Howard Ashman songs: “Disneyland” from Smile (lyrics by Howard Ashman, music by Marvin Hamlisch)
Performed by Jodi Benson in the infamous 1986 Broadway flop Smile, the musical monologue “Disneyland” transcends time and place to transform the theatre’s atmosphere into that of a memory. The pure and basic expression of desire reverts all back to the infantile state of a lonely, broken, 11-year-old girl, not only believably, but spiritually, as she struggles to assure herself that her desire for fantasy is “perfectly okay”. The elements of character expressed through the lyrics and musical intonation renders all other elements obsolete - a full cerebral and emotional understanding is achieved, beginning with the initial high-pitched opening chords and concluding with a vocal and lyrical climax that echoes out, piercing like an archer’s arrow.
As the audience feels for both infant and adult Doria, it is possible they do not fully acknowledge that the full force of the character’s inner plight is only so alive because its power is within them - their emotional participation is involuntary, but vital to the full understanding of the number. The audience ogles up, glossy-eyed at the stage, unaware of how time has been rewound as they take the place of the 11-year-old child, alone in their theatre seats, witnessing something magical and heartbreaking.
For the most part, the themes expressed in the song (an immature desire for somewhere safe and happy with no regard for reality) should come across as overly obvious, cliché, or as all-out satire, but they do not. The pure artistry of the song’s authorship and performance rises beyond text, message, character, and even theatre, into the memories and emotional crevices of the audience amidst a darkened atmosphere of the lonesome soul. The song’s lyrics and music are perfectly in marriage with one another, and are so pure and so wonderful even out of any theatrical or dramatic context, that they exist as a truly great work of art (there’s no use in describing the musical or rhyming patterns, when such description could not do either justice, so I have included the lyrics below in full, as well as a link to listen to a live recording of the song). It is no wonder this number got a standing ovation each and every night the show was on Broadway. However panned the show was back in 1986, the power of “Disneyland” was never questioned, and is still celebrated today by those who remember it, and by those lucky enough to discover it buried beneath the decades.
Ironically, some of the imagery reflects Howard Ashman’s future work with Disney (“Magic carpet, please/Carry me away” is reminiscent of Aladdin, and Jodi Benson was the voice of Ariel in The Little Mermaid), and the entire number is oddly prophetic in its bittersweet tone and eerie self-awareness of a world of fakery, perhaps mirroring the theatre itself. True, “maybe it’s all fake”, but the emotion is true and alive to those who listen. Howard Ashman has given us Disneyland, and boy do I pray that I’ll stay.
Hot Sunday night, I guess the folks were busy fighting
Joe’d already left home
Eleven years old on my own, feeling nothing but lonely
There’s nothing to do, there’s nothing out there but the traffic
Down on State 93
So I’d sit through the night by our old black-and-white TV
That’s when I saw it, That’s when I heard it
Calling, Calling me
Disneyland. Magic Kingdom
Disneyland. Close my eyes real tight, wishing hard I might, wishing hard I may
Find my way to
Disneyland, gotta get to
Disneyland, on a Western breeze
Magic carpet, please!
Carry me away
Oh I know you’re gonna say the trees are paper mache, it’s done with mirrors, the magic there
Each little bird’s full of springs, you press a button it sings, recorded music fills the air
They’ve had the mountain refaced, it’s only plywood and paste, go on, say it!
I’ll turn around and tell you, I don’t care!
I don’t care.
I will live in Disneyland
Make my home in Disneyland
Maybe it’s all fake
That’s a chance I’d take
It’s perfectly okay!
Someone give me Disneyland
Take me there!
And when I get to Disneyland