Random Tracks: Peabo Bryson & Regina Belle’s “A Whole New World (Aladdin’s Theme)”

In Random Tracks, I review a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958.

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Peabo Bryson & Regina Belle- “A Whole New World (Aladdin’s Theme)”

HIT #1: March 6, 1993

STAYED AT #1: 1 week

Upon listening to the hit pop versions of Disney songs, you start to gain an appreciation for the original songs that play in the movies. Take “A Whole New World” from Aladdin. When the song plays in the movie, we see Aladdin and Jasmine going on a magic carpet ride through the world as they celebrate their new adventure together. With the singing from Brad Kane and Lea Salonga and the magical sweeping Disney orchestration, “A Whole New World” radiates a very sugar rush level of excitement that makes the song stick with you. I haven’t seen the original Aladdin since middle school when it played during my chorus class but I still remember “A Whole New World.” Even today, 30 years later, the song still sounds timeless when I hear it.

All of this makes listening to the pop version of “A Whole New World” pretty jarring. Following the success of the title track to Beauty and the Beast, Disney went back to what worked in remaking the big ballad from Aladdin into a more mainstream-friendly style getting back one of the two artists who performed on the pop version of “Beauty and the Beast.” In getting the same producer behind “Beauty and the Beast,” “A Whole New World” is turned into a song that sounds very much like the kind of schlock you would have heard on the radio in the early-‘90s. With that, “A Whole New World (Aladdin’s Theme)” wound up being bigger than “Beauty and the Beast” ending the then-record 14-week reign of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” at #1 and until very recently was the only Disney movie song to get to the top even if it’s the version that nobody remembers today.

“A Whole New World” along with the rest of Aladdin took a long while to come into development. Aladdin was a big project of lyricist Howard Ashman who dreamed of adapting the Aladdin tale to the big screen. Even as he and composer Alan Menken were becoming the hit songwriting team for the Disney smashes The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, Ashman and Menken were working on Aladdin. Ashman unfortunately never got to see his vision come to life with his AIDS-related death in 1991.

After Ashman died, Disney brought in the legendary lyricist Tim Rice to finish Aladdin with Menken. Rice was already known at this point for his work with Andrew Lloyd Webber and writing some big songs on his own such as the 1983 Bond theme “All Time High” from Octopussy sung by Rita Coolidge and 1984’s “One Night In Bangkok,” a song sung and rapped by actor Murray Head that Rice wrote with ABBA members Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson for the concept album Chess. (“All Time High” peaked at #36. “One Night In Bangkok” peaked at #3. It’s a 6.) Rice got involved with Disney when he expressed to the company’s boss Jeffrey Katzenberg about his desire to write songs for movies with Elton John being his pick for a writing partner. Rice got his wish but as the two of them began working on their own little project called The Lion King, Rice was tasked with finishing the work on Aladdin with Menken after Ashman’s death.

In the Fred Bronson book Billboard Book of Number One Hits, Rice realized upon working with Menken that Aladdin needed a big ballad and started working together on it at Rice’s home in Britain. During their session, Menken played him some songs and for one of them Rice quickly came up with the lyrics for what would become “A Whole New World.” When it was time for Disney to release a pop version of the song to release as a single, the studio was reportedly thinking of some very big names as Rice tells Bronson, “They were trying to get people like Barbra Streisand and George Michael. I was so glad in the end none of these people wanted to do it because we got two singers who are quite wonderful and who weren’t automatic number ones. Imagine if it was Barbra Streisand and George Michael, you’d say yes, it was number one because it was them.” Instead of Streisand and Michael, Disney went back to having Peabo Bryson and for the female singer got a singer who like Bryson was a smooth R&B singer that wasn’t much of a big hitmaker until she got involved with Disney.

12 years younger than Bryson, Regina Belle grew up a New Jersey girl who sang and studied music all throughout childhood and in college at Rutgers University. (On the day of Belle’s birth, the #1 song in America was the Essex’s “Easier Said Than Done.”) Belle got her big break when a radio DJ in New York introduced her to the R&B group and one-time #1 artists The Manhattans. From there, Belle opened for the Manhattans at their shows and even recorded some duets which got the attention of Columbia Records which signed her on the strength of those duets. From there, Belle started having success but like Bryson that success largely came on the R&B charts with her highest-charting Hot 100 hit pre-“A Whole New World” being 1989’s #43 “Make It Like It Was.” “A Whole New World” wasn’t even Bryson and Belle’s first duet as they came together before on 1987’s #89 “Without You,” a soundtrack cut from the Bill Cosby movie Leonard Part 6.

Like the Dion/Bryson version of “Beauty and the Beast,” the Bryson/Belle version of “A Whole New World” is a perfectly fine song for what it is. Both Bryson and Belle sing it fine enough doing their jobs without overpowering the song. But where “Beauty and the Beast” had Céline Dion who had a voice you could recognize, Bryson and Belle don’t have that kind of vocal personality. Plus, as Tom Breihan mentioned in his review, their adult voices undercuts the youthful excitement Brad Kane and Leo Salonga bring to the original version that made it work so well. I don’t feel like I’m in a whole new world listening to this version. Perhaps their lack of vocal personality and boring professionalism is why Bryson and Belle never really hit in the mainstream before getting involved with Disney. They needed an outside force to push them to the top.

But the boring vocals aren’t the only problem. As with “Beauty and the Beast,” Walter Afanasieff produces the pop version of “A Whole New World.” Like “Beauty and the Beast,” Afanasieff gives “A Whole New World” the same makeover treatment smothering it in pure early-‘90s syrup with the Yamaha DX7 keyboard, gated drums, synth strings, programmed percussion, and a generic guitar solo. The production only further adds to the stripping away of the fun and excitement from the movie version even if it succeeded in getting the song over on the charts.

As with “Beauty and the Beast,” “A Whole New World” won the Best Original Song Oscar over another song from Aladdin “Friend Like Me” along with two songs from The Bodyguard (“I Have Nothing” and “Run To You”) as well as “Beautiful Maria Of My Soul” from The Mambo Kings. The song also won Song of the Year at the Grammys that year, the only Disney song so far to do so. At the 65th Academy Awards, the pop version of “A Whole New World” wasn’t recognized with Brad Kane and Lea Salonica performing the song in their Aladdin costumes on a Middle Eastern set all while the song keeps getting intercut throughout with Middle Eastern music. 

The success of “A Whole New World” and Aladdin did not lead to more hits for both Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle. Their immediate follow-ups did not set the world on fire with Bryson’s Kenny G collaboration “By The Time The Night Is Over” peaking at #25 and Belle’s “If I Could” peaking at #53. Bryson and Belle haven’t made the Hot 100 since but still perform despite some setbacks. Belle had a brain tumor in 2009 and while it was successfully removed is now deaf in one ear. As for Bryson, he had his Atlanta property seized by the IRS in 2003 including the two Grammys he won for “Beauty and the Beast” and “A Whole New World.” Like Belle, Bryson also had a life-threatening health episode when he suffered a heart attack in 2019 but has reportedly made a full recovery.

Looking at it now, it feels weird to think that “A Whole New World” was the only Disney film song to hit #1 for almost 30 years. Other classic Disney songs have been big on the charts but never went all the way. That largely has to do with the way the Billboard charts have operated. For the longest time, radio had always been the big indicator of a song’s success and many times songs from Disney films just don’t perform well even with the pop versions made for them to play. Radio still factors into chart performance but nowadays with streaming isn’t as big of a handicap as it once was. You’ll see this with our current Disney movie #1 which is not a ballad and has no pop version. That song has been a non-factor at radio but that hasn’t stopped its massive success. You could say we can’t go back to where we used to be in regards to how Disney songs used to get big which from listening to the last #1 is for the better.

GRADE: 5/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the honestly sweet reunion performance of “A Whole New World” that Brad Kane and Lea Salonga did on Good Morning America in 2015:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2019, Disney released their hit live-action remake of Aladdin. I saw it when it came out and all I can say about it is, that was certainly a movie. Anyways, here’s the magic carpet ride scene from the movie where Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott sing “A Whole New World:”

And here’s the pop version of “A Whole New World” that Zayn and Zhavia Ward recorded for the live-action movie:

(Zhavia Ward has never been on the Hot 100 as a lead artist, but she did get to #78 with the 2019 Diplo/French Montana/Lil Pump collab “Welcome To The Party.” Zayn will eventually appear in The Ones of the ‘10s.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the quarantine era cover of “A Whole New World” that Idina Menzel and Ben Platt did for an ABC Disney singalong special which hews toward the Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle pop version:

(Ben Platt’s highest-charting single, the 2018 Lin Manuel Miranda mashup “Found/Tonight,” peaked at #49. Idina Menzel’s highest-charting single, 2013’s “Let It Go” from Frozen, peaked at #5. I’m not gonna give that song a rating yet as you’ll see soon.)

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