Josh Gordon and Will Speck’s live-action musical “Lyle Lyle Crocodile” lives up to it name. The story, about a crocodile named Lyle voiced by Shawn Mendes that can dance and sing, features songs penned by the award-winning Justin Paul and Benj Pasek. The dup then brought in a team of songwriters to carve out toe-tapping, infectious earworms.
From the get-go songwriting and composing duo Pasek and Paul knew Lyle would be a singing crocodile which made the project all the more exciting for them. “But when the voice actor became Shawn Mendes, that really informed a lot of the style and what we were going to write for,” explains Pasek.
With Mendes attached, the writers behind “The Greatest Showman” and “Dear Evan Hansen,” could blend musical theater with contemporary pop. “The aim was to create something with his voice,” says Pasek.
The next step was assembling a group of writers — Ari Afsar, Emily Gardner Xu Hall, Mark Sonnenblick, and Joriah Kwamé — to help crack the tunes.
The pandemic precipitated an unconventional collaboration, with the songwriters working over Zoom and Google docs, and only meeting for the first time at the recent New York premiere.
One of the first songs written was “Take a Look at us Now,” a charming and energetic anthem performed by Javier Bardem’s Hector, a showman and magician oozing razzle-dazzle. The tune is likely to be an original song contender.
Pasek says the team was searching for a phrase that could be a big showy moment up top, but double for the relationships between Hector and Lyle, and later Josh (Winslow Fegley) who inherits Lyle after Hector skips town.
As they were looking for a hook, Kwamé suggested, “What if the song is called ‘Take a Look at Us Now,” and that gave the song the fire element they were seeking.
Similarly, for “Rip Up the Recipe,” another upbeat number performed by Josh’s mom, Mrs. Primm (played by Constance Wu), they were able to let Mendes’ voice soar. Hall says the song has a richer meaning. “We talked about this woman in a kitchen. There were a lot of ways this song could go wrong about women getting back in the kitchen.”
With the songwriting team approaching the process as a TV writer’s room, the entire team could contribute and develop concepts. Sonnenblick says the song became about cooking and Mrs. Primm rediscovering her passion for cooking and baking.
However, the character in the script was originally a CEO. Once the filmmakers heard the song, things were reverse-engineered. “All of a sudden she was a cookbook author,” says Sonnenblick, and the sets were designed to accommodate the lyrics.
The song’s power ballad, “Carried Away,” encapsulates the movie’s central theme of belonging. In a key scene, Lyle is in a Zoo, and the lyrics reflect his desire to be free.
The song has an element of theatricality to it. “It’s this character trying not to give in to sadness instead of indulging in a feeling,” Pasek says. Afsar notes that “Carried Away” reflects an inner monologue about insecurities.
When it finally came time for the voice actors to sing and record the songs, the writers were able to Zoom into the sessions.
As Hall recalls: “Being able to see Justin and Benj work with Shawn, you’re starting to hear the lyrics and hear them say, ‘Let’s do this a different way.’ Suddenly, you’re thinking, this was a bolded word in a Google doc two months ago.”
Says Ian Eisendrath, executive music producer, “Since Lyle can only communicate through singing, Shawn’s delivery of every note, rhythm, and lyric needed to function on two levels – letting us into Lyle’s interior life and deepening and furthering his character and story.”
Adds Kwamé of Mendes, “He has so much expression at the end of his phrases that it actually works really well for musical theater.”
Ultimately, offers Paul, “Shawn Mendes is an adorable crocodile and it’s heartwarming. It’s sweet medicine right now.”