13 August 2009

Decent Writing in Unexpected Places

Here is a clip from the highly entertaining and infectious (it's been with me for 20 years) opening number to the Cannon Movie Tales version of THE FROG PRINCE. (In the Mid-80s Cannon released a series of made-for-tv/video-movie-musicals. There were filmed in Eastern Europe with great haste and economy). Not the place one would expect to look for examples of good theater writing (and, to be fair, it ain't SWEENEY TODD), but I was surprised, in looking at it again recently, how well it achieves its purpose, even if it is by uncredited writers.

The story of THE FROG PRINCE is, when you think of it, pretty thin. Spoiled princess meets frog, makes deal with frog, kisses frog. So how does one expand it to a nearly 2 hour long movie? Especially when the main conflict is your protagonist's selfishness? Well, you can start off by making the princess sympathetic and lonely, with an evil half-sister (played by, if you can believe it, Helen Hunt) who schemes to keep the princess away from the frog. So it becomes less a story about faith, trust and selflessness and more about finding friends in unexpected places. So how to start the story? With the young princess (Zora, played by Aileen Quinn, Hollywood's ANNIE) waking up, eager to face the day. With a--perhaps not by coincidence--Annie-like optimism Zora sings of her certainty that today will be her lucky day: "Today will be my lucky day, my lucky day I know. The trumpets and the fanfare and the banners tell me so..." Trumpets and fanfare. These trumpets not only establish that we are one a "once upon a time" fairy-tale land, but we soon find out they sound whenever the king has an important announcement to make. If they had just been part of an establishing shot, we might not notice, but the opening of the song brings them to our attention. Zora continues through two verses, feeding and singing to her fish and likening herself to a butterfly while playing with a butterfly mobile in her room (she's not afraid of wild life). You imagine she is this warm--and warmly received--throughout the castle. Then, at the bridge, we learn a crucial fact--she is lonely, with ONLY her toys and fish as friends. Then she reveals a secret: she wished upon a star that she would have friends. And she thinks it's going to work (which is why she's so damn happy). She is certain her wish will come true because, in addition to that wish she made, she has her lucky golden ball. That's why that damn ball--the ball upon which the entire story hinges--is so important. If she looses that, she looses all hope of ever having a friend. And now, but 3 minutes into the movie, we are armed with a protagonist we care about and a sense of where the movie will take us. And, we just heard a really catchy, happy, tune. So to whoever wrote this song, good work. And, from what I hear, they may need your help at FIRST WIVES CLUB...

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