The Life of a Song: ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’

Frank Churchill’s composition was originally used as the signature tune in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’

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Adriana Caselotti, the original voice of “Someday My Prince Will Come”, was 18 years old when she heard her father, a voice coach, talking on the phone to a talent scout at the Walt Disney studio.

The scout was looking for a girl to take the lead in Disney’s new film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Fifteen-year-old Deanna Durbin had tried for the part, but Disney had complained that she sounded like a 30-year-old. Adriana came on to the extension and recommended herself for the role. When Disney heard her on the speaker in his office, he said she sounded like a 14-year-old, just what he wanted.

Caselotti was signed for a nominal fee and three years later, in 1937, the film was released. Snow White, imprisoned by a tyrannical parent and sentenced to a life of drudgery, was a recreation of Disney’s own childhood. It was her signature tune, “Someday My Prince will Come”, that spelt out the tantalising promise of love and nurture. The song tinkles out of a technicolour princess to an audience of dwarfs and furry friends. Caselotti’s piercing top notes wake up Sleepy; her vibrato is just this side of “mush” (although Grumpy is not so sure). Disney had got it right.

It was a different story for the composer of the song. Disney had asked for “quaint” when directing the music for Snow White — “It will appeal more than the hot stuff.” Frank Churchill, the frail, alcoholic composer, was the perfect conduit for sorrowful yearnings.

Adriana Caselotti: the voice of Walt Disney’s Snow White © Topfoto

But Disney was hard to please, and in 1942, when Churchill completed a score for Bambi, Disney complained that the music was monotonous and did not provide the excitement the movie needed. Depressed on hearing this, and after a heavy bout of drinking, Churchill died “at the piano” of a gunshot wound.

His tune, though, found new life in the world of jazz. The first performance of “Someday My Prince will Come” by jazz musicians was in the unlikely environment of Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1943, when it was played by a band known as the Ghetto Swingers. After the war it was picked up by jazzers such as Dave Brubeck, who included it on his 1957 album Dave Digs Disney. What the jazz world liked was the chord structure that underpins the melody, and in 1961 jazz trumpeter Miles Davis latched on to this in a groundbreaking recording. “Someday My Prince will Come” became the titular song of his seventh album — hot on the heels of his modal masterpiece, Kind of Blue.

Davis’ group was in the middle of recording the track when John Coltrane walked into the studio with his tenor saxophone. He scanned the chords written on a sheet of manuscript, put horn to mouth and played a solo alive with tonal complexities Churchill could only have sketched in.

Coltrane had never seen the score before, and yet the flow of ideas that bubbles into sheets of sound — phrases that double back on each other — inspired Davis to even greater intensity. Coltrane was electrifying. Caselotti’s haunting loneliness was a perfect match for Davis’ purity of tone. “Someday My Prince Will Come” was now a jazz classic, covered in later years by musicians such as Chet Baker and Keith Jarrett.

But the story of this song is one of sacrifice as well as success. Whereas Durbin — the girl Disney had complained sounded like a 30-year-old — went on to become an acclaimed child star at Universal, Caselotti stayed under contract with Disney. He prevented her from appearing in further films, even his own. Jack Benny once asked Disney for permission to use Caselotti on his radio show. He was told: “I’m sorry, but that voice can’t be used anywhere. I don’t want to spoil the illusion of Snow White.”

For more in the series, and podcasts with clips of the songs, go to ft.com/life-of-a-song

Photograph: Topfoto

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