Oscar’s Big Song Squabble


Two Grammy Award-winning composers are involved in a battle over an Oscar nomination given to the song “When You Believe” from the animated DreamWorks film “The Prince of Egypt.”

The nomination for best original song went to Stephen Schwartz, a past Oscar winner for “Pocahontas” and a well-known composer of such Broadway musicals as “Pippin” and “Godspell.” But now, Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, who has written songs for top recording stars from Celine Dion to Toni Braxton, thinks the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences snubbed him by not including him in the nomination as well.

Edmonds said in an interview Tuesday that his omission came as a direct result of Schwartz refusing to co-sign an application that would have made Edmonds eligible for an Oscar.

“I’m in a very unfair situation, and I don’t think it just happened this way,” Edmonds said. “I am not eligible because I think someone purposefully made me ineligible.”


The controversy arose because there are two versions of the same song. One version of “When You Believe,” recorded by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, has climbed the pop charts. While Schwartz wrote the song, Edmonds supplied additional music for that rendition.

But there is also a second version of the song contained in the body of the film that Schwartz wrote alone. It is sung by actress Michelle Pfeiffer and a singer named Sally Dworsky, and even contains a section in Hebrew. This is the song that was nominated for an Oscar.

Houston and Carey have been asked to perform the song at the Oscars telecast on March 21, but academy officials say they won’t be singing their hit pop single. Instead, they will be asked to perform a new arrangement of the Pfeiffer-Dworsky song.

“The songs are almost always rearranged for the Oscar show anyway,” said Bruce Davis, the academy’s executive director.


But Tuesday, a publicist for Carey said the two singers expected to perform the Schwartz-Babyface rendition and only that rendition.

Under academy rules, the songwriter--not the studio--is required to submit the Oscar application.

Edmonds said he didn’t want to speak out about the controversy until friends expressed outrage that the academy would have Houston and Carey perform his version of the song at the Oscars, even though he was not eligible to win.

“I wouldn’t want to take that chance away from them,” he said, “but I don’t think it’s right for them to do my version of the song because I am not eligible.”

When informed that the academy would have them perform another version, Edmonds replied:

“If they are asked to perform a different kind of version, I don’t know if they would want to do that. I don’t know if Clive Davis [who heads Arista Records] would be interested in that. We do so much to get them to sing that version that to change it now wouldn’t be easy.”

Edmond’s attorney, Peter Lopez of Century City, said that Edmonds is contractually credited with writing 15% of the Houston-Carey version of “When You Believe.”

“He was clearly the catalyst for the two singers to come together because of his unique relationship with both of them,” Lopez said. ". . . To have the [academy’s] rules dictate that that song cannot be considered for academy consideration is unfathomable.”


Oscar Application and Academy Rules

When the Oscar nominations were announced earlier this month, friends and acquaintances began calling Edmonds from all over the country to congratulate the composer on his nomination.

But what they didn’t know was that behind the scenes, Edmonds had tried to get Schwartz to co-sign the application so he could enter the Houston-Carey song but that Schwartz rejected the offer.

“I never saw an application from him,” Schwartz told The Times. “I got a call asking me about the submission for best song and whether Kenny should be included as one of the writers for the song. We checked the rules. It was clear he was not eligible and that was the end of it. I never had a direct conversation with Kenny on any of it.”

Edmonds said he hadn’t thought about entering the Oscars until he was prodded by the record company and friends.

“The next thing that was supposed to happen was that Stephen Schwartz was supposed to sign [the application],” Edmonds recalled. “But we started getting information that Stephen Schwartz was not reachable and he wouldn’t return any of the calls.”

At that point, he asked DreamWorks co-partner Jeffrey Katzenberg to find out what was going on.

Sources told The Times that Katzenberg asked the film’s producers to persuade Schwartz to include Babyface in the application, but Schwartz flatly refused the request. Katzenberg and DreamWorks realized there was nothing they could do.


“When someone reached him, they found out [Schwartz] didn’t want to sign it and, technically, if he didn’t sign it, I wasn’t eligible,” Edmonds said. “He was just going to submit his own version.”

But the controversy deepened when DreamWorks SKG, in its Oscar ads published in Hollywood’s trade papers, urged academy members to consider the song recorded by Houston and Carey when voting for best original song of 1998. The studio even listed Babyface by name in the ads.

Schwartz said he believed someone at the studio simply “made a mistake” when they placed the ad.

“They pulled the credit off the album or the single,” he said. “Whoever wrote the ad was unaware of the academy rules.”

But a DreamWorks spokesman said the ads were placed “to remind people of the talent involved with the song because Babyface has been involved in many huge hits and big academy songs. He was mentioned in the ads because his name triggers a reminder that this song is a success.”

DreamWorks would not comment on the current controversy, but sources said the studio was miffed at Schwartz’s intransigence on the matter and would have submitted the Schwartz-Babyface version had it been allowed to do so.

Schwartz contends that Babyface is simply not eligible for the Oscar because the award should go to the song that is in the body of the film itself, not a pop version that runs over the end credits.

“Generally, I believe that the song that is nominated is the song that appears in the movie and not the pop version at the end of the soundtrack,” Schwartz said in a phone interview this week.

When he and Alan Menken shared an Oscar for best song--"Colors of the Wind” from “Pocahontas"--Schwartz said he had no idea if academy voters were voting for the song sung by Irene Bedard in the film or the hit record by Vanessa Williams that is also on the soundtrack.

Song With Hebrew Gets an End-Credit Version

Schwartz also contends that academy rules make Babyface ineligible for an Oscar nomination because he is only a partial contributor to the overall song.

“Someone who comes in and interpolates a piece of the song is not eligible,” Schwartz said. “I’m not saying this has anything to do with Kenny Edmonds at all, but academy rules do not allow people to stick their name on a song that they are not eligible for.”

Davis said academy bylaws specifically state that only principal composers who are “responsible for the conception and execution of the work as a whole shall be eligible for an award.”

Schwartz said he wrote the song more than two years ago after taking a bus trip into the Sinai while on a trip to Egypt with the film’s producers.

“It was their notion that they would like an inspirational song to accompany the exodus [of Jews from Egypt],” Schwartz recalled. He later devised an entire section sung in Hebrew.

The song, which includes the Hebrew section, is sung by Pfeiffer, who provided the voice of Tzipporah, the shepherdess who becomes the wife of Moses, and Dworsky, the singing voice of Moses’ adult sister, Miriam.

Before the film was completed, however, DreamWorks went to Houston and Carey and asked if they would team up to record a pop version of the song. Edmonds agreed to do the arrangement and supplied additional material, including a bridge that Schwartz said encompassed only eight bars of music.

“I don’t want to look like I’m jumping on anyone’s song,” Edmonds said. “The original song wasn’t pop enough for the radio. It needed kind of an uplift. In the process, I started working with it. It needed a bridge.”

Edmonds said that before he reworked Schwartz’s composition, he talked to Schwartz and played the bridge he proposed to insert in the song.

Schwartz said he had only slight contact with Edmonds during the production of the Houston-Carey recording.

“I don’t know him very well,” Schwartz said. “We had a couple of conversations prior to producing the single. I went into the studio and did some further work on the lyrics for this bridge,” he continued. “I haven’t spoken to him since.”