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John Williams in Disneyland: The Story Behind His ‘Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge’ Theme

Insiders explain what went into the composer's music for the attraction, which opens at Disneyland May 31 and at Walt Disney World in August.

For only the second time in more than four decades of “Star Wars” music, legendary composer John Williams has written a new theme for a “Star Wars” project that is distinct from his film scores for those galaxies far, far away.

Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the much-anticipated attraction that will open at Disneyland on May 31, inspired the five-time Oscar winner to pen a five-minute “symphonic suite” that musically encapsulates the remote outpost on planet Batuu along with the various outlaws and rebels that parkgoers will encounter there.

Interviews with those closely associated with the project say that Williams’ participation was a long time in the planning stages. Matt Walker, executive in charge of music for Walt Disney Imagineering, tells Variety that since the outpost didn’t exist in the films, it would need “its own score, one that belonged to it, but of course lived within the universe of John’s writings for the films.”

Like many previous Williams compositions for the series, it suggests heroism, danger, excitement — everything Galaxy’s Edge visitors would hope for. But unlike all previous “Star Wars” themes, there are no images or characters specifically associated with it, so its true inspiration is shrouded in mystery.

Williams has only once before written a signature tune unrelated to one of his own movie scores: a theme for the young Han Solo in last year’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story.” The composer, now in the midst of writing the music for “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” episode IX of the 42-year franchise (due in December), was unavailable to comment for this story.

Composer-arranger William Ross has been adapting Williams’ music from the “Star Wars” films for Disneyland’s Star Tours for the past decade and was enlisted for Galaxy’s Edge. “This was a new world, with its own identity away from the movies,” says Ross, and it was clear that finding the right theme — despite the ability to draw on Williams’ 16 hours of music from the previous eight “Star Wars” films — might not be easy.

So Williams was invited to Disney Imagineering in Glendale for “an in-depth series of meetings,” Walker says. The composer was shown elaborate models, given detailed descriptions, saw artists’ drawings, watched an animatic and generally introduced to the Black Spire Outpost and the two planned rides, Smugglers Run and Rise of the Resistance.

“We wanted to enhance the immersive-theater quality of the land with a new composition, and that seemed to intrigue him,” says Walker. “He signed on for it, a year ago, and it’s been a fantastic adventure.”

In July 2018, Williams delivered “this five-minute symphonic suite with multiple themes, development of those themes, counter-melodies, even a fugal moment,” Walker says. No one at Disney or Lucasfilm had even heard a basic piano demo at that point; Williams, working solely from the art he’d seen and the descriptions he’d been given, musically imagined this exotic new land.

Ross, the frequent Williams collaborator who conducted parts of “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi,” flew to London to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra in August. It was that orchestra that became a household name by performing the first six “Star Wars” scores from 1977 to 2005.

Williams, who was in Tanglewood, Mass., at the time of the recording, was linked to Abbey Road, enabling him to hear the sessions and offer specific notes about the performance.

Ross recorded the five-minute suite, a two-minute reduction of the main theme, and various shorter pieces based on Williams’ original composition, all totaling about an hour of music.

“One of the things we’re trying to inspire in our guests is this sense of awe and wonder,” says Walker, who was present at the London sessions. “There’s an optimism, a sense of adventure; you go on a journey in this five-minute piece.”

Yet visitors to Galaxy’s Edge will never actually hear the LSO version of Williams’ full suite. Disney released a two-minute teaser video showing Ross conducting at Abbey Road on Nov. 17, and a digital download of the full version on May 2. The original symphonic piece serves as the musical foundation for Galaxy’s Edge and will be heard occasionally in various contexts throughout the outpost.

“We never wanted this to sound like background music,” Walker said. “We’ve done deconstructed versions, so you’re not suddenly saying, ‘Wow, there’s the 90-piece LSO playing this incredible piece of symphonic music.’ We tease you, and begin to set up his thematic material and weave that in as you enter. Then where you are in the land, and what needs to happen, begins to take over.”

The idea, Walker explains, is to create an authentic-sounding exotic locale, “weaving in musical textures, being careful not to overuse John’s thematic material. It’s a very textural approach to the source music.” Adds Ross: “It’s going to be more like the small group of musicians you might hear in some exotic and faraway village marketplace. But John’s theme informs the entire Galaxy’s Edge musical experience.”

GALAXY'S EDGE BY JOHN WILLIAMS -- Academy Award-winning composer John Williams has written a new Star Wars musical theme for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge – Disney’s largest single-themed land expansions ever at 14 acres each coming in 2019 to Disneyland Resort in California and Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. The new theme is incorporated into two signature attractions in the land. Pictured: Sheet music of Williams’ score photographed during the recording session with the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios in London in August 2018. (Scott Trowbridge/Disney)
CREDIT: Disney/Lucasfilm Ltd

Both Smugglers Run, set aboard the Millennium Falcon; and Rise of the Resistance, the still-in-progress second ride to open in the fall, will draw extensively on the vast catalog of previous Williams “Star Wars” themes, Disney execs said. Ross made several trips to London to record newly arranged and adapted material for various corners of the 14-acre land.

Surprisingly, this is not the first original music Williams has written for a theme-park attraction. When he adapted his Oscar-winning “E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial” score for a Universal Studios ride in 1990, he wrote a new theme for Botanicus, an elder of E.T.’s species who appears during the adventure. That garnered little attention, however, by comparison with Galaxy’s Edge.

After its California bow at Disneyland this month, the attraction will open Aug. 29 at Florida’s Walt Disney World.

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