It took more than 90 years, but Mickey Mouse finally got a theme-park attraction at the beginning of March 2020. (Ah, the beginning of March 2020, when the Disney theme parks were…y’know, open. It was a simpler time, two whole weeks ago.) Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, currently at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in the Walt Disney World Resort (and currently in construction at Disneyland Park, arriving in 2022), takes guests on a wild ride themed to the modern, Flash-animated Mickey Mouse shorts that can be found on Disney XD and Disney+. One of the crucial elements of the new attraction is its linchpin song, “Nothing Can Stop Us Now”. The song’s co-writers, husband-and-wife team Christopher and Elyse Willis, talked to Slashfilm recently via phone about writing for theme parks, working as a married couple, and more.
You’ve written a song (“Nothing Can Stop Us Now”) that’s for this big new attraction. How conscious were you both in terms of the expectations people have surrounding other theme-park songs like “It’s A Small World” and “Pirates of the Caribbean”?
Christopher: I feel like you’re saved by the long working process of Imagineering. If we had to write the song a month ago, I think it would’ve been a lot more scary than writing it two years ago. You know, showing up and having fun with the Imagineering team, like we were all sort of in our sandbox and trying things out. First and foremost, one difference between Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway and those other rides is that the song has to help tell the story. The first thing that happens when the cartoon starts is that the song begins, so the song is wrapped up in the story. In a way, we weren’t thinking too strongly about the precedent and the tradition. Would you agree?
Elyse: Yeah. You know, I grew up in California so I grew up going to Disneyland, and those songs were certainly a big part of my childhood and my development. It was always in the back of our minds. Of course, we’re both big Sherman brothers fans, and we really respect the art of songwriting, whether it’s for a ride or not. So we were concerned with making something that’s good, and also something hopefully…slightly less obnoxious than Small World [laughs]. But Chris is right, we were mostly trying to serve the story, make something that works for the kind of ride-through attraction that they were working on. And hopefully in the process, we wrote a song that people really enjoy listening to.
I’ve yet to experience the attraction, but I heard the song once earlier this week and it hasn’t left my head. So it’s definitely fitting that catchy vibe. Along with my family, I’ve watched many of the newer Mickey Mouse shorts. So what has it been like for you, Christopher, composing for those shorts versus this one attraction?
Christopher: Well, by the time we came to the attraction, in terms of influences, it was turning into a bit of a hall of mirrors. Because the shorts are already inspired by the Disney heritage, which includes the heritage of the ride.
Elyse: Yeah, it’s almost reverential in some ways. Episodes like “Potatoland” and “Nature’s Wonderland”, for example.
Christopher: Yeah, “Nature’s Wonderland” is a really good example. [Note: In “Nature’s Wonderland”, Mickey and Minnie take a date-night ride on the Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland attraction, which closed in the 1970s at Disneyland to make way for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.] Lots of these really sly references to rides there. So along the way, there had been lots of discussion and lots of love for [composers like] the Sherman brothers, Buddy Baker, Oliver Wallace, and lots of these old songs. Even more reverence and affection for ones that you don’t hear much about like “Miracles of Molecules”, which Donald sings in the closing credits of “Down the Hatch”. That was the song for…Adventures Thru Inner Space, is that what it’s called?
Yes, Adventures Thru Inner Space. [Note: Adventures Thru Inner Space was a Tomorrowland attraction that closed and was replaced with Star Tours.]
Christopher: Right. So the shorts had always worked in that vein musically. Paul Rudish is the showrunner of the shorts, and had this instinct, really, from the start of drawing from music from the 1920s and 1930s, as well as mid-century modern music from the 1950s and 1960s. And it was my suggestion to him that the reason for that was because of, respectively, the earliest Mickey Mouse cartoons and the early days of Disneyland. He hadn’t actually put that together, but agreed that was why. So we ended up with this panorama of the 20th century from Mickey Mouse’s point of view. We kept, through 100 episodes, exploring these things. So when it came to the ride, there was a wealth of experience to draw from.
I’m also curious to know more about the creative process for you with the shorts vs. the ride. A ride like this gets announced years in advance, versus shorts that have a tighter timeline. How does that work for you?
Christopher: There’s a lot for me to learn early on. From a technical point of view, a ride is so very different. A lot of things that are different, you might not necessarily notice when you’re riding. The problems that the Imagineers struggle with, like what happens if the front of the train is in one place and the back is in a different place? Or what if there’s a delay? Modern ride computers can do very sophisticated things to handle slight delays with these trackless vehicles. There’s all sorts of stuff like that that I had to learn.
I started to receive gradually, from the show director, such insistence that the ride should be like watching a cartoon, meaning that it should unfold like a cartoon. And it became clear that the ride had a story, and a sense of story. A lot of the craftsmanship is comparable in one way or another. In some ways, we felt quite reassured. We were being asked to do something we already knew how to do. It got quite easier as it went along.
Elyse, is this one of the first times you’d served as co-writer with Christopher on a project?
Elyse: We’d done a few things on the Mickey shorts. I contributed a bit to one of the songs in “Duck the Halls”, and we co-wrote the song for “Our Homespun Melody” together as well as “Carried Away,” the last episode of this past season, the song that Minnie sings for Mickey. It’s one of my favorites. We worked on those together, and we’re working on some projects that we’re not quite allowed to talk about yet. It wasn’t the first time we’d established our working relationship.
What is that working relationship like?
Elyse: We’re fortunate because we’ve gotten to work a lot together as composer and performer. We work really nicely together there. I also work as a contractor with other singers on whatever we’re working on. I’ll hire those people and help Chris run sessions, sometimes translating things into singer-speak. If he’s asking for one thing, I can sometimes read his mind and say, “Oh, what we need is this.” I think we’ve worked really well together. Writing together is a new challenge but we’re finding our footing.
Christopher: Over the years, there’s been not only the Mickey Mouse shorts, but also The Lion Guard, which has a lot of vocals in there. I would almost say [Elyse] was the producer for those. We had a lot of experience doing that. There’s some early lyrical work in the Mickey Mouse shorts that may not even be credited. As the Mickey shorts matured and we found out what they were and when they needed songs, ‘cause nobody knew at the start how much they would need songs…
Elyse: The fact that we’re also married, we’re both musicians, we both live and work together in the same house…we’re always bouncing ideas off each other. Even when I wasn’t officially writing with Chris, there was a lot of collaboration. “What do you think of this?” It felt like it grew naturally.
Christopher, you’ve also worked on the HBO sitcom Veep. When you’re working on something like that vs. animated shorts like Mickey Mouse, what’s the difference in the creative process?
Christopher: There’s a sliding scale. There isn’t a hard-and-fast difference between doing animation and live-action. There’s many different shades of a sliding scale as to how literally you need to take the action, how extreme you’re going to be in your responses, whether you’re helping the comedy by pushing it further or by ignoring it. But it’s not hard and fast. With The Death of Stalin, Armando Iannucci’s satirical movie, there are places where I’m playing the music very seriously and very pompously. It’s very sort of old-fashioned, sturm und drang kind of music. And people are saying silly things. It’s a weird, jarring contrast between the stupidity of what’s being said and the music.
And that’s the kind of contrast I could have on Mickey Mouse, too. I could decide to go really all-in, in spite of the fact that it’s Mickey fighting off Goofy with a corn cob or something. In some ways, it can be very different. I’d be more likely in a live-action thing to ignore the comedy altogether. But in some ways, I might find myself doing the same tricks. It can be hard to summarize.
Elyse, I’m curious – you have a lot of credits as a performer, on things like Mickey Mouse as well as Star Wars: The Last Jedi. What’s the experience like for you when you’re working on music you haven’t helped contribute to?
Elyse: Every project is very unique. When I do session singing, most of the time, we don’t even know what the project is before we get there. Sometimes, it’s a big surprise and very exciting. Sometimes in advance, with something like The Lion King remake, especially a score like that, there’s so much importance on the vocals. And with lots of us, we grew up with that. Knowing the responsibility you have to make it great for a new generation, in the way it impacted you.
Mostly, we’re just trying to serve the composer’s needs, whatever the composer is trying to accomplish on the film. We’re just there to make sure that happens successfully. In that way, working with Chris is not much different. We’re just trying to make the best product, to balance the composer’s needs and the production’s needs. The end goal is to make the best musical product. Hopefully, we do it really well, and it can stand really well musically.
My last question is for each of you. What favorite piece of Mickey Mouse have you composed or, in Elyse’s case, been part of or heard?
Elyse: That’s a really tough question. There’s so many good episodes.
Christopher: I might say, as a preamble – something I’m really excited about with the ride is that I went back to a lot of the music from the shorts, and did new arrangements that extended the pieces. I can tell from YouTube and places where people leave comments, that people often expect a piece comes from somewhere else, or there must be a longer version somewhere. Perhaps they don’t realize how brief it was, that it only lasted for 15 seconds.
Elyse: Yeah, and that’s really all that exists in the world.
Christopher: It was fun going back and creating those things which people thought already exist. And we’re hoping that those [arrangements] make it onto an album. There’s a big loop of music that you hear in the queue. Some of those pieces have really grown in my mind, too. I suppose the “Springtime” episode has a special place in my heart. [Note. “Springtime” is a largely dialogue-free short inspired by Fantasia.] I almost felt the team did that episode as a sort of…what’s the sporting term?
Elyse: A solid.
Christopher: Oh, I know, it’s an alley-oop!
Elyse: OK, settle down. [Laughs] We’re working on his sports terminology.
Christopher: It’s like when someone pitches to you and makes it really easy for you. They know that I’m really obsessed with 18th-century music. I used to be a musicologist, and–
Elyse: Softball. You mean softball.
Christopher: Softball. [Laughs]
Elyse: He’s working really hard, getting better at sports terms.
Christopher: Yeah, I almost felt that they started that whole [“Springtime”] scenario to give me a chance to do what I actually know how to do best: this weird Mozart-ian smorgasbord, silly classical music.
That’s a standout short, for sure. Elyse, what about you?
Elyse: Yeah, it’s truly a really difficult question to answer. One thing I was thinking, going off of what I said earlier, the songs having a life of their own. With “Duck the Halls”, the two songs, especially “Jing-A-Ling-A-Ling”. I didn’t have any hand in writing those, but I had a hand in performing them. I asked Chris to do arrangements of those songs that quartets could sing, like with Christmas caroling. But we were also able to perform those in Disney Hall with the choir I sing with. So we got to perform that with a 100-person choir. That was really something special. I hope those songs make it into the Christmas canon of songs. They really do stand out their own.
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