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90s nostalgia

The Lion King Turns 20: Lyricist Tim Rice Talks About Writing 5 Iconic Songs

Broadway lyricist Tim Rice, whose credits include Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Chess, and Aida, is more than just a wordsmith — he’s also an adept juggler. When the songwriter hunkered down to pen tunes for 1994's The Lion King, he also found himself recruited for Aladdin, taking over after the sudden passing of lyricist Howard Ashman. Rice had never written for an animated movie before. “I had two shots at it,” he says with a relieved laugh “Both worked, I'm glad to say.”

With composer Alan Menken tied up on Aladdin, Rice searched for a second collaborator who could give The Lion King a “rock presence.” Elton John made perfect sense: Rice had penned “Legal Boys” for the musician’s 1982 album Jump Up!, he admired John's composing talents, and they were both British (“I was biased,” Rice jokes). When John agreed to join him, the two worked on The Lion King soundtrack from their respective locations: Rice with Disney screenwriters in Los Angeles, and John experimenting with sounds in England. Because it was the ’90s, Rice faxed John lyric ideas, which the pianist would record as demos to be mailed back to L.A. The whirlwind process resulted in earworms that continue to burrow into the minds of young people and pop up on karaoke rotations for adults clinging to their Disney-drenched childhoods.

To help us celebrate the 20th anniversary of the movie this month, Rice walked Vulture through the writing process of five iconic songs from the soundtrack (and one that didn’t make the cut).

“Circle of Life”
From the beginning, Rice’s intention was to kick off The Lion King with a standalone, non-character song that could encompass the film’s values. “Generations passing on the flame, one generation dying out and a new one taking over, and animals eating each other. All of these things are part of the ‘Circle of Life,’” Rice says. The final number includes South African singer Lebo M performing the opening Zulu lyrics and Carmen Twillie providing female vocals. Rice wrote the song for a gospel singer, although they toyed with the idea of laying over John’s performance (released with the original soundtrack) or scrapping the completed track altogether. “I know we did a completely different take on ‘Circle of Life,’ which had a substantially different lyric,” he recalls. “Elton came out with a perfectly good, but lightweight, tune, which suited the lightweight lyrics but not the beginning of the movie.”

“I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”
When it comes to songwriting, Rice says that he starts with character, molds the plot and action into words, coaxes out a made-up tune in his head, and then writes a verse. From there, it’s about matching subsequent verses to the meter and scansion. When the composer returns with music, it’s often the lyricist’s job to whittle down words to fit the grooves. For Rice, Simba’s rousing number became a pillar of the film. Performed by Jonathan Taylor Thomas stand-in Jason Weaver (who’d previously played Michael Jackson in the 1992 ABC miniseries The Jacksons: An American Dream), “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” was written with ease and sounded the same from pre-production to release. “Basically, I was just thinking of children playing games,” Rice says of the lyrics. “Whatever they say has to be plausible. We knew the song was sung by a lion cub, so it had to be innocent, boppy, and poppy. It's a lighthearted thing for kids to sing.”

“Be Prepared”
“A song like that is meant to be funny and sinister,” says Rice. “That’ll intrigue the audience.” The recognized joke at Disney was that The Lion King was “Hamlet with fur,” but Rice never found himself digging through Shakespeare for inspiration. He envisioned “Be Prepared” as the lion pride version of a Nazi rally, Scar playing the bellowing orator to the hyenas’ chanting soldiers. Jeremy Irons’s classic British diction as Scar allowed for maximum wordplay. Rice is particularly fond of the “And seen, for the wonder I am” lyric, and takes delight in instances where the vocabulary doesn't quite match the target demographic (raise your hand if you learned “quid pro quo” from Lion King). “It’s good that there are words they don't understand. They’ll wonder what they mean. I found that with lots of things as a kid,” he says.

“Hakuna Matata”
Rice recalls taking several stabs at writing songs for Timon and Pumba. One appears on Rhythm of the Pride Lands, a Lion King sequel album released in 1995: “Warthog Rhapsody,” a tune that shares lyrics and melodies with what would become “Hakuna Matata.” Rice says discovering that phrase reshaped the song. “It was in this Swahili book, and I thought, If it’s pronounced the way it’s supposed to be pronounced, then it’s going to sing well,” he says. “I didn’t know how it was pronounced.” There have been rumors that Rice’s lyrics for “Hakuna Matata” were inspired by the late Rik Mayall’s sitcom Bottoms, possibly because Mayall reportedly auditioned for several parts in the film. The songwriter denies that, however, saying instead that he wanted to craft the number as a philosophical conversation. “It had to introduce them, had to be about their way of life [and what] they wanted to teach Simba, an impressionable young cub,” he says. “The main thing is they’re comic relief. They represent a different aspect of life. It’s not all about lions and prides.”

“Can You Feel the Love Tonight”
The Lion King’s love ballad was the first song Rice and John dove into, and it was the first to solidify. “You have to have a big emotional ballad — that’s a good place to start,” says Rice. “If you feel like you’ve got one strong song locked away, it gets you going for the rest. Having had one big success with ‘A Whole New World,’ [Disney] was keen to get a song that would have the same emotional clout.” In animation, story beats and character arcs are ever-evolving. Rice and John’s songs were in constant flux. One day, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” took place before Simba and Nala met. Then it was rewritten to take place after they reconnected. Then, in what sounds like a “Kiss the Girl”–type move, the song was planned as a Timon and Pumba number. The ground settled with a love song incorporating Timon, Pumba, Simba, Nala, a disembodied voice, and an African choir. Rice says he likes the movie version of the song, but adores John’s version. “The version Elton recorded, which is my favorite version, is not lyrically exactly in the body of the film,” he says. “In the film, it’s a plot thing as much as a love song, whereas Elton’s version, the hit version, it was a fairly conventional love song.”

“Morning Report”
Not every song Rice wrote for the film made the cut. “I must have written 15 lyrics for The Lion King, and only five or six were used,” he says. “Some were scenes that disappeared, some were earlier versions of songs that didn’t work, or else the characters changed. You just keep going to the end, if you can.” The toe-tapping “Morning Report,” a post–“Circle of Life” number featuring Rowan Atkinson’s Zazu, came close enough to reality that a fully animated version of the sequence exists (and appeared on the special-edition DVD in 2003). Rice doesn’t think it completely works. “It doesn’t advance the story,” he admits. “It’s funny in its own way, but it slows things up, and at that point in the film, you want to get going with the story. Having a hornbill make a few jokes about elephants and giraffes doesn’t really help.” That became less of a concern when “Morning Report” was repurposed for the Broadway show. “In a show, you have more time to stick a guy or girl on stage to warble a song,” he says. “But even if it’s a love song saying ‘I love you,’ it ought to further the story in terms of the character. Everything has to pay respects to the plot. Probably more so in animated film.”

Photo: Disney