[2019 UPDATE: Check out my new repertoire guide featuring over 300 solo songs from Walt Disney films, television shows, stage musicals, theme park attractions, and more from throughout the company’s nearly century-long history!]
Today’s post is mostly for fun, but there are some things that can be gained from exploring the vocalism of Disney animated princesses throughout the years (especially now that the company has such a huge presence on Broadway). It is interesting to see how the singing in these films has changed to reflect shifting musical and cultural trends in our society. So, without further ado, let’s meet our five princesses…
1. Aurora from Sleeping Beauty (1959)
In the musical theatre world, we would call Princess Aurora a traditional legit soprano. The term ‘legit’ refers to a style of musical theatre singing that is heavily rooted in classical voice training and vocal styles. Like many legit sopranos, Aurora sings almost exclusively with cricothyroid-dominant production (aka ‘head voice’). Her singing features many of the hallmarks of legit-style vocalism, including: consistant vibrato, tall and round vowels, a balanced tone quality that is equally bright and dark (aka ‘chiaroscuro’), and crisp/proper diction. Who knows how she learned to sing this way- perhaps from one of her fairy ‘aunts’ or a woodland creature of some sort. In any case, Aurora’s technique and artistry are both impeccable. She sings with a near-seamless legato line while utilizing a hint of speech-like production and delayed vibrato at certain points. In many ways, Aurora is the Disney poster child for classical/operatic singing.
Both Aurora’s speaking and singing voice were provided by actress/opera singer, Mary Costa. Costa performed over 44 operatic roles on stages throughout the world before retiring at age 70. We can certainly hear her classical/operatic roots in Aurora’s voice. Even the character speaks primarily in head register. This was not uncommon for women in the 1950s. It wasn’t until the sexual revolution of the 1960s that many women began speaking in a lower register (often as a means of exerting gender equality). Today, several of the world’s most powerful women speak in a lower, commanding register (i.e. Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel, Michelle Obama, and others).
2. Ariel from The Little Mermaid (1989)
We now jump forward thirty years and turn our attention to a young mermaid named Ariel. Ariel primarily sings in a light, speech-driven ‘mix’. From a functional standpoint, this means the larynx is behaving in a speech-like manner. It raises and lowers somewhat as it does in normal speech, but it never shifts to one extreme or the other. The songwriters and arrangers were smart to keep “Part of Your World” in a limited range in order to make this task easier for the performer. Ariel transitions very smoothly from her speaking voice to her singing voice (a trait that many musical theatre performers strive for today). There is a natural sort of beauty to Ariel’s voice that I find lacking in the singing of her sisters. I assume they all studied voice with Maestro Sebastian, but Ariel seems more interested in singing musical theatre love ballads than the classical-based repertoire performed in the Atlantis court. Perhaps it is best to let her perform the kind of music she wants to perform.
Notably, The Little Mermaid was scored by Disney dream team Alan Menken and Howard Ashman following the success of their hit Off-Broadway musical, Little Shop of Horrors. Actress Jodi Benson provided both the speaking and singing voice for Ariel after previously starring in Howard Ashman’s short-lived Broadway musical, Smile (with music by Marvin Hamlisch). Unlike the other princesses on this list, we can actually view the recording session for this song online here. In the video, Jodi Benson is coached by the late Howard Ashman. He encourages Benson to sing with a more ‘intimate’ and ‘tomboyish’ quality (which makes perfect sense for the free-spirited young mermaid). He also tells her to ‘use less voice and more intensity- get in on yourself.’ Studio singing tends to be a much more ‘intimate’ performance experience, so Ashman’s directions seem very logical.
Fun Fact: Both Jodi Benson and Sierra Boggess, the actress who portrayed Ariel in the Broadway stage adaptation of The Little Mermaid, attended Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois (my alma mater).
3. Mulan from Mulan (1998)
I’m skipping over several Disney princesses, so please pardon me Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Meg fans. Like Ariel, Mulan primarily sings in a light, speech-driven mix during the verse section of “Reflection”. She lets loose a bit more in the chorus. There, her sound develops into a stronger chest register-dominant mix. This means the thyroarytenoid muscle is engaging more and working alongside the cricothyroid. However, Mulan is careful not to bring up TOO much chest register. Some of us in the voice world believe that a healthy belt is actually a strong chest/mix (rather than pure chest register forced upward). Mulan navigates this fine line quite well. She may have received functional voice training from her grandmother or one of her guardian ancestor spirits. It is difficult to say how her alter-ego, Ping, would sing, but he does speak in a gruffy, lower register. This can be rough on the voice over time. That said, I am supportive of how ever Mulan/Ping chooses to live her or his life.
Here is one of those situations where two different actresses provided the speaking and singing voice for the same Disney princess. Sidnote: is Mulan really a princess? No, but for the purpose of Disney merchandising, she apparently is. ANYWAY, Mulan/Ping’s speaking voice was provided by Ming-Na Wen (who you may recognize from TV’s ER, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and elsewhere). The character’s singing voice was provided by Lea Salonga, a Filipino actress who rose to fame as Kim in the original West End and Broadway productions of Miss Saigon. Notably, Salonga also provided the singing voice for Jasmine in Disney’s Aladdin. She currently stars in the new Broadway musical, Allegiance.
Tiana from The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Make no mistake- Tiana is a belter (and a very good one at that). She isn’t one of singers who tries to get away with performing “And I Am Telling You” in head/mix. As a native of New Orleans, Tiana sings with a regional dialect and incorporates a bit of a jazz swing into her performance. Much of her singing is done in a speech-driven, chest/mix register. She includes a few bits of ornamentation here and there, but these embellishments never distract from the meaning of the song. Here is a performer who may or may not have had a single voice lesson in her life, but do we honestly care either way? Tiana clearly has a deep, functional understanding of her instrument, and she sounds fabulous. Listen to those brassy, trumpet-like final notes. She is just as much of an artist as Aurora above.
Anika Noni Rose provided the speaking and singing voice for Tiana in The Princess and the Frog, an underrated little Disney gem. Rose is a multi-talented performer who has appeared in Broadway musicals, films, and television. Notably, she portrayed Lorrell in the 2006 film adaptation of Dreamgirls and originated the role of Emmie in the Broadway production of Caroline, or Change. In 2014, she appeared as Beneatha in the Tony Award-winning, Broadway revival production of A Raisin in the Sun.
Elsa from Frozen (2013)
Poor Elsa. She has been torn apart by critics over the past few years, but she took all that criticism straight to the bank. Like Tiana, Elsa is a belter. In fact, she sings with the ‘heaviest’ form of chest-dominant registration of any Disney princess to date. She also sings this song in key that is quite high, which creates an exhilarating but somewhat worrisome performance for some of us in the voice community. Perhaps it is best if we think of Elsa like a sprinter rather than a long distance runner. She places an extraordinary amount of ‘weight’ in her voice (aka heavy thyroarytenoid usage with pressed phonation), but only for short periods of time. It does worry some of us that she has struggled to sing this song in this same key at nearly every live performance since Frozen. We also fear that little girls may try to replicate her exact sound, and that could be potentially dangerous. In any case, Elsa is an extremely theatrical performer, and I look forward to seeing what this Snow Queen does next.
Idina Menzel. That is all.