Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Arts feature: Charming Norton exhibit examines music of the Mouse Factory

Sound effects instruments in the Disney music exhibit.
(Photo: Experience Music Project)

By Hap Erstein

Don't you leave Disney World with the tune to It’s a Small World stuck in your brain? Can you really hear Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice without thinking of Fantasia and Mickey Mouse toting those buckets of water? Are the first two words you learned of Swahili Hakuna matata?

If so, rest assured that you are not alone and, boy, has the Norton Museum of Art got an exhibit for you. Opening Saturday and running through Sept. 6 is a show that explores and celebrates the role that music has played in the Mouse Factory’s success in various fields of entertainment over the past 80 years. The emphasis may be on the aural, but the exhibit is full of film clips, memorabilia, costumes, poster art and interactive displays.

If ever there were an exhibit to introduce youngsters to the museum-going experience, Disney: The Music Behind the Magic, 1928 to Today is it. But plenty of it is aimed at adults as well, whether you go back as far as the first animated cartoon with sound, 1928’s Steamboat Willie, saw 1942’s Bambi in its first-run engagement at Radio City Music Hall, rushed home from school to watch Annette Funicello go through puberty on the original Mickey Mouse Club in the 1950s or recall the renaissance of animated musicals with 1989’s The Little Mermaid.

And in case you happen to believe that Disney’s involvement with music begins and ends with High School Musical, there are a few artifacts from that cheesy gem to give it its due.

A poster from 1942's Bambi.
(Photo: Experience Music Project)

The exhibit began at Seattle’s Experience Music Project -- not coincidentally the museum that former Norton director Christina Orr-Cahall is about to run. Ostensibly, it was created to pay tribute to the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney Records in 2006, but its ability to draw crowds and attract museum admissions was surely what appealed to the various institutions along the tour.

Ironically, the record label was not created to market the songs of such 1950s vintage animated films as Peter Pan or Lady and the Tramp, but to promote the company’s new theme park with a long-playing album of a televised tour of the California facility, Walt Disney Takes You to Disneyland.

In any event, the exhibit is attractively configured at the Norton, beginning with a series of eight individual viewing booths offering clips of musical segments in eight animated features, from 1940’s Pinocchio to 1967’s The Jungle Book.

One of the better hands-on elements of the show is a recording booth full of sound effects equipment, for dubbing live sound onto the storm scene from 1935’s The Band Concert. Somewhat less involving is a sound remix board to adapt the levels on a recording of the soundtrack to the Pirates of the Caribbean theme park attraction. And trivia fans should get a kick out of a four-station competitive quiz near the exhibit’s end which tests how well you were paying attention to the various wall texts.

Many of the songs in Disney’s animated features have become independent parts of our pop culture. The point is well made with the Oscar-winning When You Wish Upon a Star (from Pinocchio), represented here by a console with eight cover versions of the Leigh Harline number, ranging from such artists as Barbara Cook to Dion and the Belmonts to Ronnie Milsap.

If anything, The Music Behind the Magic seems to have shortchanged Disney’s contributions to Broadway, represented only by its biggest stage hit, The Lion King. I can see wanting to forget the company’s theatrical stumble with Tarzan, but there is no evidence of the stage versions of Beauty and the Beast, Mary Poppins or Elton John’s Aida.

Still, the exhibit is more notable for its inclusions than its exclusions. Rent a kid and give it a look -- and a listen -- and do not be surprised if you are humming a Disney song on the way home.

DISNEY: THE MUSIC BEHIND THE MAGIC, 1928 TO TODAY, Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach. June 6-Sept. 6. (561) 832-5196.

Walt Disney sits amid Mickey Mouse merchandise.
(Photo: Disney Enterprises Inc.)

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