Janelle Monáe sings two songs, including the classic “He’s a Tramp,” in the live-action remake of “Lady and the Tramp,” among the most talked-about of the new offerings on the Disney Plus streaming service.
But the biggest challenge for her writing and producing team, Nate “Rocket” Wonder and Roman GianArthur of Wondaland Productions, turned out to be the replacement for the discarded “Siamese Cat Song” that was deemed inappropriate for its perceived racist overtones.
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The new song, “What a Shame,” is sung by a pair of obnoxious Devon Rex felines who tear apart the family living room, so instead of faux-Asian sounds and “we are Siamese if you please” lyrics, Wonder and GianArthur reimagined the pair as would-be interior decorators who have their way while the owners are out.
“The song went through quite a few iterations,” says Wonder. “It needed to be funny and fun, and the cats needed to be cheeky. We took on the challenge gingerly.” They visited the Disney Archives in Burbank, Calif., where they were able to examine the manuscripts of the original Peggy Lee-Sonny Burke song.
“When we saw the development, the process that it went through, we thought, we’ll get there,” Wonder adds. “We knew we were on the right track when we started laughing while we were trying to record it. We were cracking each other up. A lot of it didn’t make it into the final song, but we knew it was funny enough to send along [to the filmmakers].”
“We had to figure out how to get the irony in there,” adds GianArthur. “That’s one thing we tried to protect from the original. These cats never acknowledge Lady. We thought, maybe they’re interior decorators, and once we had that we really started laughing.”
They ended up singing the song in the film, but that was not the original intent, GianArthur reveals. In their early demos, the voices were female, but “when we did it, it just landed,” he says. They delivered a demo with male voices and Disney executives asked who the singers were. “Well, that’s us,” Wonder — who is allergic to cats — conceded.
The result is one of the funniest scenes in the film, two and a half minutes of sheer destruction accompanied by clever lyrics (“That’s what i would call feng shui / Stand back, doggie, give us room to play”) and a decidedly dismissive attitude on the part of the writer-performers.
They were on the film for a year and a half, also writing the end-title song “That’s Enough,” which Monáe sings, and reconceiving “He’s a Tramp” for her. Monáe “has an amazing jazz voice,” Wonder notes, and the film’s 1910 New Orleans setting suggested, in GianArthur’s words, “a Dixieland vibe.”
Peggy Lee’s 1955 recording of “He’s a Tramp” is iconic, all acknowledged. Enhancing Monáe’s equally sassy vocal, recorded in Atlanta, was the inspired notion of recording the music track in New Orleans with top musicians, some of whom later flew to Los Angeles to spice up the orchestral score.
GianArthur and Wonder came out to L.A. too, and found composer Joseph Trapanese’s recording sessions an emotional experience. “Hearing the orchestra record ‘Bella Notte’ was so magical,” Wonder says. “I cried throughout the session, it was so good.”
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