By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Jun 14, 2024 at 10:31 AM

This content is in partnership with Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Fly – or fall with style – over to the MSO's website to get your tickets now. And we'll see you there! 

To infinity ... and the Bradley Symphony Center!

Indeed, for their last show of their 2023-24 season, the clawwwwwwwww chose "Toy Story in Concert" for the Milwaukee Symphony Center's final bow on June 22-23. Even almost 30 years and several animation innovations since it hit big screens, Pixar's groundbreaking debut film – about the secret life of the toys as well as the kid-sized rivalry between a cowboy and a spaceman – is still a revelation, filled with clever jokes, charmingly memorable characters, winning creativity and, as would become the studio's signature, surprisingly thoughtful emotions that find real heart even under plastic and felt.

But even if you've seen "Toy Story" 100 times and can recite the entire script like you've got Woody's pull-string, the upcoming MSO performance might just make the animated adventure feel like it's brand new just out of the box all over again.

“I love the physical process of having 80 musicians on stage make this music, and you come in and enjoy this movie in a way that you never have enjoyed this film before," said MSO assistant conductor Ryan Tani. "I’ve seen this movie how many dozens of times, but when I looked at the score and started studying it, it was different – a new experience.”

Before the show hits the stage and screen next weekend, I got a chance to chat with Tani about growing up with "Toy Story," the surprises in store with Randy Newman's iconic score, our favorite Pixar movies and more. All while donning our "Woody's Roundup" and Star Command finest, of course. 

OnMilwaukee: Did you see “Toy Story” in theaters as a kid? Or did you come to it later? What’s your “Toy Story” story?

Ryan Tani: So “Toy Story” came out in ‘95, and I’m a ’93 kid, so I didn’t see it in theaters. But I don’t think I remember a time in my life when I didn’t have that VHS, the “Bug’s Life” VHS with the chess-playing short at the beginning – an iconic piece of animation. It’s been a part of me forever. I think that’s what makes it so popular: It’s such a timeless story.

Do you have a favorite “Toy Story” character?

I mean, Wallace Shawn is the iconic Rex. It’s so great, that juxtaposition of this big T-rex character being this sort of childish and meek. I love that.

What do you think it is about “Toy Story” that captivated audiences then and now?

I can’t think of a film that has more heart and soul in it, this heart-to-heart that Woody and Buzz have about what purpose is toward the end of the movie. I just feel that connects so much with people. And with the different characters, I think you can find a little bit of ourselves in all of them – like a little bit of that cynical Mr. Potato Head comes out sometimes. There’s so much connection and nostalgia there. 

Do you have a favorite Pixar movie? I know that’s a big question …

That is a really, really hard question. This also completely depends on what I’m watching it for. For me, who did the soundtrack? Is this one of Michael Giacchino’s or a Randy Newman thing or a Thomas Newman movie, that has a different kind of lyrical bent to the orchestration? That’s such a non-answer. (Laughs) I can’t do it. Maybe “The Incredibles,” I don’t know … 

I think “Toy Story 3” is my favorite, a personal touchstone movie. For one, it has Mr. Tortilla Head. 

But also “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2” were very, very, very early, and were so iconic and part of our lives for so long. And then – boom! – this announcement comes out saying there’s going to be a third, and I just remember there was this palpable energy around it. 

So “Toy Story” comes out in 1995, then “Toy Story 2” came out in ’98 or ’99, and “Toy Story 3” comes out in 2010. This is around the time I’m graduating from high school and going off to college, so this was like the perfect storm.

The franchise grew up at the same time as its audience. 


When people think of Randy Newman, I think sometimes they get caught up with the basic lyricism and simple Americana music. But the score is much more complicated than it gets credit for. What makes the music of “Toy Story” so tricky?

Interestingly enough, the so-called easy moments like the very beginning of the film, starting with “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” when you’re working with music that is sung and so iconic, it has to be together with the synchronization. 

I was surprised too that Randy Newman has such a characteristic shuffle of the way he writes the songs and how he sings them – but then you go to the score, and Buzz and Woody are trailing behind this truck and they’re going on all these adventures and going to Pizza Planet and flying all over, there’s all this action-packed stuff happening, and it’s very fast and quick and light and energetic. It’s supposed to make you feel the energy. So he’s keenly aware that this is also really playful, that the music has a distinct purpose. He’s highly influenced, of course, by the great works of Disney in the ’20s with the Silly Symphonies, with all this activity that’s happening.

Do you notice that in any moments in particular in “Toy Story”?

There’s a lot of that kinesthetic feeling about the music, these driving string lines that are really fast and run. So if a character is running, you have these running string lines – or if Buzz Lightyear is flying, the bass is doing all this heroic stuff. But what’ll happen, though, is Buzz will fly through the air for three seconds and then land, and then another character will come. 

The music is trying to create all these characters, one after another.

It’s hitting a lot of these things. So it’s pulling influence in the sense that the sound is active with what’s going on, but it’s also very tied to the storytelling and trying to tell a story with the music. 

Do you have any moments from the original “Toy Story” that still stick with you?

One thing that’s always stuck with me is Buzz Lightyear finding himself in the claw game with all the aliens and saying, “I am Buzz Lightyear. I come in peace.” I always loved that – it’s just iconic, this character who has such a sense of purpose about himself in the first half that gets changed as he sees himself in the advertisement. Each of the characters just has such a strong personality, and I love it.

What part of the “Toy Story” score is the most fun? Which section gets to dine out the most?

What I love about it is it’s so packed. In comparison with something like even “Back to the Future,” there’s actually very little time for us to rest on stage – we’re working hard the whole time. And the thing I love about the score, and conducting these kinds of things, is you hear the film almost reacting to the energy of the music when you hear it here live at a concert hall. And we get to be the creators of that.

But you’re talking about moments. I think the score is incredibly well-paced. “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”: the way Randy Newman writes this song, these are words that could and would come out of Woody’s mouth. It’s so personal. Then it creates the world of Andy’s room – and then the world gets a little bit bigger as you see Sid on the other side and you go to the Pizza Planet, and each place has its own sense of identity. 

I’ve gotta ask you one more time: What’s your favorite Pixar movie?

I love “The Incredibles,” because that soundtrack represents an entire era – that big band, sort of 007 sound. And I love “Finding Nemo” so much. That’s such a tender soundtrack with characters that make you weep.

But “Ratatouille” is my favorite Pixar movie, for sure. Remy is just such a lovable character, the soundtrack is awesome, I love food and I identify with the creative purpose-driven analogy between food and music. I love the message, and I love everything about Anton Ego’s final monologue at the very end, about how there’s much that a critic risks but, in the broader scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. It’s so wonderful, and I love it.

The MSO's performance of "Toy Story in Concert" will take place on Saturday, June 22 at 7:30 p.m. (complete with 25% off when you buy four or more tickets) as well as Sunday, June 23 at 2:30 p.m. For information and for tickets, you don't have to risk venturing into Sid's domain; just head over to!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.