Master lyricist Marty Panzer recalls the making of Disney’s Princess Christmas Album with composer (and Mickey Mouse Club/My Three Sons star Don Grady).
Disney’s PRINCESS CHRISTMAS ALBUM
Walt Disney Records 61378-7 (Compact Disc / Stereo)
CD Reissue: Walt Disney Records D000459102 (2009)
Edited Reissue “Fairy Tale Holiday”: D002084102 (2014 Target Stores Exclusive)
Complete album downloadable on iTunes and amazon.
Released in 2005. Executive Producer: Jay Landers. Producers: Marty Panzer, Don Grady. A&R Producer: Dani Markman. Contestations: Don Grady, Don Harper, Dave Metzger, Steve Morrell. Running Time: 42 minutes.
Voices: Paige O’Hara (Belle); Jodi Benson (Ariel); Judy Kuhn (Pocahontas); Lea Salonga (Mulan); Tammy Tappan Damien (Cinderella); Kim Huber (Aurora); Melissa Disney (Snow White).
Songs: “Christmas is Coming” “I’m Giving Love for Christmas,” “Christmas in the Ocean,” “Holidays at Home,” by Marty Panzer, Don Grady; “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” by Eddie Pole, George Wile.
Bonus Track (2005 only): “Beautiful” (Christmas Version) Performed by Jim Brickman and Wayne Brady.
Some of the most interesting recent Walt Disney Records albums feature characters performing songs outside their movie scores. It’s no simple feat to expand musically beyond the confines of a given story, while staying true to what made them so endearing in the first place. The varied results of years past on such labels Capitol, Golden and Peter Pan prove that it takes the right talent, a sensible budget and most of all, a team that has genuine appreciation for the property.
Just a few fine examples include: Bayou Boogie (based on The Princess and the Frog); Woody’s Roundup Featuring Riders in the Sky; Finding Nemo: Ocean Favorites; and Monsters, Inc. Scream Factory Favorites. When Tim Hollis and I were completing Mouse Tracks: The Story of Walt Disney Records, space did not allow proper recognition to some major names in the post-vinyl era of Walt Disney Records, including A&R Director Dani Markman, who led all of the above projects and countless more over two decades.
Another mea culpa is owed to legendary music producer Jay Landers, who not only brought some of the biggest names in music to perform on the Disney label, but conceived the concept of contemporary songs for Disney Princesses that would reach new generations of kids but not at the expense of musical integrity. The resulting albums he executive produced, Disney’s Princess Tea Party (reissued as Disney’s Princess Party) and the holiday album we are featuring today still shine.
For the Princess project, Jay Landers brought in Songwriter’s Hall of Famer lyricist Marty Panzer as produce and lyricist. Panzer’s credits read like a Billboard Hot 100 list: “Through the Years,” “It’s a Miracle,” “This One’s For You,” “Even Now”). In addition, he co-wrote the songs for The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride and Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World.
Even for those who aren’t the target audience, there’s something extraordinary about hearing fresh, fully orchestrated holiday songs sung by the likes of Paige O’Hara, Lea Salonga, Jodi Benson and Judy Kuhn, plus Tammy Tappan Damiano stepping in as Cinderella, Kim Huber as Aurora and Melissa Disney (a distant relative) as Snow White.
“The whole Disney experience was dear to me,” Marty told me last week. “I was writing for male vocal artists for so many years, Barry Manilow, Kenny Rogers, Michael Crawford, Julio Iglesias, but I was writing songs from a male perspective. What Disney afforded me was an opportunity to write songs from a female perspective.
“At the same time, there are different ‘languages,’ different ‘words,’ that can be said by Disney princesses that you couldn’t use in a pop song, that would not be fitting for a Barbra Streisand, Beyoncé, Rhianna or anybody like that. Writing for Disney is very much like writing for musical theater.
For his composing and producing partner, Panzer suggested accomplished musician Don Grady. Disney and baby-boom TV fans have cherished memories of Grady as a Mouseketeer in the third season of the Mickey Mouse Club, then as Robbie Douglas on the long running Fred MacMurray sitcom My Three Sons. His highly successful musical career spanned decades, including a stint with “sunshine rock” group Yellow Balloon. He was a major composer, producer and performer until shortly before cancer took him in 2012 at age 68.
“Let me tell you, Don Grady was beyond exceptional,” said Panzer. “Collaboration is all about relationship. We have to come from the same place in our hearts, our minds and have the same vision. Though I’ve written 50-70 songs with Barry Manilow, the only other very long collaboration I’ve had is with Don.
“I knew from the moment I met him that he was just a good man, dedicated to his family. Besides being a Mouseketeer once upon a time, Don had the sensibility, caring, love and the warmth that proved there was no other collaborator for the Disney Princess projects who could have been more appropriate.”
In the recording studio, Salonga, O’Hara, Kuhn and the rest proved true to their animated alter egos. “Jodi Benson was such a wonderfully agreeable person to work with. She hit it out of the ballpark every time vocally. There was one day she was scheduled to do two vocals. She did them within a little over an hour. She said, ‘Well, you’ve still got me for another hour or so. Is there anything else you would like?’ Spontaneously I said, there’s one that we haven’t really assigned yet.’ Within another 45 minutes she did another brilliant recording of a third song.”
Popular music royalty also took notice. “I dedicated the album to Andy Williams. He wrote me a ‘thank you’ note and added that, of all thousands of recordings made of ‘It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,’ our version on this album was his favorite, other than his own.’”
Rod McKuen, who was at a class I teach at UCLA, said that this was his favorite Christmas album.” (McKuen has a place in Disney history too, as a merman on The Little Mermaid TV series and composer/performer of the unusual score to the 1971 Brian Keith feature Scandalous John. Disney’s Buena Vista Records released the soundtrack album, with McKuen singing the song, “Pastures Green,” which he also released as a single.) But of all the Panzer wrote with Don Grady for the album, his personal favorite is Aurora’s “Christmas with My Prince”. “I couldn’t be prouder of anything I have ever written.”
“I love every minute of everything I’ve done for Disney,” said Panzer. “Let me tell you, we live in a society where there’s so much anger and frustration, the audience isn’t very hopeful. It’s very difficult to find a place in popular music to write positive, optimistic songs. With Disney, you can still dream about happy endings. Don Grady and I believed in that.”