NEW YORK — DIRECTOR Kevin Lima had a number of concerns in his struggle to film a script about an animated young woman who winds up in live-action New York. Among them, "that the audience be invested in the character, first, not the star."
He found his perfect lead at audition No. 275 (out of about 300) in the relatively unknown Amy Adams, although the studio wasn't quite as sold. But more on that later. He also was worried about getting the songs in the film -- which, of course, became "Enchanted," the Disney musical that took in close to $50 million over its Thanksgiving weekend opening -- to have just the right tone.
"I wanted collaborators who loved the material as much as I did, who wouldn't be embarrassed about writing this love letter to Disney." He found that in the Oscar-winning pair of composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz.
In fact, Menken's Westchester, N.Y., estate itself seems to be a love letter to Disney and the grand tradition of musicals. Sitting near a grand piano in his studio, he and Schwartz are surrounded by posters for "The Little Mermaid" and Menken's first great success, "Little Shop of Horrors."
"The writing is always fun for us," Menken says. "We just have a blast bouncing off each other. The part that isn't necessarily fun is the production aspect and this movie really was continually reinventing the wheel."
There are five original songs for the film, as well as Menken's score. The standout number is "That's How You Know," the film's centerpiece song, set as a huge musical number in Central Park. The number has nods to many films in the Disney canon and beyond, with one particularly inspired sequence with princess-to-be Giselle spinning through the meadows a la "The Sound of Music" (in another wink to audiences, the film is narrated by Julie Andrews).
Adams and Lima were a little star-struck by their composers. Adams says she came into the project "with preconceived intimidation because they are such legends," while Lima says he was "frightened that they wouldn't accept me into the process."
The composer and lyricist have previously worked together on "Pocahontas" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Schwartz is also the composer and lyricist of the Broadway phenomenon "Wicked" and Menken has composed such blockbusters as "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast."
For "Enchanted," they had to write the score fairly quickly, Menken recalls.
"I built this three-part countermelody thing that opened up into a chorus and I was immediately happy with it and I sent it to Stephen and it just felt infectious. What's great about Stephen is he'll start writing the lyrics right away, so within three days we had a demo, which we sent to Kevin and he immediately got back to us saying, 'I'm squealing like a little girl!' And Kevin doesn't talk like that."
Their work made an impression on the cast too. "I do burst into song walking down the street occasionally, this movie just gave me a really great excuse," Adams says. "The one I can't get out of my head is 'That's How You Know,' but my favorite is the ballad 'So Close.' I don't know enough to know why it's good, I just know I love it."
Menken makes the point that to write musicals in this day and age, you have to acknowledge and even cater to the cynics in the audience. Schwartz adds that part of the concept was that Patrick Dempsey's character, the single dad love interest, "has to be dragged kicking and screaming into the song, just like the audience."
For her part, Adams shines as the perky and earnest Giselle, who seems to be a compilation of just about every Disney heroine ever to hit the big screen. But Lima had to fight for a month to get her on board.
The studio wanted a star in the lead and this was before Adams' Oscar nomination for her turn in "Junebug." "I didn't know any of that," Adams says now. "All I knew was I auditioned in July and was cast in October and I was never sure I was going to get the part."
So sure of Adams was Lima that he didn't cast any of the other parts until he was secure with his lead, after which he installed a game crew of performers, including James Marsden as Giselle's dolt prince fiance, Dempsey as New Yorker Robert Philip and two great musical performers, Susan Sarandon ("The Rocky Horror Picture Show") as the evil stepmother and the Broadway musical actress Idina Menzel as Robert's girlfriend, neither of whom sing in the movie.
Fortunately for audiences, Adams does and does it well. Though she had to work at it.
"I had sung in theater before, not typically as a soloist, so it was a huge challenge for me, I really let my vocal chops slide," the actress says. She kept at it, though, because Menken and Schwartz "will really bring out the hard worker in you."