Journey to the Past: The Making of the Forgotten Aaliyah Song from 'Anastasia'

The late singer performed the number at the 1998 Academy Awards, making Aaliyah the youngest person to sing at the Oscars.

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Feb 23 2017, 3:30pm

Aaliyah walks the red carpet at the 1998 Academy Awards. Photo by Jeff Kravitz, courtesy of Getty Images

From The Little Mermaid to Toy Story, the 90s were a golden era for animated films. Many of these now classic films boasted amazing soundtracks, but one childhood favorite, Fox Animation Studio's Anastasia, which told the imagined story of the lost princess of the Romanov family, boasted something extra: a signature song by the iconic late R&B singer Aaliyah. Her version of "Journey to the Past," sung in the film by Liz Callaway, would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award. In comparison to the rest of Aaliyah's catalog, the song has been mostly forgotten. Now as a new musical based on the film prepares to open on Broadway, audiences are remembering Aaliyah's contribution to the film, while the movie's creators reminisce about what it was like to work with the unforgettable musician.

All of the film's songs were scored and written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the Broadway legends behind Once on This Island, Ragtime, and Seussical. In an interview with Broadly, Ahrens recalls writing "Journey to the Past" to express the excitement of the film's lead character, Anya, as she set out on the adventure to finding the truth about her family. "We knew we wanted to write a number... that would allow her to express her nervousness and fear and joy about setting off into the world for the first time," Ahrens says. "The director wanted the song to travel visually from the Russian orphanage all the way to Saint Petersburg, so it needed a feeling of motion and a sense of excitement." Ahrens and Flaherty never intended for the song to become the film's breakout hit, but as they wrote it, they felt an energy that hinted at the number's potential.

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"We wrote it in a burst of energy—in one day—and recorded a demo of it late one night, at the end of a long recording session with Liz Callaway, who was the singing voice of Anastasia in the film," says Ahrens. "Liz was really tired, but she is amazing. She read it down on the spot, and then sang it in one take—brilliantly—with Stephen accompanying her at the piano. We all immediately knew it would be in the movie. We weren't trying to write a signature song, but we knew the themes of 'home, love, family' were central to Anya's story and to the movie. It became the signature song because of that."

Although Callaway's performance became the emotional center of the film, Robert Kraft, who was the head of Fox Music, Fox's music distribution arm, hoped to add some star power to market the film to a wide audience. Previous animated hits had scored hit singles by having major stars sing a movie's tunes over the end credits. Most notably, Celine Dion broke out as a star in America with her cover of "Beauty and the Beast." Kraft wanted Aaliyah for the lead song, and brought in Guy Roche, who had produced songs for both Dion and Cher.

"I met with Robert Kraft to listen to the song demo and talk about casting Aaliyah, which I thought would be perfect," Roche tells Broadly. "Although she came from a hip-hop background musically, her character, smile, and looks exuded something very, very sweet and gentle, very kind and peaceful—not to mention the tone of her voice was perfect for the song." Ahrens and Flaherty were equally excited to work with the young singer. "Aaliyah was a young, beautiful star on the rise, with a big following and a bright future. We were truly over the moon when we heard that she would sing the song," Ahrens says.

Once Aaliyah was chosen for the song, the group decided the song needed some tweaking. "We wanted the pop version of the song to be personalized and tailored to Aaliyah's unique vocal style, even if that meant making some changes in the music and lyrics," Ahrens explains. She changed a few lyrics to better suit Aaliyah's style, and then Roche played Ahrens and Flaherty a new arrangement that had a contemporary pop sound. "We liked it a lot and gave the go ahead," Ahrens says.

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Roche and Aaliyah recorded the song in Toronto, away from Ahrens and Flaherty, to accommodate the singer's busy schedule. "Her career was on the up," Roche recalls. "It felt like, every time we met she had just gotten off a plane, [gone] straight into the studio, got right into work mode, and delivered the song beautifully, between interruptions for interviews. Then [it was] on to the next plane."

Despite her hectic lifestyle, Aaliyah always managed to deliver in the recording booth. "Aaliyah was the most wonderful to work with, always focused, very patient, always positive," Roche remembers. "She gave meaning to every line of the song in her performance, every take, which makes me think she must have been a good actress." Roche viewed Aaliyah as a "workhorse" that was always thoughtful and patient in delivering input. "She would go right behind the mic and get to work. Her opinion mattered to me very much, but she would formulate it only after all creative minds in the control room ran out of suggestions."

Although Ahrens and Flaherty were unable to be present for the recording of the song, they loved the final results. "When we heard the track and Aaliyah's recording, we were thrilled," Ahrens says. "It was so very 'Aaliyah': cool, jazzy, hip-hoppy." After the soundtrack's release, the song reached number 28 on Billboard's Adult Contemporary Chart. Although not a standout radio hit, the song was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song, and Aaliyah was chosen to perform during the live Awards ceremony. At the age of 19, she was then the youngest person to perform at the awards show. "We got to meet Aaliyah at the Oscars," Ahrens says. "She was so lovely and humble in person, utterly gracious." Before her performance, Aaliyah expressed nervousness to Roche, but Ahrens considers seeing her live a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: "To see her perform our nominated song on that huge stage, with her famous hairstyle over one eye—it was an out-of-body experience."

Although the song lost to Titanic's "My Heart Will Go On," the performance remains a special moment in a astronomical career cut tragically short. "[Aaliyah] was such a unique performer," Ahrens says. "It makes us happy [and] sad to hear her version now and know that her talent was ended so soon."