I’m ever more convinced that the villain song is the modern equivalent of Victorian melodrama: that wonderful tradition of plays that set a dazzlingly charismatic evil-doer at centre stage. The villain song accomplishes this, if only for a few minutes. A villain song is a set number in a musical (or movie musical) where the villain explains and justifies their wickedness, or puts some wicked scheme into practice, or simply gloats over the joys of being wicked. The opening soliloquy in Richard III – ‘I am determined to prove a villain’ – accomplishes all of the above; were it set to music, it would prove the most comprehensive of villain songs.
But that does little to explain the unexpected complexities that turn up. ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ from, er, The Phantom of the Opera disperses its villain’s aura across an overture, umpteen orchestral reprises, a twisted love duet, and the hysterical cries of chorus girls. The result is, to put it mildly, distancing. In like fashion, villainy is transferred to the crowd for ‘The Mob Song’ in Beauty and the Beast and ‘Savages’ in Pocahontas. As echoes both of James Whale’s Frankenstein, this transference makes sense: angry villagers are the real villains, not the so-called Monster. And a song such as ‘Die unstillbare Gier’ from Tanz der Vampire builds sympathy for the villain out of all proportion to the story’s alleged goodies, completing the monster’s conversion to tragic hero.
‘Hellfire’ from The Hunchback of Notre Dame is also atypical. Judge Claude Frollo is certain that he is ‘a righteous man’, and his song is angst-ridden wail rather than moustache-twirling villainy. Yet I’ve never really doubted that ‘Hellfire’ is the greatest of all villain songs. It stills floods me with deranged elation. I can’t conceive of a time before ‘Hellfire’ entered my brain; like most of the highlights of childhood (or a Lovecraftian Elder God), it feels as though it always existed.
I can try to deconstruct ‘Hellfire’, but it’s a very tall order. So many elements make it ignite. At the centre, there’s the acting: the Shakespearean villainy of Tony Jay. In my estimation, Jay possessed the greatest voice of all time: a tight-coiled spring, crackling with dark, sepulchral majesty. It’s about the only voice that could make ‘the common, vulgar, weak, licentious crowd’ ring true (Frollo surely has the most literate vocabulary of any Disney villain: ‘Why invite their calumny and consternation?’ is another favourite). That Alan Menken raised the pitch of ‘Hellfire’ to make it a slight strain on Jay’s voice may account for the performance’s tattered emotion.
It’s vindicating to know that Frollo was Tony Jay’s salvation from a lifetime of junky (if fun) roles in Western animation. As he said at the time: ‘It’s my bid for immortality.’ Jay also had some outspoken views on the Hunchback, as this rare interview makes clear:
It’s a marvellous movie, you know … Disney pushed the envelope there, in an evolutionary sense. They took it a little farther than they normally do, and a lot of people stayed away because of that. There were things they couldn’t understand, but it wouldn’t maim them for life … It only made $102 million. By Disney standards, that is disappointing. It was not as much as Pocahontas made, but it was ten times the film Pocahontas was.
Jay’s voice completes the remarkable character design of Frollo, derived in part from the formalised paintings of van Eyck: the incredibly complex head (Frollo has to be the hardest Disney character to draw; his face has the emaciated complication of Peter Cushing circa Twins of Evil), the black-and-purple robes ever-swirling (a classic Disney colour combination, imported from Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty), the spindly legs. It’s wonderful, perfect. All credit to supervising animator Kathy Zielinski, a more powerful actor than the vast majority of actors. I can hang up my performing shoes in peace once I’ve achieved anything as incendiary as Frollo.
On top of that, there’s the sound design. The roaring fire and the howling winds; the Latin chanting; the full-blooded organ-heavy orchestrations. And the art direction is glorious. We are privy to nightmare figures: a disarmingly sensual Esmeralda (reanimated by a worried studio, to make clear she’s wearing at least some clothing), a choir of red-robed monks. It’s also profoundly disorienting, with stone walls shifting – in seemingly every other shot – into a cycloramic expressionist void. The climax of the song is especially powerful. What’s casting these trailing shadows? The red-robed monks again? Knight paladins? Crusaders? Figures plucked from burial tombs – or Notre Dame herself? It’s never explained (how could it be?), and more unsettling for it. There are select moments where Disney enters onto the sublime – tracts in Fantasia, the evocation of St Paul’s in Mary Poppins – and this is certainly one of them.
There are so many other gems in ‘Hellfire’. There’s fact that the Latin comes from the Confiteor (the ‘mea culpa’ refrain also opens Judge Turpin’s ‘Johanna’ in Sweeney Todd, a likely source for ‘Hellfire’). There’s the way the song’s full perversity only insinuates itself when children turn adult, having lost their primary innocence, and entered, in a sense, into the Frollo way of life. But most thrilling of all? The fact that ‘Hellfire’ is a minor-key reprise of the Hunchback‘s title song, ‘The Bells of Notre Dame’. For me, that locates it at the dark heart of the melodrama. For all of its wisecracking gargoyles – an ill-conceived effort to wrest stone monsters into inoffensive play – it’s the purely Gothic that dwells at the film’s core.
I remain adamant that The Hunchback of Notre Dame was the last glorious laugh of the Disney Renaissance. The next year’s Hercules is tremendous fun, but a few steps down in my reckoning. I think largely because it no longer takes its villain seriously (or provides him a song, a trend that continued in Mulan and Tarzan). A good melodrama needs something to pull against.
Really, it needs the Devil.
It strikes me that ‘Hellfire’ has an exalted precedent – in the Brocken scene of Henry Irving’s 1885 Faust. The Brocken scene was a shameless and spectacular reimagining of the Witches’ Sabbath found in Goethe’s original Faust (Irving’s play was the work of Lyceum stalwart W.G. Wills). The scale was breath-taking, reckless, prodigal: the Brocken’s inaugural stagings boasted up to 500 supernumeraries clad as goblins, imps, witches, sprites, and associated nasties. As Michael Booth wrote in his Victorian Spectacular Theatre: ‘The Brocken scene was one of the grand spectacles of nineteenth-century theatre, and probably the most extraordinary scene of its kind ever performed on the English stage.’
There are numerous echoes of the Brocken in ‘Hellfire’. There’s the use of infernal choirs and music (Faust had a pit orchestra of between 35 and 37 – less theatre than grand opera); the vision of a maiden through the chaos (Ellen Terry’s Margaret); most importantly, the all-pervading fire, produced by a rain of gold tinsel, sparks of electricity and red-tinted gaslight. And then there’s the dominating figure at the centre: in this case, Irving’s red-clad Mephistopheles, who controls and manipulates the fire. The best compliment I can pay ‘Hellfire’ is that Sir Henry would have approved of it. And possibly even have thought it indecent. Incidentally, Irving would have made a fascinating Frollo. His most renowned performances (particularly Mathias in The Bells) were centred on a soul-destroying guilt. One of Irving’s greatest roles was as Louis XI, who Victor Hugo makes into a comically black villain in Notre Dame de Paris.
There’s a long-standing nonsense put about that W. G. Wills’ version of Faust was astonishingly bad. I took it upon myself to read it in the British Library and it’s a good deal better than its detractors give it credit for. Its verse is rough-hewn, yes, but always robust, pitched somewhere between John Webster and Dr Seuss. In the Brocken scene, Wills’ raucous verse aspires to music:
What a crowding, pushing, squealing!
What a roaring, grinning, screaming!
Whirl! leap and chatter! shine and spirt!
Give us the true witch element!
Wills also seems to gather inspiration from his contemporary, W. S. Gilbert – whose ghost-suffused Ruddigore might be another contribution to this Witches’ Sabbath on stage. Faust may not be high art, but it is very far from bad – and (returning to ‘Hellfire’) I think that Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics are often underrated in this respect. As with any good lyric, the words are completed by the music – and, more than that, the event. It’s as Irving’s Mephistopheles closed the Brocken: ‘Now music wild, hellish, infernal, and then mad!’
The theological origins of the Witches’ Sabbath are fairly murky. The Sabbath creeps into fiction with the likes of Lewis’s The Monk and Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, in which dubious Catholic officials persecute their ‘witches’ in the dungeons of the Inquisition (not so far removed from Frollo’s treatment of Esmeralda). The Sabbath found a still-unrivalled realistic depiction in the silent cinema, with a vivid sequence in Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 Haxan. It’s a film that demands to be seen, matching (and exceeding) The Exorcist in giving a sense of real evil forces. In a curious twist, it was Disney itself that created the twentieth century’s most enduring Witches’ Sabbath, via the ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ sequence in Fantasia. Here, again, are the elements that make ‘Hellfire’ so bewitching: pervasive flame, undefinable demons, and a glorious musical accompaniment. It’s also, ironically, a villain song without words. The dreadful fellow looming from the mountaintop, Chernabog, speaks nary a word, yet remains the studio’s purest evocation of evil. The dark side of Disney should (and possibly does) have a book devoted to it. It’s the aspect of their imagination that’s stayed with me.
These elements fall into yet sharper focus in later villain songs, in which witchcraft becomes explicit. Take, for example, ‘In the Dark of the Night’ from Don Bluth’s Anastasia – the honorary Disney villain song (from the film everyone assumes was made by Disney). Anastasia is a campy and diverting mess of a movie, worlds removed from Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH: punch-drunk Broadway spectacle rather than considered chamber piece. Its villain might be its most successful aspect. Rasputin is an interesting proposition: a decaying litch (‘a corpse falling to bits!’) in a children’s film. And this a good few years before Voldemort started growing his body back. Happily, Rasputin ensures that voiceover king Jim Cummings gets his day in the sun; he’s the actor who filled in (uncredited) for Jeremy Irons in the last verse of ‘Be Prepared’ in The Lion King. Then there’s ‘Friends on the Other Side’ from Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, sung by ‘Shadow Man’ sorcerer Dr Facilier. It’s something of a masterpiece, particularly come the frenzied climax, suffused in ghost-train pinks and greens. The music blooms into a variation on Raymond Scott’s ‘Powerhouse’ – the insistent ‘bohm-bohm-bohm-bohm’ from the Voodoo masks seems a direct channeling – helped along immeasurably by Keith David’s vocal pyrotechnics, alternately cavernous and oozing.
It’s interesting too that most villain songs find a way to get the Devil in. We need look no further than the offbeat selections of the second paragraph. ‘Die unstillbare Gier’ turns positively Miltonic with the line: ‘I want to be an Angel or the Devil himself…’ ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ doesn’t mention the Devil – but the Phantom casts himself in that mould later on: ‘this loathsome gargoyle / Who burns in hell…’ (quite a falling-off from the Angel of Music). The imagery of ‘The Mob Song’ derives from the baby-eating antics of the Witches’ Sabbath: ‘Set to sacrifice our children to his monstrous appetite’ wouldn’t look out of place on a Haxan intertitle. Meanwhile, ‘Savages’ hits satanic saturation point: ‘their skins are hellish red’, ‘dirty shrieking devils’, ‘the paleface is a demon’ and (most bombastic of all) ‘Demon! Devil! Kill them!’
‘Hellfire’ is a particularly strong villain song in light of the above. It converts Frollo into a surrogate wizard – like a Rasputin or a Dr Facilier, he manipulates the forces of darkness even as they engulf him. The idea that the self-deluding Frollo is in unconscious league with the Devil is compelling in light of Victor Hugo’s novel, in which the citizens of Paris suspect Frollo of sorcery: ‘From the cloister, his reputation as a learned man had passed to the people, among whom it had changed a little, a frequent occurrence at that time, into reputation as a sorcerer.’ Although Disney – toiling as they do in religion-happy America – chose to downgrade Frollo’s official standing from archdeacon to justice (the same change that shaped the 1939 film), there remains that confrontation with religion. Not with the church institution, as such, but the underlying idea of religion – it’s the very notion of good that comes under siege.
Perhaps the true greatness of the villain song is in troubling the divisions between good and evil. In ‘Hellfire’, religion and devilry play out in symbiosis – yes, the Devil may attack the Church; but then, the Church might create a Devil and deploy it as a weapon. It’s these shifting relations that make this Devil Music so thrilling to listen to. One of the finest lines in ‘Hellfire’ goes: ‘He made the Devil so much stronger than a man…’ But thanks to the infernal mechanics of the villain song, this remains a debateable proposition.