Since Mickey Mouse first whistled in 1928’s Steamboat Willie, music has played an integral role in the success of The Walt Disney Company, and for over 30 years, Chris Montan helped define that Disney signature sound. One of the most well-respected executives in Hollywood, Chris re-established Disney’s music as a cultural phenomenon. As he explains, “It really became a responsibility. Not only were we trying to entertain people, but we wanted to make sure that we were entertaining them with things that are meaningful.”
Music has always been an important part of the New Jersey native’s life. A kid with eclectic taste, he was inspired by The Beatles as much as by Maurice Jarre’s main theme for 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia. He kicked off his career as a touring musician, songwriter, and recording artist, touring for two years with Karla Bonoff’s band as a keyboard and guitar player. Any Minute Now, his first solo album, was released by 20th Century Fox Records in 1980.
Soon, however, Chris became intrigued by the idea of segueing to a different kind of music- related career—joining The Walt Disney Company in 1984 to develop music for new Saturday morning animated series. His early work included developing multi-piece orchestral scores for Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears (1985), The Wuzzles (1985), DuckTales (1987), and other shows.
He later moved on to contributing to animated features, beginning with 1988’s Oliver & Company. In short order, the Company was revisiting the idea of movie musicals, and before long Chris was meeting with a New York-based songwriting duo named Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Music at Disney would, quite literally, never be the same…
“With Beauty and the Beast, it was the first time I tried to create a ‘hit single’ based on one of our songs, with Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson,” he recalls. “I remember thinking at the time, this is pretty special. We’re making movies that nobody else knows how to make, and people are really, really responding.”
Rising through the ranks from vice president to senior vice president, Chris oversaw iconic, best- selling soundtracks including The Little Mermaid (1989), Pretty Woman (1990), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Sister Act (1992), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), and Hercules (1997). He also took on a new mantle, producing music-driven films for the company—including new TV adaptations of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella (1997) starring Whitney Houston and Brandy, and Annie (1999), which earned him a Peabody Award for Broadcasting.
In 1999, Chris was named president of Walt Disney Music—overseeing music for all Disney and Pixar animated feature films, Disney Theatrical productions, and Disney Parks and Resorts worldwide. Working closely with writers and directors during the story process, he’d often help find the perfect musical talent to match each project. A few examples include Phil Collins for Tarzan (1999), Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz for Enchanted (2007), and Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez for Frozen (2013). Over the years, he’s also collaborated with Jerry Goldsmith, James Newton Howard, Sting, Stevie Wonder, and fellow Disney Legends Sir Elton John, Sir Tim Rice, Randy Newman, Danny Elfman, and Hans Zimmer, among many others.
It’s no wonder the accolades have rolled in over the years: Under Chris’ guidance, 10 of The Walt Disney Studios’ soundtracks have been certified multi-platinum, with The Lion King having sold over 10 million units. In 1997, Variety named Chris “musical supervisor of the decade.” His work has been nominated for multiple Emmy® and Grammy® Awards, winning several—as well as an incredible 45 Academy Award® nominations, with 16 wins. In 2015, Chris was honored with the Classic Contribution Award at the BMI Film & Television Awards, and the first Guild of Music Supervisors Award.
With his good friend Thomas Schumacher, Chris has worked on all of Disney Theatricals’ globally acclaimed productions—including Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aida, Tarzan, The Little Mermaid, Newsies, and Aladdin. Chris retired in 2017 but has since consulted on several recent Disney projects, such as Frozen on Broadway.
“Families around the world have fallen in love with this thing that we’re doing,” Chris says. “There’s just something about the pact between the audience and Disney that is really different, and it’s something that’s very special.”