Melissa Manchester has composed popular song hits, won Grammys, concertized widely and starred in Broadway shows, but she’s now written what is virtually her first book musical with the score for Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp II,” a lively, charming sequel to the beloved 1955 animated classic that’s now available on video shelves and DVD counters. Manchester, who recently visited Dallas in connection with the video’s release, had previously penned a single song for Disney “The Great Mouse Detective” in 1986, but she was surprised to be approached about writing a series of melodies for a follow-up to a classic which she described as “one of my favorites–the characters are so lovingly written.” She’d written a musical called “I Sent a Letter to My Love” which was being done in workshop in Indiana, and after it came to the attention of Disney producers, they approached her to do the “Lady” score in collaboration with Oscar-winning lyricist Norman Gimbel. When she signed on, the story of Scamp, the free-spirited pup of Lady and Tramp, was only in first draft, so she and Gimbel were brought into script meetings early on and could participate in shaping the material. “Norman and I took the script and had strong feelings about where the songs should be,” she recalled. “And as the songs were written, the script was reshaped” to accommodate them. “Your job is to help define and refine the moment, and create a musical voice for all the characters,” Manchester explained. “The songs…underscore the events [in the story].”
What especially attracted Manchester to the project was the producers’ commitment to be faithful to the tone and appearance of the original while giving the story a moral that contemporary audiences could relate to. “They brought some of the original animators back,” she explained, and “didn’t want [the songs] to be bogusly modern. But they [also] tried to make the story relevant to today’s families. It’s about family, about a kid making choices in the face of peer pressures.”
The range of the songs Manchester and Gimbel have contributed to “Lady and the Tramp II” is wide, from a big opening number (“Welcome Home”) that establishes the era and the atmosphere and a yearning anthem for Scamp (“World Without Fences”), to a romantic duet for Scamp and his girlfriend Angel (“I Didn’t Know I Could Feel This Way”) and a show-stopping production number sung by Scamp and his new acquaintances of the streets (“Junkyard Society Rag”), which Manchester noted “could have been choreographed by Bob Fosse.” But the songstress was particularly proud of the ballad “Always There,” not only because it encapsulates the movie’s theme but because she had to fight for it. Sung by Scamp, Angel, Lady and Tramp, it’s what Manchester, using Broadway parlance, termed an “eleventh-hour song,” a number coming near the close of a show that the audience expects to sum up what the whole story is about. “At first [the writers and diretors] didn’t want a song for that spot,” Manchester remembered, but she and Gimbel strongly felt that a number about the importance of family was absolutely essential there. So they wrote the piece and fought for its inclusion–and won. Manchester was vindicated when a sneak preview of the completed film was held and the song proved a smash. “I try not to gloat,” she said, laughing. But you can tell she’s proud to have won that one, and viewers will be glad she did. They’ll also be glad that they decided to catch “Lady and the Tramp II,” one of the rare direct-to-video titles that wouldn’t be out of place on a theatre screen.