“The Most Important Song I’ve Ever Recorded:” Donny Osmond on Mulan‘s “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”

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“The Most Important Song I’ve Ever Recorded:” Donny Osmond on Mulan‘s “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”

More than a quarter century ago, Donny Osmond flew from Chicago, where he was starring as the title character in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, to Los Angeles. Disney had reached out to him to record “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” a song by lyricist David Zippel and composer Matthew Wilder for an upcoming animated movie. He flew out on Sunday, recorded the song with Wilder in just a few takes on Monday and was back on stage in Chicago by Tuesday.

“They showed me this little pencil sketch, short little animation maybe 10 seconds long,” Osmond recalls in a recent phone interview with Paste. When the animated character got hit in the stomach, Osmond punched himself in the stomach as he sang. “Method acting!” he laughs. “I did my part. I threw myself into it. It was just another song. Little did I know it would become a classic.”

By that point Osmond had already reinvented his career many times. He first became famous in the early 1970s with his hit “Puppy Love.” Later in that decade, he and his sister, Marie Osmond, had their hit television variety show Donny & Marie. In the early-to-mid ‘90s, he was experiencing a renaissance as a musical theater star.

It wasn’t until June 5, 1998—when, sitting in the Hollywood Bowl for the premiere of Mulan, he heard himself singing “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”—that he began to get a sense of what he had recorded. 

“It is one of the highest peaks in the peaks and valleys of my career,” he said.

The movie follows Mulan (voiced by Ming-Na Wen), a young Chinese woman who pretends to be a man so that she may take her father’s place in the army. About 38 minutes into the movie, Captain Li Shang (voiced by BD Wong) voices his frustration that the recruits he’s been given are not up to the task. The military drumbeat starts, Osmond belts out “Let’s get down to business” and the film’s iconic song begins.

“I’ll Make a Man Out of You” is a catchy, compelling bop. It has everything you could possibly want: Dramatic lyrics, an infectious tune, terrific sound and spot-on vocal delivery. In 2019, The Ringer ranked it number nine on its list of 40 best Disney songs, ahead of “Hakuna Matata,” “When You Wish Upon a Star” and (gasp!) “Let It Go.”

Osmond still performs the song at his long-running Vegas show and will take the number on the road when his summer tour begins in Connecticut next month. Disney has given him permission to use excerpts and the sound effects from the film. “I relive the moment every night in Vegas in my show,” he said. Right now he’s grappling with the fact that the production will have to purchase more of the long sticks used in the routine when the tour goes on its international leg. They can’t take the sticks they currently use in the performance on the plane ride because they’re marked as weapons.

“I’ll Make a Man Out of You” resonates with Osmond because, like Mulan, he has often been told he could not do something. “What I loved about the lyrics is that it was so typical of my life. I have been told so many times that I was a has-been. I was told I was a former teen idol. ‘That’s what you’ll always be and you’ll never be able to break out of that shell.’ And I just don’t take no for an answer.” 

In the last 25 years, Osmond has heard from countless fans of the songs. Its appeal crosses pretty much all demographics: The UCLA college students he met in a Vegas parking garage, who told him the song motivates them after a weekend of partying to return to their studies. The first graders, who just performed the song in a school play. Daisy Ridley, who used the song to pump her up before filming Star Wars: The Force Awakens action sequences. “Those words,” he said, “can motivate anybody.”

Of course, the irony of “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” is that even though Captain Shang is accusing his recruits of being a “spineless pale pathetic lot,” wondering “did they send me daughters when I asked for sons?” and extolling the masculine traits “swift as a coursing river,” “strength of a raging fire” and “force of a great typhoon,” it is Mulan who is able to complete the training tasks, successfully reaching the arrow Shang has shot to the top of a pole. The song’s refrain is an exuberant “Be a man!” But it is Mulan who succeeds where the men cannot. The playful juxtaposition of the lyrics with what is happening on the screen is one of Mulan’s highlights.

How our culture views gender and its stereotypes has evolved since Mulan premiered in 1998. Its heroine was one of the first to break the Disney princess model of waiting for a man to rescue her. Osmond admits he doesn’t think too much about what “Be a man!” means in 2023 versus 1998. “I don’t spend a lot of time on that,” he said. But he does appreciate the song’s acknowledgement that women can do anything men can do, and the movie’s message to young girls. 

“I feel so honored to be a part of something that is so empowering,” Osmond said. “And I was very fortunate to be the one to sing it. I tell my wife this all the time: Sometimes men think they are so powerful, but the women control the world when you think about it. I turn to my wife all the time for wisdom, for guidance, for strength.”

Since “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” came out, Osmond has continued to reinvent himself. He won Dancing with the Stars in 2009 and came in second place in the first season of The Masked Singer. He’s currently working on his 66th album. “In the history of Donny Osmond, once I’m long gone, Mulan will live on forever. That song will live forever. When you get right down to it, analyze it, it is the most important song I’ve ever recorded in my life.”

Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter  (@AmyTVGal).

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