Without Alan Menken, some of the most celebrated Disney movies of the late 20th century — including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Pocahontas — would be, at best…less celebrated. In this interview from Entertainment Weekly’s special issue The Ultimate Guide to Beauty and the Beast, on sale now, the eight-time Oscar-winning composer spoke with us about revisiting the score for Belle and her buddies 25 years later.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What did you think when you were approached to work on this project for the third time, really?
ALAN MENKEN: [Laughs] Well, I was excited. First I heard that the studio wanted to do it, and then I had to find out, What does that mean? Who was going to direct? So when I found out that Bill Condon was directing, I was thrilled. Then it was a matter of finding out what his approach would be and what the script was. The [live-action] film version of Beauty and the Beast was on and off in the works for a long time, so it’s been a journey to get to this point. It was both exhilarating and challenging at the same time.
When you say it was challenging, what do you mean?
Challenging because there had been a Broadway show, which had songs that I would have loved to use for the movie, but the form for a film and the form for a Broadway show are different, so the song we wrote for the Broadway show was not going to work. Consequently, we wrote a brand-new song. The challenge is just to maintain the balance of what we originally had for the score and what we had for the show, and at the same time allow this film to have its own character. So you’re both the keeper of the flame and leading the way in moving on to a new vision for it.
What do you think is the appeal of the animated film?
It’s probably the most romantic of the Disney animated musicals. It’s a passionate love story and it’s got a lot of depth. And in my life, of course, a lot of that power comes from the fact that it’s the last complete score that Howard Ashman and I wrote together. And he never lived to see it. He was working on it as he was growing sicker and sicker, which is…the backstory to the creation of the movie is as heartbreaking as the movie is.
All of the Disney movies you’ve worked on are beloved. But people seem to have a special place in their hearts for Beauty and the Beast.
I think they have a special place for Beauty, I think for Mermaid, I think for Aladdin. But Beauty has a unique place, I think, because it was the first of any of the Disney products to come to Broadway. It was a huge Broadway show. It had that gigantic, over-the-top production number “Be Our Guest,” so it’s got that combination of romance and show business extravaganza.
Given how passionately people feel about the movie and the Broadway musical, did you have a greater sense of responsibility than you would for some-thing you would create from scratch?
No. Because I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility with something that is being created from scratch, because you’re actually putting the DNA out there for the first time. In this case it’s one of your children, who has been successful and now is going to be seen in another light. I feel responsible to people who love the original, but I also feel responsible — to everyone who’s been involved prior to this — to be as hands-on as possible with the movie so that the flame of the original continues through. That’s a responsibility I take seriously.
Do you have a favorite memory from making the 1991 movie?
It probably was the day we were at RCA Studios [in New York] and we were recording both “Be Our Guest” and “Beauty and the Beast” on the same day. We had this amazing, huge orchestra and Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach, two absolute classics of Broadway — I was going, “Boy, what am I doing here, at this place?” And Howard was there. It was not yet acknowledged that Howard was ill, but it was very clear that he was ill. So you can imagine, such a high, incredible moment, such creative power happening, and I was losing my collaborator. But it was secret. Boy, I mean, if that’s not an unforgettable day, I don’t know what is.
Neither Emma Watson nor Dan Stevens had much experience singing before this. How are their performances?
The results ended up being wonderful. You know, I think both of them had a lot of trepidation. They were self-protective and they were open to our input. We worked very closely with them. There was a lot of lead time when they learned the song, and then they worked on the song, and then we went back in and there was a lot of rewriting. It was hard work and it was so worth it.
There’s clearly an insatiable appetite for Beauty and the Beast. What happens when the studio says they’re doing a virtual-reality version and they ask you to write three more songs for it?
[Laughs] I can’t wait for that one! That’ll be great!
Pictured above is the sheet music to one of the new songs written for the live-action movie. Entertainment Weekly’s collector’s edition The Ultimate Guide to Beauty and the Beast, featuring the casts and creators of the new film and the animated classic, is available on newsstands now.