Spotlight On

Alan Menken

by Rob Lester   

Speaking frankly, composer Alan Menken discusses his approach and some of his various stage and film projects, starting with The Little Mermaid.

Alan MenkenIt was a pleasure to catch Alan Menken to talk about his catchy music and more while he was in town checking up on The Little Mermaid as it swam to Broadway. The trip, of course, was put on hold because of the stagehands' strike, causing a delay in the opening. Both Broadway shows and animated motion pictures have long gestation periods and there can be time to rewrite and refine. Bringing an existing, known score from a film to the stage brings another chance to rethink and rewrite and expand, even if one has been satisfied with the original version. Early in our conversation, I ask the composer if he tends to tweak and if he likes it when his lyricists want to do so.

"Oh, I'm beyond tweak!!" he laughs. "I pride myself on rewriting." He talks about revisions (or as he describes it, "adding and slicing and cutting back") being a way of life from early drafts to the last minute, even after a song has been around for years and a new production of a show is coming up. One example that comes to his mind is the "Flotsam and Jetsam Theme" from the Mermaid film that was reworked to become a new song called "Sweet Child."

"The biggest misimpression is that, because my material feels immediately accessible, it just rolls right off me. The truth is that every song is the result of a huge number of choices." He says you have to know "where to get out of the way" and decide to let the developing song take its path and serve its function. Rollicking songs for the Disney movies that a five-year-old can happily hum, melodies with hooks from Little Shop of Horrors that purposely recall 1960s pop music ... his tunes can get under your skin and make your foot tap right away. He has other musical instincts and hears other sounds in his head, too, but he doesn't usually go there. "One of my big conflicts is between doing what is very accessible and successful and what would be dark and ambitious. I have that strain in my work but I can't be self-indulgent. Producers won't put money into it."

With many possible irons in the fire and others he is tempted to put in, Menken says he has to be a realist. He doesn't want to spend years writing things that have the odds stacked against them as far as being produced or welcomed by audiences. "There are things I'd like to get done. My plate is very filled." He has put some proposed ideas on the back burner to concentrate on what he calls "much more practical productions."

Menken recalls the struggles of working on two different versions of a Damon Runyon story that never saw the light of day. "I just couldn't figure it out." He is open to new projects that intrigue him and admits wryly, "I'm a little challenged when it comes to saying 'no.'" He'd worked on a prequel for Who Framed Roger Rabbit? "It was a contractual nightmare." He's sometimes at work on several projects in various stages of development - juggling schedules of availability with collaborators, waiting for funding to be finalized. He loves working with conductor-arranger Michael Kosarin, who has done several of his projects, and will wait for him to be available. "Too bad we can't clone him." Jumping from one project to another when things change is "the cost of not wanting to be sitting doing nothing." He's had that happen. He recalls a period long ago when not much was happening besides waiting and false starts. "Now I live in a nightmare what if they all hit at once?" Things take time: "The decision to bring Mermaid to Broadway happened about six years ago."

Of course, it's not the first time a Disney movie came to Broadway. Their long-running properties are so much a part of the scene now that it's odd to think the powers that be resisted turning their movie hits into stage productions not so long ago. Alan Menken recalls when he was involved with just the film side and thought the movies could work on stage. "During the time I was at Disney, I tried over and over again to get them to go to Broadway and they said, 'No, it's not a good business.' And they expressed trepidations about the unions. Then one day in 1991, I was told we were going to be adapting Beauty and the Beast. I was slightly concerned." He wasn't sure what they'd want to do with the piece. "My only experience was the [theme] park shows - those foam heads!" But he was very proud of the way the show turned out on stage, especially with what was brought to it by Robert Roth, "a tremendously enthusiastic director."

Menken takes a moment to talk about a Disney hit he did not write, The Lion King, in relation to the dramatic visual aspects - costumes, puppets, headpieces - that gained great attention. "Some people called The Lion King a park show, which I thought was hideously unfair. However, from that point on, they became even more ambitious." Another Disney movie he co-wrote, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, has been adapted for the stage, too. Seen overseas, it's currently one of the "on hold" projects. "Hunchback stopped in Berlin, but it may have a life."

We turn to his approach to writing Disney when a project starts as an animated film. "When we write for Disney animation, it's a stylistic homage to Disney." He explains that the past traditions help point the way the score will take. "There could have been a hundred other successful Little Mermaid musicals." In film, some moments are especially successful if the unique properties of cinema and animation are kept in mind when writing music, he stresses. "There are cinematic moments. 'Fathoms Below' is a cinematic moment." But, he also points out that when a well-known film like The Little Mermaid comes to the stage, one must deal with the audience's familiarity and expectations. "You have all these moments they will be waiting for ... How will they do 'Under the Sea'? They come in with expectations." The qualities that only stagecraft can bring sometimes can be called upon to meet those expectations. With the example of this song, he adds, "The set is all about light and space. It's a very organic moment."

The sad part of this transformation is that it has to be done without the participation of his late writing partner on this and other scores, lyricist Howard Ashman. "The memory of Howard deserves to be the star of this. As a writer, I wanted to finish this just the way Howard would have finished it." Knowing that some new songs would be needed for a stage version, he had to find a new collaborator and turned to Glenn Slater, who worked with him on the livestock-filled film Home on the Range and the nun-filled stage musical Sister Act. "He reminded me of Howard." I ask if he means in personality or in writing style. "Both!" he relays firmly and without hesitation.

"I almost never write for the actor. Casting Sherie Rene Scott [as the evil Ursula, who had been a rather squat and witch-like octopus creature in the cartoon version of The Little Mermaid] means we had to rule out playing her as she was in the movie, adding a level of mischief and malice. We stayed with the cabaret feel of her palette." In talking about other expansion and development for the stage, he remarks, "King Triton needed a song, an emotional song. To insert a private song was wrong. We had a really good song ... but that's not what was needed." Going through the characters, he talks about the different musical styles each seems right for. "Scuttle is very vaudevillian. His song has a wonderful bridge. There's 'Positoovity' - which is a pep rally." Different moments call for different colors. "And there's 'Human Stuff' - when Ariel can walk."

Thinking about the new and adapted material, he adds, "Many of the changes were near the end ... and we did some judicious cutting." In deciding what to do, he started by looking at the story as it was, but with stage eyes. " I went back and looked at the movie. It cried out for Prince Eric to be more than the Ken doll he was in the movie. We wanted to deepen Prince Eric as a three-dimensional character. We needed a strong ballad." He talks about theatrical moments, like Ariel saving Eric's life, and points out that a Broadway show aimed at a wider audience needs to also have more "adult sensibility."

In addition to The Little Mermaid reaching land, this winter has also seen a new movie opening, Enchanted, with a score by Menken and lyrics to songs by past collaborator Stephen Schwartz. Interestingly, its songs and sensibilities poke fun at key points in past Disney films, like singing animals guiding heroines and helping with chores, noble princes and falling in love at first sight and happily ever after expectations.

Theatre, of course, is not always happily ever after in the cold light of day. Though Little Shop of Horrors was an early success Off-Broadway and a proven audience pleaser as a musical film adaptation, too, the Broadway revival a few years ago did not have the smoothest road. On its way to Broadway, it had troubles in Florida, and key members of the cast and creative team were changed. "It was utter torture," he says seriously and with pain in his voice. ""I lost friends and relationships. It left a scar that is hard to get over."

A happier memory is the long-ago start of the project. Based on the Roger Corman film, Menken enjoyed the character of the maniacal dentist because he comes from a family of dentists himself. "Dad was the President of the Society. He's 86 years old and still practicing." He smiles. "I gave my parents a cassette tape of the songs and they were shocked by the bits about nitrous oxide." And of course there was the broad humor with the dentist's sadistic tendencies, all glorified in song. One use of a song from the score that tickled him was the borrowing of "Somewhere That's Green" in an episode of the irreverent TV animated series "The Family Guy." Of course, he hears his songs in many places, but he also remembers being stopped in his tracks hearing one sung live, drifting through the air as he walked through "a mall in rural Pennsylvania" it was a number from the live-action movie musical Newsies.

Menken would like to one day revisit his musical Kicks and see what might happen with that. But meanwhile, he has on his schedule more work on Sister Act. He got involved with that because of his relationship with former Disney chief and now theatre producer Peter Schneider. He says it "was written in a flash" and they've had successful readings in Atlanta and L.A., with, he feels, essentially positive notices. It is scheduled to be presented in London in the fall. "There's some basic rewriting we want to do. The biggest challenge is making the central character more likeable." And once again, it will be time for tweaking.

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