Alan Menken has won more Oscars — eight! — than anybody else alive. And no wonder. When you think of the smash hits that revived Walt Disney Animation, starting with The Little Mermaid in 1989 and continuing with Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, it’s impossible to separate the movies from the music. “Under the Sea,” “Part of Your World,” “Be Our Guest,” “Friend Like Me,” “A Whole New World” — they’re the stuff high school glee clubs are made of. Menken, with lyricists Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, gave us all of these ear confections, winning over audiences and the Academy in the process. But history can take unexpected turns, and the art form Menken once dominated, that of hand-drawn Broadway-style animated musicals, has all but vanished. Now, he’s prepped his next revolution: the first CG-animated film that’s also a full, break-into-song musical, Walt Disney Animation’s Tangled, opening today. EW talked to Menken about his unrivaled career, his work on Tangled, and why Disney has chosen not to market it as a musical.
ALAN MENKEN: It’s the first to even attempt it. I knew that going in, but I always felt Pixar would attempt a “break into song” musical. The closest they came was with “When She Loved Me” in Toy Story 2, but that was still just montage material.
Was it more challenging to compose music for a CG-animated film as opposed to a hand-drawn film?
To compose, no. Do people respond to CGI, though, in the same way they respond to hand-drawn? In the case of Tangled, I think the name Disney on it makes all the difference. It gives permission to the fact that it is a musical. Having a tradition is a great thing to work within, and maybe today [it] is the only way to really land musically dramatic work. People have to already be comfortable with the form.
Your score for Tangled has a folk-rock sound, completely different from the musical-theater tradition that influences most of your work for Disney.
Well, a lot of what I’ve done has a rock edge, even going back to Little Shop of Horrors. Hercules did, as well, and even Leap of Faith and Sister Act: The Musical. Of my Disney material, Tangled is my most pop oriented.
Were there a lot of songs that didn’t make it into the film?
Yes. A, a lot of songs that didn’t make it in. B, a lot of song spots that didn’t make it in. The first song we wrote was the same music for “When Will My Life Begin” but called “What More Could I Ever Need?” and it was much more about celebrating Rapunzel’s life at the tower. Everything is just great here, just perfect! But then we thought the message was a little too positive. I also wanted to have an opening number for the prologue, have it sung as a story-song in a Cat Stevens tone, with incantation within it. But at the end of the day they wanted to stay with the traditional prologue. These guys do have good instincts. The score we have is the score that this production could comfortably support.
Has it disappointed you that the marketing for the film hasn’t highlighted at all the fact that it is a musical?
Or that they used a Pink song in the first trailer? “Disappointed” isn’t the word. There’s a certain level of frustration, I guess. But that’s also the reality. The reality is that people need to be coaxed toward a musical. They need to understand why it’s a musical. “Do I have to hear people sing their thoughts and feelings? Oh, no!” And then they love it. But I think people need permission to love it. With Chicago, it was the strong critical reaction telling people “This is really special!” That made people want to see it. Had they gone out and said Tangled is a musical — well, we’ll see how it does at the box office. That’s something that is, as President Obama would say, beyond my pay grade. I trust that at the end of the day, people who enjoy musicals will realize what Tangled really is.
But in the case of Tangled’s marketing campaign, it seems really a disservice to the work you put in to it…
Well, let me take you back in time. The ad campaign for Hunchback was “Come join the party!” And yet it’s a dark film. There was a lot of apologizing for the darkness in advance. For Hercules, it was a very kid-oriented campaign, which possibly didn’t make people realize how sophisticated that film really was with its humor and its look. I think The Princess and the Frog underperformed, and there was a concern about the “princess” concept in general. This movie is called Rapunzel overseas, but Tangled here. You can’t be a purist about these things, because you’ll end up stuck in the past. I’m just happy to be working. Disney could have just gone to a pop-song writer for this movie, but they realized that there is a craft to writing these things.
It’s sad to see animated musicals abandon the Broadway-style for tween-age pop songs, though.
But remember, it was two off-Broadway writers, Howard and myself, who had just written a rock musical about plants that eat people, who came in to write The Little Mermaid. People like the form to be ruffled up and reinvented. I’m not saying that if Jerry Herman had written The Little Mermaid it wouldn’t have done as well, but I think there was a pop sensibility we brought to it. And there was a hunger for the form then. Now with Tangled, all of sudden it seems that there is a hunger for this form again. And I don’t know if that was there a year ago. Maybe it’s a reaction to the mid-term elections. I don’t know if there’s a resistance to Broadway so much as they want a reason to come back to it again. It’s the same thing with other genres. Why should I go to see Iron Man after I’ve seen Batman, Spider-man and Superman? People realize that there’s some twist to it that makes it different.
It almost sounds like you almost have to trick audiences into going to a musical nowadays.
Years ago, Howard Ashman believed you should be able to say about a musical that “This is the blank musical.” Little Shop is “the monster musical.” Dreamgirls is the “Motown girl-groups musical.” And I look at that as the idea that every musical, in a sense, is an homage of some kind. If audiences pick up that it’s an homage to something, word of mouth will bring people in to experience it. Most successful musicals need to attach themselves to something bigger than themselves, a concept that will make people feel immediately connected to it. The next musical I’m doing on Broadway is Sister Act, and I imagine Sister Act will not be a musical where we’re trying to act like it’s not a musical. People recognize Sister Act, by its nature, is supposed to have songs.
I was impressed with what a sincere entry Tangled really is in the fairy-tale canon. It doesn’t have any of the snark or irony of, say, Shrek.
Well, we had already done Enchanted. So I was reluctant to go back to the Enchanted well. As far as the Shrek well, that works great for DreamWorks and for Jeffrey Katzenberg. It’s a fun movie, and even people at Disney have enjoyed how it spoofed Disney. But I don’t think it’s appropriate for Disney to spoof Disney in that way. There’s a lot of integrity at this studio, so Tangled was going to be a sincerely emotional story. But if it was not going to be tongue-in-cheek, then it had to be smart. Dan Fogelman’s dialogue had a wonderful edge to it.
You’ve shown an amazing ability to pair particular musical styles to embellish the story material, like the sea shanty that opens The Little Mermaid, the calypso inflection to “Under the Sea,” Gregorian chants in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. How do you find just the write music to capture the atmosphere of your films?
I get out of my own way. I try not to keep Alan Menken a present part of the picture. I try to let the characters and the story tell me what to do. Going way back to my work with Howard Ashman on God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and Little Shop, I’ve enjoyed working in pastiche — in knowing pastiche. It’s always more fun for the audience when they’re enjoying not just the sound of the score, but the concept of the score.
Tell me a bit about your songwriting process. When you’re working with a Howard Ashman, a Stephen Schwartz, a Glenn Slater, do the lyrics come first, or does your music?
I started out writing on my own. Then I became a composer to Howard Ashman, who would write lyrics and book. Then Tom Eyen of Dreamgirls, Tim Rice, Stephen Schwartz, Lynn Ahrens, David Zippel, Glenn Slater, and Jack Feldman. Everybody has their own ways of working. You always have to start with the assignment. How do we want to tell the story in music? What about the music could help tell the story? We always create a demo which is the blueprint of the musical. That’s how I’ve done it since working with Howard Ashman, where he and I would play Seymour, Audrey, or The Dentist [in Little Shop], always mapping out entire scenes with the demo so people can have as clear an idea of the final product as possible.
I remember hearing Howard’s brilliant version of “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” The demo can really make or break the project, right?
Howard was great at that stuff. He was the first Sebastian. We did two demos for Beauty and the Beast. My demo was a pop-oriented presentation, and Howard’s was spoke-sung. Disney told us that Angela Lansbury had heard the demo and said the project wasn’t for her, and we were both shocked. But then I said, “Can you tell me which demo you sent her?” And they said, “Yours.” And I said “No, no, no, no! Send her Howard’s!” And when she heard Howard’s she went “Oh, okay. Now I understand. Yes, I’ll do this.” The demo tapes have to be very specific. They make a big difference to the project, when you can demonstrate exactly what you want from an actor for a project.
I think if I had to say why your films with Disney are so powerful, it’s because all of them — The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules — are about young people caught between the comfort and security of home and a yearning for an independent life of his or her own, the fundamental dilemma of growing up.
Generally, yes. In a musical, it’s about a character having a big dream, then [there’s] some obstacle to that quest. But in Aladdin, say, it’s about another economic reality. I want to marry the princess and live in a palace. For Pocahontas, it’s about wanting to bridge the divide between our cultures. It’s always about a protagonist with a big want.
And so each of these films has an “I want!” song.
If the story is structured correctly, they do. It’s not always possible, though, to have a classic “I Want!” song. For Rapunzel, she’s essentially brainwashed at the top of the movie into thinking that her tower is just fine. And her attitude is “What more could I need than being in this tower?” So the song has to create in us a desire for her to leave the tower.
Rapunzel’s “Mother” reminded me a lot of Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the way she demonizes the outside world. Mother Gothel is a dark, dark character. I mean, she’s a baby snatcher.
Oh, absolutely. In fact one of my big concerns going in to the Rapunzel story was, What do I do? I’ve done the young-protagonist-trapped-in-a-tower in Hunchback. But it is different for Rapunzel. Number one, Hunchback is no fairy tale. Two, Mother Gothel is a scary piece of work. Nothing she is doing is for the good of Rapunzel at all. It’s all for herself, and she’s pretending to be her mother. That’s tough. Frollo is a much more sophisticated villain, but easier to understand, I think, than Mother Gothel, who has a much more manipulative relationship with Rapunzel. I was concerned when writing it. Like, will there be a rash of children trying to kill their parents after they’ve seen the movie? But audiences seem to compartmentalize her into the villain category and not focus too much on the fact that she spent the first 16 years of her life trapped in a tower because of this woman.
Do you still have plans for bringing a hand-drawn animated version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen to the big screen?
It’s on the shelf. We had actually written that to be a live stage show at the Tokyo DisneySea park. John Weidman wrote the book, and Glenn Slater and I did the music and lyrics. It turned out to be a bit expensive, and then it was picked up as a possible animated film. In the aftermath of The Princess and the Frog, it was put aside. It’s not an easy story to tell, to be honest. It may yet come back, though. If Tangled does well, maybe we can revisit it. Whether that will open the door to hand-drawn 2-D animation, that’s a question I couldn’t answer. Everybody is so tickled by the possibilities of CGI. That’s where everyone wants to put their energy right now, including even many former hand-drawn animators. I think prior to Tangled coming out, there’s been a lot of reevaluation at Disney: What do we want to do? What does this company stand for? And probably after Tangled there will be a re-reevaluation. Right now, I’m just thankful that they’re giving me something to keep me from being swallowed up by Broadway.
Speaking of Broadway, I know you’re planning on bringing Sister Act: The Musical and Leap of Faith (based on the 1992 Steve Martin film) to the Big Apple soon. When might we see those, and could Whoopi appear in Sister Act?
Sister Act is opening at the Broadway Theater on April 20. It’s ’70s style disco, funk, psychedelic soul. For that, I drew inspiration from Donna Summer, Curtis Mayfield, Lou Rawls, The Four Tops, the Spinners, the Bee-Gees, Gloria Gaynor, the Floaters. And traditional musical theater, of course. But it has a lot of fun with very traditional styles. There’s always a chance, I suppose, that Whoopi could be in it. She did it in London, and she’s in town doing The View every day. Whoopi’s one of our producers. If she did do it, though, it would probably be just a short stint. On the other hand, Leap of Faith is a gospel-revival musical. That will have some major rewrites coming up, and the plan is to bring that to Broadway in the fall of 2011.
What do find more satisfying: composing music for film or for the stage?
The wonderful thing about stage musicals is that they’re totally alive for every performance. And the terrible thing about stage musicals is that … they’re totally alive for every performance. And of course, stage musicals are so much work. It reminds me of that great quote by, may he rest in peace, the greatest guy, Larry Gelbart: “If Hitler’s alive, I hope he’s out of town with a musical.”