Composer Joseph Trapanese on Scoring a Live-Action Lady and the Tramp for Disney +

Video snippets from Disney’s history, showing the studio’s early animators gathered around a live deer, drawing its actions for Bambi, make for both great contemporary Instagram bait and charming Disney lore. They also demonstrate the extent to which Walt Disney encouraged his animators to learn and experiment. That level of commitment to creative exploration is something that can be heard today in the score to the live-action remake of Lady and the Tramp, the studio’s tentpole film on its new streaming service, Disney+.

The movie’s composer, Joseph Trapanese, started working with director Charlie Bean before the first scenes were even shot, heading to New Orleans to enlist local musicians to work on a jazz and blues-infused score that went through rounds of iterations before the final songs were set.

“And you may never hear those versions, but it was really important to work with those musicians to understand the character of that music, to really be authentic to that tradition, and not haphazardly borrow from it and then move on,” Trapanese explained, likening the experience to the old Disney animators’ studios of yore, filled with deer and dogs to be drawn from life. “I feel very much the same about our film, that Disney allowed us to have the time and resources to really explore, so that when we get to the scoring process months later, we’ve established the language of the film, where the music is coming from, and how it relates to the film.” Even a member of Janelle Monáe’s team, Nate “Rocket” Wonder, came down to New Orleans early to get involved in the process (Wonder is credited with “What a Shame,” while Monáe sings “He’s a Tramp”), with writing and producing help from multitalented artist Roman GianArthur. This is a seriously talented crew.

Thus the final score isn’t just a nod to the popular sounds of the 1910s, the decade when Lady and the Tramp is set, but how music would have figured into households of the day when record players were still a rarity and little recorded music existed.

“If you wanted to be entertained with music, you had to have instruments in the home,” said Trapanese. “So we started designing scenes around music. It was a really incredible process for me because very rarely is music involved so early on in a filmmaking process that it actually works hand in hand with the film.” While focusing on early American jazz and blues and artists like Louis Armstrong, Trapanese and Bean also assigned the movie’s principal characters a musical identity: classical for Lady (Tessa Thompson), traditional New Orleans for Tramp (Justin Theroux). As the refined Lady and the streetwise Tramp get to know each other, “their themes become intertwined…and the music evolves throughout the movie because of that,” explained the composer.

The romance of the original Lady and the Tramp is grounds for its endurance over the past 64 years, and Trapanese worked hard to retain that level of emotional storytelling via the score in the update. The composer’s film credits also include The Greatest Showman and Oblivion, but outside Hollywood, he works with a diverse array of acts, including Daft Punk and Dr. Dre. Despite jokingly describing himself as once being “the weird kid in the basement playing with synthesizers,” Trapanese has a background as an orchestrator and arranger, as well as in music theory and history, and his varied CV is a testament to his way of using music to help move a story forward, in whatever genre it might land.

And after all, Lady in the Tramp isn’t just about a couple of dogs who fall in love—it’s also a reminder that our four-legged companions feel pain and yearning, something we’d do well to recognize. “For me, the coolest thing about Lady and the Tramp is that there are so many beautiful themes wrapped up in this, one of them being, every dog deserves a home, deserves to be loved,” said Trapanese. It was important to him to convey through the film’s music that these four-legged characters are experiencing real emotions that reflect our own. “Not only are we going to watch the movie and want to go down to the pound and adopt a dog immediately,” he noted, “but we’re also going to understand that these animals feel real emotion and that this story can relate to our own lives.”

Featured image: L-r: Tramp (Monte) and Lady (Rose) in Disney +’s ‘Lady and the Tramp.’ Courtesy Walt Disney Studios


Susannah Edelbaum

Susannah Edelbaum's work has appeared on NPR Berlin, Fast Company, Motherboard, and the Cut, among others. She lives in Berlin, Germany.