Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards ((Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

Muppets Treasure Island’s songwriters gave us an anthem for the current moment 25 years ago

Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards ((Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples (In-House Art)

Six weeks after setting sail for Treasure Island, and five days since the last breeze rolled through, boredom borders on madness for the crew of the Hispaniola. Cabin fever sets in, and the sun-baked sea-farers find themselves helplessly sambaing along to a bombastic musical number. No, this isn’t your average pirate adventure; it’s a Muppet movie. And this isn’t your average musical number; it’s “Cabin Fever,” an exuberant show-stopper of a song that’s both bigger and weirder than you might remember.

“This is a song that called for insanity,” says Barry Mann, who, along with wife Cynthia Weil, penned the tunes for Muppet Treasure Island, The Jim Henson Company’s typically whimsical take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale. “That was probably the most fun I ever had writing a song.” The composing duo rose to the occasion, meeting the spectacle and sheer lunacy of the film’s central number, which required 25 additional puppeteers on set to pull it off. Sung by an ensemble of some of the most uniquely strange Muppets ever created, “Cabin Fever” captures what is (these days) an all-too-familiar kind of madness: one resulting from too much time spent in one place. Even with decades of memorable musical moments under their felts, “Cabin Fever” stands out as one of the catchiest—and most pertinent—numbers in the Muppet repertoire.

Ahead of Muppet Treasure Island’s 25th anniversary—the film hit theaters on February 16, 1996—Barry Mann reflected on the legacy of the oft-forgotten Muppet adventure (Weil was under the weather and could not participate). While he agrees “Cabin Fever” is an “obvious” quarantine anthem, he admits to not hearing much about the film of late—despite its charms, Treasure Island seems to have developed a reputation as one of The Jim Henson Company’s most overlooked features.

Well before they became part of the Muppet family, Mann and Weil established themselves as a highly celebrated songwriting duo, having written hits for Dolly Parton (“Here You Come Again”), Mama Cass (“Make Your Own Kind Of Music”), and The Drifters (“On Broadway”), to name a few—Mann even co-wrote “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin,’” said to be the most played song of the 20th century. They were also no stranger to the movies: A few years before MTI, the pair co-wrote “Somewhere Out There” for An American Tail, which garnered them an Oscar nomination, as well as two Grammy wins in 1988, including Song Of The Year.

After meeting with director Brian Henson (Jim Henson’s eldest son), Mann says he and Cynthia had a crystal clear idea of what the studio was going for, and many of the songs came to them effortlessly: “A lot of the melodies just talked to us.” They got a kick out of writing the movie’s big ensemble numbers, blending sweeping, Broadway-worthy tunes with the humor of the Muppets; part of the fun was just seeing which creations from The Muppet Workshop would be singing their lines. “The opening number [“Shiver My Timbers”] had a bunch of strange characters—not the familiar Muppet ones. There’s snakes, a big crocodile, mosquitos… all trading verses.” While recording the soundtrack in London, Mann recalls getting to sing some of the track’s background vocals: “I felt like an honorary Muppet.”

Treasure Island’s biggest emotional moments were saved for its main characters, human or otherwise. “I loved ‘Professional Pirate’; that might be my favorite number,” Mann says. The song is the sole musical showcase for Long John Silver, played with a gleeful commitment by Tim Curry, who clearly relished the opportunity to chew scenery opposite a ham like Miss Piggy. “He really gave a lot of himself to that song,” Mann recalls. “It was just wonderful to see him [let loose] in that fashion.” And while they’re more sidelined than usual for this movie, Kermit and Piggy—as star-crossed lovers Captain Smollett and Benjamina Gunn—still get their chance to shine in a romantic duet, with a very Muppet twist: Hung upside down over a cliff by Silver and his pirate companions, the two are left to fall to their fate, but still make time for the ballad, “Love Led Us Here.” “The way they set that song up was genius,” Mann said. “They’re hanging upside down and singing about being swept off their feet—that line was all Cynthia, she can be so clever.”

To add a sweeping sense of adventure, Henson Studios had brought on Hans Zimmer—then fresh off a Best Original Score Oscar win for the The Lion Kingto write the score. As the composer, Zimmer was set to produce Mann and Weil’s musical numbers, but he had faith that the songwriters could manage it themselves. “I started working with him and then he said, ‘Why don’t you just produce this yourself?,’” Mann says with a laugh. “And it worked out great! He was so terrific—he said, ‘You do it and keep the money.’”

Whether the movie called for two dangling Muppets or an entire boat full of rowdy pirates, Mann was impressed by the craftsmanship brought to the table by the entire Henson crew. “[Everyone involved] knew these characters backwards and forwards… it was so much fun to watch them come to life.” And though it was only Brian Henson’s second directorial feature, he seemed at ease steering the ship. “He’s very respectful and very collaborative, and just the organization itself—they treat you really well!”

Asked if there’s anything he’d change about his experience writing for Muppet Treasure Island, Mann says, “I just wish a lot of the critics felt differently.” Though the movie currently holds a 70% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, he remembers a more muted response—Roger Ebert, for one, was outright apathetic. “I do remember one critic really liking [the music] a lot… they even mentioned the Academy Awards.” While Mann and Weil would’ve faced stiff competition for the win at the ’97 Oscars—with Madonna’s original song for Evita and the titular tune from That Thing You Do! among the nominees—the Academy did rob us all of the opportunity to have The Muppets perform a Treasure Island song live.

Twenty-five years on, will the tides turn for Muppet Treasure Island? It’s easy to see why so many fans were put out when it first hit theaters in ’96—it takes Kermit nearly 30 minutes to show up on screen, and Miss Piggy’s grand entrance is over an hour into the movie. But what endures is a delightfully idiosyncratic experience, one that spotlights what a true ensemble effort a Muppet movie is; from the playful music to the ornate set design to the always game Curry, everyone is putting their best peg leg forward. And with its new streaming home on Disney+ alongside other Muppet favorites, it’s possible young fans will be drawn in by its lush style and cheerful sense of adventure. At the very least, Muppet Treasure Island’s legacy lies in its infectious soundtrack of original songs from Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Revisiting a number like “Cabin Fever” feels like you’re stumbling on buried treasure.