Full disclosure: Disney covered my travel and hotel expenses for this event.
Right before showing a room full of journalists the opening cinematic of Disney Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two (which, despite the original's Nintendo exclusivity, Disney will be releasing on the Wii, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360), game designer Warren Spector surprised the crowd when he casually told us that the action-adventure platformer would be a musical.
Sure enough, after a quick scene of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (who returns in this sequel as a cooperative player alongside Mickey) running away from an earthquake, the mad doctor (one of the antagonists from the first game) started singing a song. He implored the residents of the Wasteland to, "Help me help you"…all to a catchy tune.
After the presentation, I had a chance to chat with Spector with a roundtable of other journalists. Despite the announced co-op play and multiplatform release, I asked him why he decided to make a musical video game.
"Easy. I love musicals! I run the studio," said the vice president and creative director of developer Junction Point with a joking smile. "My mom started dragging me to Broadway musicals when I was about five. I saw Camelot with the original cast. I saw Oliver with Davy Jones as the Artful Dodger. I've been going to musicals all my life. I love them."
Indeed, if you're making a Disney game, why not a musical? Ever since the very first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Steamboat Willie (one of the first to feature synchronized sound), the studio and music have been intertwined. It's doubtful Snow White and the Seven Dwarves would have been the megahit it was without "Whistle While You Work," "Heigh-Ho," and "Someday My Prince Will Come." Many people associate Disney with the great songs created for their films in the late '80s and '90s, including Aladdin's "Friend Like Me" and The Lion King's "Hakuna Matata."
So if any publisher is going to allow a musical video game, it makes sense it would be Disney. "There was this wonderful sort of confluence of events where Warren loves musicals, he's working for Disney," said Spector. "No publisher has been foolish enough to let me make a musical before. When you say to Disney, 'I want to make a musical,' they go, 'Well, of course. You're making a game that honors 80 years of Disney creativity. How could you not have songs in your game?' So there was no resistance."
A long line of great songwriters have contributed to Disney musicals over the years, including the recently deceased Robert Sherman, who worked on Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book, and Alan Menkin, who was responsible, along with his lyricist partner Howard Ashman, for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. I was eager to know who would be writing the songs for Spector's newest project.
"Well, we were lucky enough on the first game to connect with James Dooley, who composed the, frankly, undersung, underappreciated, dynamic, interactive score for the first game and the second game. Jim is actually writing the songs for us this time. He won an Emmy award for Pushing Daisies, and he crafted…certainly one of the most interactive and dynamic scores in any game ever. When we decided to make a musical, we just asked him, 'Hey, can you write songs?' He went, 'Yeah! Nobody ever asks me!'"
"And so he started writing some songs," Spector continued. "We signed a fellow named Mike Himelstein, who's done lyrics for Disney and a variety of other companies. They've collaborated with us on creating many songs. I don't want to talk about how many right now but enough that I am quite comfortable saying it is a musical comedy."
Epic Mickey 2 won't be the first video game to feature singing characters. In 2005, Disney published The Nightmare Before Christmas: Oogie's Revenge, but most of the tunes in that game were borrowed from the original film. That won't be the case this time around.
"It's all original," said Spector with regards to Epic Mickey 2's soundtrack. "There's not a note in this game that was not written by James Dooley in collaboration with us."
Creating a video game musical is certainly an ambitious undertaking, especially when you have to live up to the legacy of all the timeless songs in the entire history of the Disney company. Still, hearing Warren Spector's enthusiasm and excitement for the idea, you get the impression that he's the man for the job.