This year, Oscar only sings twice

Category's abolition makes choices tougher

With the abolition of the original musical or comedy score category, Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voters this year have to make even tougher choices than usual. While the original song category remains the same, the original score division now encompasses music from both dramatic and comedic pictures.

What’s different about this year’s nomination process is the inability for original song scores (movies with five or more original songs), or the underscores within musicals (the music between the songs) to compete at all.

The category of original song score, an optional third music field, wasn’t activated this year because only two musicals were entered: Disney’s “Tarzan” (songs by Phil Collins, score by Mark Mancina) and Paramount’s “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” (songs by Trey Parker, score and additional song contributions by Marc Shaiman).

Oscar rules state that if “four or fewer qualifying works” are entered, the music branch’s executive committee can recommend no award be given. That action was taken in November, Academy exec director Bruce Davis confirms.

Both “Tarzan” and “South Park” have entered tunes in the original song category, but neither Mancina’s dramatic underscore for “Tarzan” nor Shaiman’s partly original, partly adapted (from the songs) score for “South Park” were allowed to be resubmitted in the original score division.

The current situation, say veteran music branch members, is the result of years of attempts to create a level playing field for composers and songwriters.

For many years, Oscar had three music categories: original score, original song and original song score (for musicals) or adaptation score (turning existing music, often classical, into a film score). But with fewer original musicals being produced, the original song score category disappeared after 1984. And when composer Alan Menken entered his underscore for Disney musicals “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin” in the original score category in ’89, ’91 and ’92, respectively, he won every time.

Technically, Academy members were choosing his dramatic adaptation of the songs he wrote for those movies. But most observers believe that Academy voters saw the term “original score” and simply checked off the name of each year’s big animated musical. The composers of dramatic scores, who make up a majority of the Academy’s 250 music branch members, began to feel that their work was being unfairly judged against the very different musical skills of a songwriter.

“The problem here is one of potential confusion to voters,” Davis explains. “With a musical film, it’s hard to ask people to set aside the term ‘score’ in a Broadway sense and to focus on the score in a movie sense. There’s a tendency to honor the songs even though it’s not a song category.”

So for four years starting in 1995, original score was “original dramatic score” and a new category of “original musical or comedy score” was used. The latter included both song scores and (to ensure there would always be enough entries) underscores from comedic pictures.

That posed a new problem: Music had a drama-comedy split that no other Academy branch had and that, Davis notes, “was very uncomfortable for us philosophically.”

“It’s not something we do for best picture, for example, or for any other awards,” Davis continues. “You could make a case in a number of categories, such as writing or performing, that comedy calls on different skills than serious drama.””Having tried that experiment, we — with the concurrence of the music branch — decided to go back to a single award for best score.”

Now, however, the score for a musical can only be entered within original song score — and if there aren’t enough musicals, there won’t be a song score category. That will make the dramatic composers happy, but it’s denying surefire nominations to composers who worked on musicals.

Says Davis: “The issues in the music area are inherently complicated. The branch executive committee has been tinkering with the rules for years to try and make them as fair as possible, but I don’t think anyone anymore thinks that ‘as fair as possible’ is going to mean making everybody happy.”

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