Let’s get down to business to get the story behind the music of Mulan.
Over 20 years ago, Disney paired lyricist David Zippel and composer Matthew Wilder in what Zippel calls “the best blind date I’ve ever had” when the studio asked the pair to collaborate on the music for the animated film, Mulan. The film, a story about a young Chinese woman who goes to war disguised as a man in place of her father, came near the end of the Disney animation renaissance in 1998 and even earned an Oscar nomination for Zippel and Wilder in the short-lived category of Original Musical or Comedy Score.
Zippel had worked with Alan Menken on Disney’s previous animated film, writing lyrics for Hercules, but this time they were pairing him with a new talent — Wilder, who Disney scouts had discovered at a theatre festival in Canada. After a brief meeting where they quickly hit it off, the two became a part of the Mulan team over four years before the film’s 1998 release. For Wilder, one of the first orders of business for devising his score was to become familiar with “the vocabulary of Chinese instrumentation.” As he explains, “We knew we weren’t going to be writing a five-tone scale musical. My go-to references were Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Loewe and Gilbert & Sullivan. There was so many other references that had taken the Asian motif and brought it into the 20th century, and I was leaning heavily on anything and everything I could get my hands on.”
Zippel says the experience of writing the score for an animated film is actually very similar to the process of writing a stage musical. Zippel and Wilder would meet with the production team to go over storyboards, hash out which moments needed songs or were natural fits for musicalization, go off and create a demo, which would be set to animation, and make tweaks from there. This meant writing and re-writing songs, occasionally tossing things out the window altogether.
One moment in particular that never made it to the final version was a song for Eddie Murphy’s character, Mushu, Mulan’s sidekick in the form of a diminutive dragon. The song was called “Keep ‘Em Guessing” and featured Mushu advising Mulan on how to maintain her undercover act as a male soldier. “We wrote three different versions of it,” explains Zippel. “But that’s because we didn’t understand at that point that it wasn’t that [Eddie Murphy] wasn’t liking our songs, he just didn’t want to sing in the film.”
Here’s an inside look at the process behind some of the songs that did make the final cut:
‘I’ll Make a Man Out Of You’