other gospel conventions, although it never mentions Jesus.

(**Sarah here:  I’m so glad John brought this up.  I saw this with Howard – it was an incredible night in the theater.  John’s mention also gives me the chance to play this clip for you – which always makes me think of Howard.)

Now the irony (and what word is more important when dealing with Greek tragedy -- which gave us that word) is that due to a lack of time on that trip we never wound up seeing the play (although years later I did see a production in Los Angeles.)  I did, however, check out the cast album when we were developing Hercules, because I remembered Howard’s recommendation from years before.  It seemed to suggest a way to approach the music in our movie. It seemed appropriate to have a Greek chorus tell us the story, this being, after all, the story of a Greek demigod. And who better than the Muses, the goddesses who inspired art, literature, and science to be this Greek chorus? And since our chorus was to sing about the exploits of ‘the gods’, having them sing gospel, a style of music that celebrates ‘God,’ seemed appropriate.  It was a short step from there to seeing them as an all girl group like the Supremes, and have them musically bridge scenes, do exposition, comment on action, and celebrate the exploits of our mythic hero.

Howard had, of course, used a black girl group as a sort of Greek chorus in Little Shop. Because of this, Alan Menken, when we pitched him the idea for our approach, was concerned. He feared it might appear too derivative.  Whether or not I was in denial, I don’t know, but I felt we could do this in a way that didn’t duplicate Little Shop.  Alan, reluctant to jump on board, pitched us instead the idea of doing Hercules in a more “classical” style given its classic origins.  He discussed Candide as a jumping off point. It’s true that Candide, like our angle on Hercules, featured a naïve hero who journeys out into a world of sharpies.  We were concerned, though, about the material becoming stiff and inaccessible.  That was our impression of the past handling of Greek mythology in film generally, and Hercules and Olympus specifically (as well as the cheesiness of most versions.)  We saw our film as a kind of screwball comedy and, as I said, a ‘comic book’ film a la Superman.  A gospel approach to the music seemed to us to make the movie more fun and accessible.

Alan ultimately relented.  Whether Howard would have said this was too close to Little Shop or suggested an entirely different approach, or whether he would have found a way to use ‘gospel’, but in some different way, I don’t know.  I am certain Howard would have had a strong opinion, and would have expressed that opinion forcefully. But just where he would have landed on all this, we’ll never know. Somewhere, someday, on the Other Side, I’m gonna get an earful from Howard on this, I don’t doubt

We considered a number of lyricists, but David Zippel, who had worked with Alan before, and had done the wonderful noir send up, City of Angels with one of my comedy icons, Larry Gelbart, seemed the best fit.  David had written the lyrics to The Goodbye Girl and I have to admit, hearing for example, the lyrics to the song Good News, Bad News which featured this gem:

What a gyp-

This I such a rip-off

Every time she sneers at me

I want to rip her upper lip off

I thought there’s a wordsmith who will have fun with this material (which he did.)

The original number of muses in Greek mythology was nine.  We thought with five we could give each a distinctive personality that was based on their field of expertise and get a good girl group harmony.  We made the muse Calliope the leader. Her appearance was designed by Sue Nichols and animator Mike Show, and was based in part on an amazingly beautiful and powerful singer at the time: Whitney Houston.  Her voice was done by the great singer Lillias White, who later won the Tony and a slew of awards for her role in The Life.

Other muse voices included the terrific singers Cheryl Freeman , LaChanze (seen recently in The Help), Vaneeese Thomas, and Roz Ryan as Thalia, the muse of comedy.  Wherein lies another story.  Our original muse of comedy was Nell Carter.  We generally are reluctant to cast people who don’t come in to read. We like to hear what people will do with the material, something not always possible to anticipate based on past performances.  We loved Nell’s singing in Ain’t Misbehavin and her TV work was very funny. And she wouldn’t audition.  So we bit the bullet and cast her without her ever reading.

When Nell came in for her first recording session, trouble was apparent immediately.  She did not take well to direction. If we suggested ‘faster’ she went slower. If we said ‘bigger’ she got smaller.  She seemed very defensive, out of sorts, and ironically (there’s that word again) for a woman playing the bubbly muse of comedy, unfunny.  She was concerned that we were saying unkind things about her in the booth. In truth we were thinking them, although we really were scrambling, trying to find some way to unlock her “funny. ” She eyed Ron Clements, and said, “What’s that little Red man sayin’ in there?”  To this day I now refer to Ron as the “Red man” if not, “the little Red man,” the name Nell bestowed on him.   We discovered later that Nell had reportedly declared bankruptcy that week, and had allegedly struggled with substance issues.  But all we knew then, was that she wasn’t right for the part.  We had to recast. Call me cuckoo, but we needed a muse of comedy who was funny. Fortunately around that time, I had seen the actress Roz Ryan on stage at the Pasadena Playhouse.  She sang great, was funny and charismatic.  We brought her in, she read for Thalia, and she was terrific. We signed her up.

Alan Menken had fun teasing me when I was directing these wonderful African American actresses, when I was pushing them at times, to go a little more “street.” It was true that it was ridiculous.  Buddy Hackett, when we were doing Little Mermaid said to Ron Clements and me, “You two are not like people I’m used to working with…you’re so…white!”  I think Buddy meant we were goyishe, when every funny writer or director he had worked with was Jewish.  But we certainly weren’t black and Alan had a field day with me and my inner-black-woman on Hercules.

On that front, let me veer into my tenuously-related Charlton Heston Hercules story.  We wanted the film to open with very sober, stentorian narration as we panned through a Museum of Classical Antiquities, but then be interrupted by the informality of our muses as they come to life off Attic vases.  When they want to take over the narration of the story, the narrator concedes and even exhorts Calliope in a manner a bit out of character for him: “You go, girl…”

When Mr. Heston came in to do the narration, we asked him if he was OK with the lines as written.  He said he did have a problem with one.  He thought we had the grammar wrong on that particular line.  He was insistent that rather than “You go, girl” it should be said, ‘Go ahead…young lady!”  I don’t think Chuck was familiar with the colloquialism we were playing with. We thought (although didn’t exactly spell out to Mr. Heston) that there was comedy to be had from hearing Moses say, “You go, girl.”  Mr. Heston did it his way a number of times, but ultimately, despite sincere skepticism if not out right bewilderment, grudgingly tried it our way as well (“I’ll give it a shot, but I …don’t know…”)

We had written the part of Philoctetes, the little satyr and Burgess Meredith-like trainer of Herc, for Danny Devito.  But once again, Danny wouldn’t read for the part. So we auditioned a number of wonderful actors who were willing to come in and read, including among many others Ed Asner, Ernest Borgnine, and Broadway veteran Dick Latessa, who we almost cast.  Red Buttons came in and read for it, and as he was leaving said, “I know what you’re gonna do.  You’re gonna give this part to Danny Devito!”  Ron and I shared a guilty look.

Ultimately we did cast Danny.  He didn’t read but was interested and we met him for lunch in his trailer at the LA Arboretum, where he was directing Matilda, the Roald Dahl book he adapted.  He fixed a pasta lunch for Ron, me and producer Alice Dewey.  After lunch, Danny offered Ron and me a cigar to smoke with him. Both of us non-smokers declined.  I seem to recall, though, that Alice was a bit put out that Danny hadn’t invited her to smoke with him. I think she would have taken him up on the offer. Fortunately, Danny agreed to do the part despite his directors’ lack of machismo, maybe because he sensed a kindred spirit in Alice.

One other casting story.  We wrote the villain Hades as Jack Nicholson. Jack wouldn’t read either, but he was willing to come in and talk about it.  We prepared to show him our visuals to entice him to do the role.  Michael Eisner was there for the first part of our meeting, where he and Jack talked basketball (this was after Jeffrey had left to start Dreamworks and Michael wanted to play the role that Jeffrey had previously, the heavyweight executive who would help us land the big name stars like Jeffery had done with Robin Williams.)

Jack arrived at our Warehouse/development building on Flower Street in Glendale one brisk November day with his then relatively young children, Raymond and Lorraine, who he'd had with actress Rebecca Broussard.  Lorraine was dressed as Snow White and Jack proudly carried her around, “Look at the pretty pictures, ‘Raine !”  It was very sweet.  We learned that Jack was as old as Snow White (“We were both born in 1937…”).  We also heard from Jack that he had worked at the MGM cartoon unit just as they were shutting it down. MGM was where Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera had done classic Tom and Jerry shorts and Tex Avery his great Red Hot Riding Hoods, etc.  Jack worked as a cell washer, he said, and “Fred Quimby and I were the last ones there…”

We showed Jack our artwork, influenced by the painter Alma-Tadema, with whom he was very knowledgeable.  We described Philoctetes as “a washed up satyr,” a description Jack was amused by, and could perhaps relate to (maybe not the “washed up” part, but the rest…?)  We showed him some test animation done to one of his lines from A Few Good Men where we had a simmering Hades idly playing with a lick of flame as he said, “Take caution in your tone, commander. I’m a fair guy, but this f---‘in heat is driving me absolutely crazy…”  Andreas Deja had done a brilliant job with it and Jack loved it. We plied his son and daughter with a lot of plush toys which Jack took out to his car as they prepared to leave.  One of my favorite memories of that day was when Jack returned from the windy street for one last load of swag for his kids.  With his shades on and his hair blown into devilish horns by the fall breeze, he hoisted the bags of plush on either side of his smiling face and gave a cheery, “Merry Christmas!” and off he went.

May I resort to the ‘I’ word again, because, of course ironically it was all for naught because Jack couldn’t reach an agreement with Disney to do the part.  He had secured a lucrative deal from Warner a few years prior where they gave him participation in the merchandising,which had turned into a windfall. Jack insisted on a similar deal from Disney, which they were unwilling to do.

Thus began a search for Hades. We had many terrific actors come in to read.  Ron Silver, James Coburn, Kevin Spacey and Phil Hartman, who after reading the lines in his own voice said, “How about I try the lines in my “Jack Nicholson” voice.  Phil had used that voice to great effect in Brave Little Toaster and Ron and I, once again, looked at each other discreetly and said to Phil, what the heck, give it a shot ( we enjoyed hearing the lines as Jack but thought we couldn’t really use an ersatz Jack.)  Rod Steiger came in and did Hades as a tough headwaiter, a major domo, and was very impressive.

Around this time I saw Robert Evans, the producer who had run Paramount, and had produced many films there including Chinatown and the Godfather, being interviewed by Charlie Rose while promoting his memoir, The Kid Stays in the Picture.  His voice had an amazing silky purr.  I wondered could Robert Evans be our Hades?

I had seen Evans years earlier when he produced Robert Altman’s Popeye, which had been co-financed by Disney and Paramount.  He came in to the Studio and showed sections of the movie.  He wore aviator glasses and his hair was a shiny, Brylcreemed farrago. He was dressed all in white, his skin was the tannest, darkest skin I had ever seen on a white man. He seemed, at the Disney of the early eighties, like an alien who had dropped in from another much hipper, much tanner Hollywood planet.

But here we were back in 1995 without a villain. Ron and I had lunch with Michael Eisner in the wake of the Nicholson rejection.  Michael was at that time trying to stay connected to his animators and directors to keep them from defecting to Jeffrey.  In fact, at that lunch, Michael told us how much he wanted Treasure Planet to get going quickly after Hercules (having heard from Peter Schneider that moving this pet project of ours forward would be useful in keeping us from heading over to Jeffrey.)  We talked about the collapse of talks with Jack for Hades and he asked who else we were considering. I mentioned Robert Evans, and Michael’s eyes lit up. “Evans?!! He would be great!! He is the devil!”   Then he corrected himself, “Well, actually, David Geffen is the devil, but Robert Evans is right behind him!”

So Alice, Ron and I met with Evans, who actually was interested in the part, despite the fact that he hadn’t acted in years. He was rumored to be in line to play the villain in the long gestating Chinatown sequel for Robert Towne but that film never quite seemed to lift off the ground.  Evans told us he knew how to play Hades. He said he had dealt with people like him. He mentioned Lucky Luciano, the mobster, with whom he had experiences that were laden with threat and fear. Evans’ take would be based on Luciano and his ilk.  Evans told us he had done a lot of preparation, working extensively on the scenes at his home on Mulholland with his best friend and acting coach…Jack Nicholson (who thought the keed was “superb.”)

We arranged for Evans to come in and try some lines in a recording studio.  We knew Evans had a cool voice. But could he act?  Earlier performances from the days when he started as a petite but handsome leading man suggested caution.

Evans came in and did the scenes on B stage, the dialogue recording studio on the Disney lot. He struggled.  He knew it wasn’t going well.  We wanted to accommodate whatever might help him get convincingly into character. He wanted the lights down as low as possible to keep his deliveries low key, so we turned off nearly every light in the studio.  It was almost pitch black.  He gave it another go.  Still not working. He wanted a casual effortless quality to his readings so he requested to record nearly reclining, so we arranged for him to be practically flat on his back on cushions as he purred into the microphone.  What came out of the darkness and the prone, Gucci-shoed, reclining figure was unfortunately a monotone as flat as the pieces of paper from which he read.   He gave it a Herculean effort, but in truth, Robert Evans plays pretty much one character and it’s one that he invented and for which he writes all the lines: Robert Evans.

Our search for a voice resumed.  One actor came in, whom we hadn’t thought of initially.    He played Hades as a Hollywood type, a fast-talking, easily put upon, breezy hipster. He took the scenes - which he hadn’t prepared at all and which he was seeing for the first time - and improvised wildly.  He was hilarious, and miles away from the Jack Nicholson purr which we had built the lines around. So we pondered.  James Woods?

In one last bit of irony (I swear I won’t use the word again) we once again went against our own instincts, and despite Woods’ fantastic off kilter reading, cast an entirely different, wonderful actor who didn’t audition. We brought him in for the first time to record.  Despite a number of attempts, the lines felt flat. We suggested some improv. We discovered he didn’t feel comfortable improvising.  Now, there are any number of brilliant actors who don’t have that skill in their toolbox, so he certainly was not unique in that regard.  When we compared this actor’s deliveries to the recorded audition of the man we didn’t hire, James Woods, it was startling. Woods’ interpretation leapt off the screen.  We kept Woods in for our scratch temp tracks and they killed. I remember Roger Allers chiding us, when he heard James’ tracks: “These are great! Why are you not going with James Woods?!!”  We realized we had made a mistake.  The actor playing Hades was thanked and excused (and has gone on to do many brilliant roles).  James Woods was hired, and was a delight to work and invent with.

And that, as I say, is ironic (OK , so I swore…)  a term Howard Ashman understood very well.