Composer digs into New Orleans' rich history

New Orleans in the early part of the 20th century – the setting of Disney’s animated “The Princess and the Frog” – is territory that composer Randy Newman has trod before.

“I’ve been dredging those 30 months I spent in New Orleans for all I could in my life,” he quips, referring to the summers of his youth. Songs on Newman’s “Good Old Boys” and “Land of Dreams” albums feature the Big Easy as a backdrop, and Newman has long expressed admiration for New Orleans-born artists Louis Armstrong and Fats Domino.

So when producer John Lasseter asked Newman to compose seven songs and the score for “The Princess and the Frog,” Newman didn’t have to think twice. (After all, Newman’s Oscar is for one of Lasseter’s Pixar films, “Monsters, Inc.” and six of his other 16 nominations are for Pixar songs or scores.)

“Princess,” an update of the classic Grimm Brothers fairy tale about a princess kissing a frog and discovering a prince, became a musical when the animators shifted the locale to New Orleans in the 1920s. And who better to musicalize a fantasy Big Easy than Newman?

“I’ve done the (music) festival down there a few times,” he says. “There’s a gospel tent, a blues tent, I’ve heard Cajun music… I know that stuff and I love it.”

Dr. John sings the opening number, “Down in New Orleans,” which Newman hesitates to describe except to agree that “it sounds of the place and of the period. Bessie Smith could have done something like it.

“I thought they’d ask me to do it,” Newman adds about the vocals, “but they wanted Dr. John’s voice. They had us doing a part, an otter or some kind of animal that was going to be the narrator. I think he beat me out for the part of the otter.”

Newman mines the rich musical history of southern Louisiana: a bluesy ballad for Tiana, the princess of the title; zydeco for firefly Ray and a country waltz for his love Evangeline; a gospel number for mystical Mama Odie; and Preservation Hall-style jazz influences throughout the score. Another famous New Orleans native, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, plays several solos.

“Everything’s there – love, hate, evil, good,” Newman says of his seventh animated film (including such hits as “Toy Story” and “A Bug’s Life”). But, he adds, in writing an hour of underscore, “you don’t get a chance to slow down, ever. Someone’s being chased, or in peril, and then there’ll be a joke. In animated stuff, you sort of have to hit the joke. So it’s a mercurial kind of thing.”

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