By Marc Snetiker
December 14, 2018 at 09:30 AM EST
Everett Collection

Alan Menken has built a career helping people express what they want. And what they want, or at least what they’ve been asking for lately, is Alan Menken.

Of the nine animated Disney musicals that defined the studio’s 1989-1999 Renaissance period, the prolific composer had a defining role in the music of six of them: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Hercules. Each film involved a major collaborative creative effort — particularly with Howard Ashman, the late lyricist with whom Menken wrote 1982’s Little Shop of Horrors before the pair’s work on 1989’s Mermaid revived the animated musical — but time and the zeitgeist have made Menken’s name synonymous with classic Disney melodies. The Oscar-winning showstoppers, the villainous classics, the royal teen torch songs that underscored the second golden age of Disney animation (and well beyond).

Now, at 69, Menken is navigating a twist in his career that he didn’t seek out, but has come to understand exactly how to do: deconstruct himself. “It’s a place I’ve gotten used to recently, where I guess I’m kind of a flavor,” he tells EW. “We want rocky road, or we want pistachio… we want Menken.” Asked if it’s a strange sensation, to continue a career by parodying the very body of work that defined it, Menken chuckles. “It’s… unique.”

It started, one could argue, when Menken penned the music for 2007’s Enchanted — a self-skewering of Disney’s princess tropes on all levels, but especially in the songs that Amy Adams’ fish-out-of-water royal dreamily coos to hardscrabble New Yorkers. A few years later, on ABC’s short-lived fantasy series Galavant, Menken contributed original songs that were less overtly deconstructive but still took a stab at injecting meta musicality into incongruous medieval situations. In 2016, Seth Rogen and the filmmakers of the animated raunchfest Sausage Party had Menken roast his opening-number style with an R-rated musical number about a village of foods unknowingly celebrating their impending digestion. And as recently as 2018, the creative team behind Ralph Breaks the Internet made a similar plea, asking Menken to send up his signature princess “I want” ballads for a surprise showstopper from Sarah Silverman’s Vanellope when she discovers her true calling in a crime-infested street-racing videogame.

“I’ve been doing it to various degrees for quite a while now,” Menken says. “Part of it is that, starting with my earliest days working with Howard Ashman, I always had a real comfort level with familiar forms. I’m not intimidated by embracing a familiar form and what’s familiar about it and making it my own. It is, I think, one of my gifts.”

Even, he says, if the familiar form is his own. “There are a lot of times where I’m asked to do something that’s a wink to myself, and that’s partly a wink at Menken but it’s also just a wink at simply something specific and my approach to doing that. There are parts of it that are an intangible. But I know what they’re asking for, and they certainly make it easier when they choose a piece of music from my catalogue and I go, ‘Okay, I know exactly what you’re after. I’ll give it to you.’” (To the point of Ralph Breaks the Internet, for instance, music director Tom MacDougall and co-director Phil Johnston even began writing to a cut piece of music from Enchanted that Menken would ultimately rework into the resulting “A Place Called Slaughter Race.”)

Marc Flores © 2018 Disney

Menken doesn’t begrudge any of the self-reflection. He might, had he stopped scoring original projects entirely, but his work has never ceased to evolve and develop over the decades, both in the spheres that earnestly lean into the style he’s known for (like Newsies and Tangled) and ones that decidedly do not (A Bronx TaleLeap of Faith, and Sister Act on Broadway). And he’s certainly gotten used to the constituent demands of authoring a Disney classic: the responsibility to the subsequent Broadway shows, and the shows On Ice, or the shows at the theme parks and on the cruise ships, and the anniversaries and the re-releases and the DVD reissues and the re-releases of the reissues of the DVDs for the anniversaries.

Yet the ride is still finding new turns, particularly thanks to the advent of Disney’s live-action remakes of its animated originals. Another wave of self-meditation is now heading the composer’s way, and if one half of Menken has recently been asked to poke fun at his own work, the other half is now being asked to meticulously re-invent it. After the success of 2017’s live-action Beauty and the Beast, for which Menken scored and wrote new songs, a second slate of remakes sprang up from the studio, including two of Menken’s biggest hits. Aladdin flies in first, and the composer is currently in the throes of writing new music for Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the Arabian fairy tale with La La Land songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Then, once director Rob Marshall comes up for air from Mary Poppins Returns, the director will head underwater with Menken (and Sebastian superfan Lin-Manuel Miranda) for a live-action go at The Little Mermaid. (“It’s about a woman finding her voice,” Marshall recently told EW. “A girl finding her voice, actually. And that immediately just felt like an interesting, timely piece that resonated with us.”)

Though the road back to the ’90s is well-trod for Menken, the new partnerships are not; in fact, they’re downright galvanizing. “Lin-Manuel Miranda went to school with my niece, and my sister, as Lin was growing up, would say, ‘There’s this boy, Lin-Manuel, and he’d like you to sign this poster, he’s such a big fan!’” Menken recalls. “Pasek and Paul, my daughter told me about when they were going to school at the University of Michigan. I wrote [Frozen composer] Bobby Lopez’s recommendation letter for college!”

It’s become a repeated pattern in Menken’s life: getting into a room with writers who worship at the altar of Menken and Ashman, who got into the business because of them, who are adding to a canonical Disney musical foundation that they, and Tim Rice and Glenn Slater and Michael Kosarin and Stephen Schwartz and all of Menken’s storied collaborators, have helped to build. “They literally grew up on the songs that we wrote and the things we did, and in a way, they’re my children,” he says, which only makes it more special for Menken to see writers like Lopez and Miranda shepherding the music for nascent additions like Anna, Elsa, and Moana. “Disney could not have reached out to people who were more connected to my own heart and my own history than those writers. It certainly makes passing the torch a lot easier when you know the people you’re passing the torch to are kind of your own offspring, so to speak, creatively.”

And yet, Menken isn’t ready to pass a torch. Not at the moment, at least. “But to share the torch, yes,” he confirms. “You have to. It’s a thing that every writer goes through. Can you imagine how actors go through it? It would be magnified to the nth degree, when someone is the new so-and-so. But you’ve got to get used to that, especially as a writer. And at any rate, I reconciled myself long ago that I was not going to write all the Disney pieces. I’m really blessed that my work has had this kind of an afterlife, or a second or third life, rather, and that I’m doing expansions of things I’ve already done, and God knows there’s a lot more to come… but I wouldn’t mind having something new as well.”

Everett Collection

Menken’s immediate future does appear to be a bit of a mixed bag, a little “something new” part and parcel with a little “things I’ve already done.” But it’s a balancing act Menken has accepted. On the one hand, he’s got another Disney musical coming to Broadway (as yet unannounced) as well as the upcoming film Disenchanted, a long-in-the-works Enchanted sequel that will deconstruct his style once more. But there’s also an original musical in the works that reunites him with Harvey Fierstein and Jack Feldman, the writers who ended up cracking the long-uncrackable Newsies for the stage, and there’s no lack of other defunct past projects that Menken still thinks about one day remounting: a musical based on Damon Runyon’s Little Pinks “that I never quite figured out how to make work,” for instance, or his infamous oratorio about King David that “was so earnest and emotional and heart on the sleeve, and I’ve never been so trashed by critics in my life.” He hopes both may one day live again.

But Menken is stumped when asked what he hasn’t had a chance to do yet. “Part of the job is knowing how to use this medium in the most effective way for the story you’re telling, so for me to pick a genre I want to do is a little harder. I would say it’s more about thinking: What genre will work for what kind of story? And then, when all of that comes, I embrace it and run with it.”

What he craves are the epiphanies — and whether they come as an ambitious 25-year-old songwriter in New York creating something new for the first time, or a seasoned 69-year-old Disney Legend revisiting the very creations that made him famous, the rush is the same. Menken is a great storyteller of the creative decisions that helped spark his biggest successes — like realizing that singing about gods meant the characters should be singing gospel music in Hercules, or deciding with Ashman that a hot crustacean Caribbean band would actually be right at home in The Little Mermaid’s ambiguously European mid-1800s coastal kingdom.

“I’ve said for a long time, my favorite part of my career is when I’m creating a new thing where I’m pulling from a new place,” Menken concludes. “I pride myself in being somebody who will go and create, say, a calypso score, or a French musical, or a Latin liturgy, or a Native American sound, or gospel music, or whatever it is. The things I tend to do best are the things that are the most overtly emotional, whether it’s sentimental or whether it’s celebratory or whether it’s conflicted. So it’s a little strange, but I just add it to the genre that is Menken being Menken.”

It’s a genre that filmmakers request, but seem to have trouble putting their finger on to define. But perhaps that’s only because its creator isn’t done defining it yet.

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