Think of the greatest Disney films and songs in recent memory and chances are you’ll find yourself humming an Alan Menken melody for the rest of the day. From “Under the Sea” to “Be Our Guest” to “A Whole New World,” to name a few, the eight-time Oscar-winning composer and pianist (who also happens to have plenty of Grammy and Tony Awards on his shelf too), has more hits to his name than many of the most recognizable songwriters in history. We have Menken to thank for the music of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Hercules, Tangled, Enchanted, Newsies, and the list goes on and on.
Recently, Menken has begun bringing the story of his incredible career journey to the stage in his one-man show, “A Whole New World of Alan Menken.” In the show, Menken accompanies his own singing and storytelling on the piano, performing some of his most beloved songs and sharing the stories behind them. Ahead of his upcoming performance at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre on March 30, I had the chance to ask Menken about everything from how he got his amazing start, to what he really thinks about all of those Disney live-action films and what it’s like to work with some of the (other) biggest names in the business, like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Guy Ritchie, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
Most people immediately associate you with some of the most beloved Disney songs of all time, but they might not know where your career really launched, with your collaboration with Howard Ashman, first on God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and then on Little Shop of Horrors. How did that come about?
Alan Menken: When Howard and I met, I was initially a composer/lyricist and I was working in the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop with a wonderful teacher named Lehmen Engel and just writing lots of shows and trying to make a name and playing in cabarets and doing the things you need to do to make a living. Howard was looking for a collaborator for God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, which was an adaptation of the Kurt Vonnegut novel. We decided to work together and that became our first musical together.
Rosewater ran Off-Broadway but it was a little too big to run Off-Broadway. There were 14 in the cast, and yet it had an Off-Broadway sensibility. So Howard said, “OK next show we’ll make it a little more economical. I see no more than eight characters plus this puppeteer and puppet. And that of course turned out to be Little Shop of Horrors, our first hit together.
[Editor’s Note: Chicagoans can catch Little Shop of Horrors live on stage from March 1–April 28 at the Mercury Theater in Chicago’s vibrant Southport Corridor neighborhood. For more information and to buy tickets, visit Mercury Theater Chicago.]
And then Howard was ultimately responsible for bringing you on board for your first work with Disney, and your collaboration was really the beginning of a hugely successful period for Disney. How did that happen?
Coming to Disney was actually our coming back together as a collaboration. Howard had a choice about who he would ask, and I was blessed that he came back to me and we embarked on The Little Mermaid.
The other part of the story is that unbeknownst to many, the AIDs crisis was robbing us of so much talent. Howard was sick at the time but was not letting anybody know.
It was an amazing time for us, working together. When we wrote Little Mermaid I did not know anything about his health situation. It was only at the Oscars for Little Mermaid that it was no longer possible for him to keep it from everyone. So I knew about it when we began working on Beauty and the Beast, which he never lived to see, and we had also begun work on Aladdin.
So there was that period of intense creativity in the midst of a lot of human drama and the creation of all those movies. And, of course, they ended up being an incredible renaissance. You don’t know you’re in the middle of history while you’re in the middle of it, but we were.
Collaboration has been so important to the music you’ve created. Is your co-writing process always the same or is each project totally different?
Some are more different than others. The first prominent collaborator after Howard was Tim Rice when he came aboard to help me finish Aladdin. That could not be more different from Howard and most of my collaborations because, number one, we had an ocean separating us most of the time. And when we didn’t we had to work in a very intensive multi-tasking process. We were working on a number of songs at the same time. Then we would separate and then come back together. And also just as a personality and as an artist, Tim and his work with Andrew Lloyd Webber is very different from the way I worked with Howard. But at the end of the day it’s still about a composer at the piano and a lyricist kind of pacing around the room.
Let’s talk about the deluge of Disney live-action remakes coming down the pipeline. Beauty and the Beast was a big hit that really delivered for audiences and creatively seemed to fall somewhere between the animated original and Broadway stage version. What’s the creative mindset for these? Is it to remain as true as possible to the original? Do you feel pressure because audiences love those originals so much?
Well, I feel a protectiveness. Animation and theater are both mediums where the writers, especially songwriters, really move into the center of the co-creative process. For a live-action movie, it is truly a director’s medium, so it’s very dependent on what the director wants.
Bill Condon [director of Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast] is a huge Broadway fan, so even when we didn’t fit songs from the Broadway show into the movie, he still wanted some of those themes to be reflected in the underscore. He wanted to be very close to the theater style, but he also wanted to dig deeper into the authenticity of the 18th century and of France.
You’re now working on live-action versions of Aladdin [release date: May 24, 2019] and The Little Mermaid [release date: to be announced]. How are those being approached?
Each director has their own sort of biases about how they might want to approach an adaptation. Guy Ritchie [director of upcoming live-action Aladdin, release date May 24, 2019] is not known for musicals at all.
Guy really wants to infuse much more of a contemporary pop sensibility into the storytelling and the songs of Aladdin. We’ve been doing that and that’s been a lot of fun, but you walk a line knowing that we want to stay as true as possible to what audiences already know and love and are invested in.
On Aladdin I’ve been working with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who’ve been my lyricists on the new songs, and I’m rewriting or updating some of the iconic songs that Howard and I wrote.
For The Little Mermaid, I’ll be collaborating with Lin-Manuel Miranda, and he, as I think people know, is a huge Little Mermaid fan. Growing up, he went to the same school as my niece in New York and my sister said, “Oh there’s this boy, Lin-Manuel Miranda—and he loves it [The Little Mermaid], and could you sign this poster for him?”
He was insanely zealous about [The Little Mermaid] and also about musical theater and you can see that in who he’s become as a writer. The passion pours out of him. His son is named Sebastian, if that gives you an indication of how much of a fan he is.
Wow, so you gave your autograph to a young, Little Mermaid-obsessed Lin-Manuel Miranda and now you’re working together on the new film? How cool—he’s so talented.
And so smart.
I think we’ll have a lot of fun writing this. We have not started yet. I believe the process will start probably within a few months. And I don’t know what the spots will be but I’m really excited about us working together on that.
I think everyone is excited about that collaboration!
Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2 came out recently and probably the most talked-about scene is when Vanellope [played by Sarah Silverman] has a run-in with all of the other Disney princesses. Soon after, she’s given her own princess “I Want” song, “A Place Called Slaugher Race,” which you wrote, and which, as Sarah herself said, is quite “subversive.”
It’s a little along the lines of the thing I did for Sausage Party, the Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg film. A couple years ago I wrote the opening number for it [Menken also scored the film]. I feel like I was kind of like a piece of found art put in for comic purposes. [Laughs.]
Sarah Silverman said working with you was a dream come true for her. That must have been fun for you too to work on that song with her and with Gal [Gadot].
As soon as we got into the room together I had heard Sarah was a big Little Shop fan so I went to the piano and started playing “Somewhere That’s Green,” and she did the whole song as a perfect Audrey literally within five minutes of us meeting. And then of course we got to work on her song. We had a blast in the studio and it was a lot of fun and the success of it has been a great surprise. I’m really pleased.
One of the things that’s so special about the projects you’ve done and continue to do is the way that they bridge the generations with these new live-action films bringing things full circle for parents like me who’ve grown up on the animated films, and now we’re doing the first the animated, then live-action film and stage versions with our kids. Are you having fun doing so much revisiting? Are you eager to get some time to work on new original projects?
Yes, yes—I’m answering the second question. I’m eager to go new, and I have new, here and there. BUT, I’m also blessed that people keep wanting to go back to the old. One of my animated musicals is being adapted to the stage now. It will be announced soon, but I can’t share it yet!
It’s Mermaid coming, it’s Disenchanted which is coming along. Apparently another adaptation of Little Shop of Horrors is coming along. We’re talking about a lot of other animated [films] that I think are going to come to the screen. So yeah, there’s a lot going on.
So I guess the problem is really that you were just too good from the start—no time for anything new because everyone wants you to keep redoing the same great stuff we all know and love!
[Laughs.] I guess so. But, I get to write new songs and work with new people and that’s always a lot of fun.
I have two young boys who are big fans of your music. How about some parenting advice: You’ve said that as a child you were more interested in creating your own music than practicing the songs assigned to you by teachers. You’ve raised two daughters who are artists and performers. What advice do you have for parents who see a creative spark in their kids? How do you nurture that and help them without being overbearing?
Encourage them. Praise them when it’s appropriate. Don’t overpraise them when it’s not. Encourage them to always be doing something new. Encourage them to know how precious their talent is. And keep helping them go onto the next thing and the next thing and the next thing.
Whatever it is, you’ve got to do what you’re passionate about because you love it, and not because you want a result. And then just give them freedom to explore. Don’t try to cut to a full flowering before their time because sometimes it doesn’t happen until you’re in your 30s or 40s. Just make sure the thing they want to do all day is the thing they do.
I was passionate about music, I just hated to practice. But still, it was important that I learned basic skills. I would learn the beginning of a Beethoven sonata and I would just make up the rest of it myself.
So don’t make them stay within the lines too much…
But remind them that there are lines! They know. They’ll be a good partner with you on what they need.
Those of us in Chicago are lucky enough to get the chance to see you perform live on stage in your upcoming one-man show, “A Whole New World of Alan Menken.” What can the audience look forward to?
Basically, I talk through my life and my career and we have three screens of visuals. I pick out the songs that are inevitably the highlights of my career and they’re what people know. I play and interact with the audience and bounce up and down on the piano and knock myself out for about two hours and have fun.
Editor in Chief of Make It Better, Brooke Geiger McDonald is a Chicago native and Northwestern University grad with a Master’s in English Literature from King’s College London. She’s worked for O, The Oprah Magazine and Shape magazine in New York and for various book publishers in London. Back home in Chicago, she’s outnumbered by her husband and two sons, and the four of them are certifiable Disney and Star Wars fanatics, always counting down the days to their next Disney vacation. Her favorite nonprofits to support include organizations focused on environmental conservation and fighting climate change, such as the Environmental Defense Fund and Shedd Aquarium. Follow her on Instagram: @brookegmcdonald