Everybody Dies in the End: Disney and Elton Do Aida

Slouching towards the new (!) improved (!) mouse-squeaky clean Times Square comes the latest Disney assault on the 20th century. It apparently was not enough merely to turn 42nd Street into a mall with overtones of downtown Ohio. The Eisner food chain has now come up with (Sir) Elton John’s Aida .

Obviously, the success of Rent has had a big effect at Mickey Central. If La Bohème could make it on Broadway without anybody from the pop pantheon to make it bankable, imagine what could happen with the addition of Elton John and Tim Rice to the title of another opera.

But what opera?

This is where marketing comes in. Africa has been rich colonial fodder for the Imperial Rodent of late: The Lion King , Tarzan and The Prince of Egypt are all examples of the continent’s ability to add to the Big Mouse’s bottom line. So Aida is the obvious choice. In addition to the geography, the opera has its love triangle of Aida, the Nubian slave loved by Radames, the Egyptian soldier, who is loved in turn by Amneris, the Pharaoh’s daughter. Lots of angst, everybody dies at the end, and let’s not forget all the cute stuffed-animal possibilities presented by the Triumphal March scene. Michael Graves can do the pyramids!

The time is camembert-ripe to usher grand opera off the stage of the Met and to fully explore the licensing potential that haute culture has heretofore ignored. Aida , the musical; Aida , the animated feature; Aida , the perfume. If recent reports of his financial straits are to be credited, (Sir) E really needs the money. And, after his recent heart scare, who could begrudge (Sir) E his chance at voguing with Verdi?

But it wouldn’t be Disney without some tinkering. So, as Mr. Rice explains in the album notes to the rather cumbersomely titled Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida , this “is a tale of one nation’s harsh subjugation of another.” It’s obvious that Aida ‘s libretto is in the public domain and ready for a P.C. update. None of that 19th-century romantic tripe for this audience. Aida is political! It has racial conflict! It’s now!

High concept established, the march on New York begins. Like any product, Aida must be test-marketed. The production had a “world premiere” in Atlanta in October 1998. Entitled Elaborate Lives: The Legend of Aida , with a book by Linda Woolverton, it seems to have passed with nary a blip on the seismo-cultural graph. (Sir) E’s version, with book and lyrics by (Not-yet Sir) T, who numbers The Lion King among other dubious achievements, is now back to Aida , with the unindicted co-conspirators taking precedence on the marquee. The new (!) improved (!) production will attack Chicago first, then, in spring 2000, it will be born on Broadway. After all, Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida (as now we must term it) had its world premiere in Cairo, so the argument could be made that (Sir) E is only flattering by imitation.

But the question remains: Can you take the kids? Disney is notably averse to death. After all, Bambi’s Mom and the Lion King’s Dad were (a) animated and (b) supporting characters. Perhaps if Chicago doesn’t work out, they will change the ending and have Radames and Aida run off to join a support group for treasonous interracial couples. There may yet be a happy ending–stay tuned.

In the meantime, for those of us unable to wait, a CD has been released. “Emphatically not” a cast album, each of the songs has been mixed, engineered and manufactured by a different “team” with performers who include (among others) Sting, Tina Turner, Janet Jackson, James Taylor and, of course, (Sir) E. The 15 songs credit well over 100 people. The perps then thank an additional 112 individuals, including Edgar Bronfman Jr., Boyz II Men, the Spice Girls and “everyone at Castel M. and Woodside, everyone at Rocket, Island and Mercury records, all artist and producer management companies and all musicians who participated on this album.” It’s a pre-emptive Oscar speech and there hasn’t even been a film made.

It’s hard to say which is worse–the music or the lyrics–but it’s safe to say that the text seems to linger on, while the music thankfully fades from memory. The tunes range from those appropriate to background sound at Kmart to the merely glutinous. No competition for “Celeste Aïda” here. Some of it is even funny: Tina Turner’s version of “Easy as Life” is done as homage to the Supremes, and (Sir) E’s duet with (Diva) Janet Jackson is somewhat reminiscent of a shampoo commercial. To be fair, the album notes contain a disclaimer: This version of the show, “is simply a selection … interpreted by an extremely distinguished array of performers, each of whom was given absolute artistic freedom,” a sort of pop version of bel canto. The liberty may have even precluded (Sir) E and Ms. Jackson from actually being in the same studio at the same time. It certainly sounds that way. Whatever the method, the entire score has a glossy, electronic, mixed-to-death sound that excludes any human contribution (unless one counts the digital dexterity necessary to adjust the state-of-the-art knobs on the recording dashboards).

Moving from the tunes to the text, Mr. Rice’s notes assure us, in what sounds like a possible defense against a class action suit, that the lyrics are the “intended stage version of the words you will read herein.”

And what deathless poetry this is! Unfortunately, the obvious advantage of producing opera in a language the audience can’t understand never occurred to the neophytes Mr. John and Mr. Rice. Sub- or supra- titles to the contrary, opera works in part because it’s incomprehensible. This Aida bombs when you understand what’s going on.

A high point of the undertaking has to be Sting’s attempt to link “ruler” with “minusculer” in the opening “Another Pyramid.” Mr. Rice hasn’t been this memorable since the “Lauren Bacall me” of Evita . Anachronisms abound: The Buddhist concept of past lives is popular (“Written in the Stars”) while Lenny Kravitz sings both parts of the duet “Like Father, Like Son,” with Dad admonishing, “You can’t escape your genes.” You can almost feel your Calvins contracting.

In the post-Diana age, we are all aware of (Sir) E’s chaste passion for princesses and interesting clothes. Since presumably he won’t be performing in whatever version of this disaster eventually winds up in Gotham, he takes the opportunity to cross-sing both Amneris and Aida (albeit in separate rock arias).

But my favorite part of Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida is found in Mr. Rice’s notes. He writes, “Verdi’s Michael Eisner was the Khedive of Egypt.” Comparing the Senior Mouseketeer to the degenerate head of what was then a decaying Ottoman satrapy is pretty much worth the price of the CD.