Legendary Disney Composer On Beauty And The Beast And The Aladdin Song He Had To Fight For
Few people have left a more indelible impression on our childhoods than Alan Menken. The eight-time Oscar-winning composer has not only inspired an entire generation of songwriters, but he’s also given us some of the most iconic Disney songs, from “A Whole New World” to “Be Our Guest.”
The memorable music of Menken and the late Howard Ashman largely contributed to Disney Animation’s unlikely (and unparalleled) success in the 1990s. But the enchanting music of Beauty and the Beast sits atop Menken’s many accomplishments, even 25 years later.
Menken’s music from Beauty and the Beast lives on in Bill Condon’s magical live-action remake, out on Blu-ray and DVD now. We chatted with Menken about the process of writing new music for the record-breaking film, working with Guy Ritchie on the upcoming live-action Aladdin, and what made Disney’s Renaissance era so special.
I listen to a song like “Evermore,” and it sounds so cinematic. I’m not sure if that would have worked in animation. Is there a distinction between a song for an animated film and a song for a live-action film?
Alan Menken: Not really. It has to do with the director. I was collaborating with Bill Condon on Beauty and the Beast, and now my collaborator is Guy Ritchie on Aladdin. I’m trying to move the score in certain ways, either overtly or with nuance, toward his sensibility, which I always enjoy. But it’s more a matter of the the director’s vision. If a director came along who wanted to do a broad comedy, that would necessitate one kind of song. If a director came aboard who wanted the film to be much more sly and pop, that would need a different kind of score. So I walk a line between protecting what I did before and also adjusting it to work with a new director.
Does having a director who’s less familiar with the musical genre change the dynamic?
It’s a difference. It doesn’t mean one is better than the other because I think we could end up with something amazing with Guy Ritchie. I’m getting to know him now, and I’m really enjoying working with him. Certainly, anybody who comes to musicals for the first time has a little bit of suspicion, like, I don’t want it to sound like just a regular old Broadway musical, which I understand. I like that. Often my best work comes from somebody trying to stretch me in a direction that I wouldn’t normally want to go in. It’s not something I fight at all. I don’t know who the director of [The Little Mermaid] will be, but I’m sure that will be a different process. My main concern is always to be a good collaborator and I want them to want me in the room. I don’t want to be dogmatic about it.
Is it a similarly collaborative process when you’re working on an animated film?
It’s very collaborative, but it’s different. In animation, the directors are part of a huge team of animators who all have opinions too. It’s a much more democratic process. Also, the animation executives oversee things more. Live-action films are very much a director’s medium, and that director is going to be a very strong voice, a stronger individual voice than you’d have in animation.
Speaking of all of those executive voices in animation, I know “Part of Your World” was nearly cut from The Little Mermaid because it originally didn’t test well. Were there any other iconic songs that you had to fight to keep in your films?
I had to fight to get Aladdin singing, “Riff-raff, street rat, I don’t buy that…” They were like, “Just have him say that!” I was like, “No, no, no. We need the moment.” I love working with [directors] John Musker and Ron Clements, so it’s never really a fight with them, but I really felt strongly that I wanted that. This worked out for the best, but we had a beautiful song in Hercules that we ended up cutting called “The Shooting Star.” We needed something that was more of a masculine “I Want” song as opposed to something for a sensitive lad. But we’re used to those things. That’s what we do.
At first we lost the love song from Pocahontas, “If I Never Knew You,” and then in the rerelease of the movie we got it back in. But I was at the screening where everyone was afraid to say, “Alan, the movie’s dragging at that point.” I was the one who actually suggested taking it out because that’s our job. We have to make sure the whole movie works.
I remember as a kid not liking “The Mob Song” very much because it was scary, but in the live-action version, it actually took on an entirely new meaning for me. It’s one of those songs that I can appreciate more because I’m an adult.
That’s all Howard. Howard Ashman was an amazing lyricist and an amazing artist. If you go back and listen to the original “Mob Song,” which actually had more lyrics than the one in the movie, you’ll hear some amazing lyrics in there. Anything that Howard Ashman does, it goes deep.
I know it was important to you to preserve a lot of his work, but you also dug into the archives to try and unearth unused lyrics.
We dug deep! I was so happy we got in some of the outtake lyrics from Beauty and the Beast at the end of the movie. We got in some lyrics from “Gaston.” In “The Mob Song,” there’s a couple of lines that I rewrote because we wanted to show LeFou’s disapproval of Gaston. I do those things with a great deal of trepidation, but if someone has to do it, it should be me rather than someone else.
Are you taking a similar approach with the Little Shop of Horrors movie? Obviously, Howard’s lyrics are so precious.
I’m protective of it, and at the same time, there’s a mountain of other material that we wrote that would be interesting to get in. On Little Shop, Greg Berlanti is the director, and he and I have really not had a chance to talk about that. So we haven’t embarked on that, but it’s definitely coming soon. Same thing with The Little Mermaid. I had one preliminary meeting with Lin-Manuel Miranda and [producer] Marc Platt, and we’re going to be getting into that probably in the fall. There’s nothing specific yet. In every case I have to walk a line between protecting and also expanding, and you make judgment calls every step of the way.
A lot of really accomplished songwriters—from Lin-Manuel Miranda to newly minted Oscar winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul to Frozen duo Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez—have credited you and Howard Ashman, particularly your early work with Disney, with inspiring them to write music.
I had close connections to each of them before they made it. Either it’s a coincidence, or there’s some magical thing happening. I knew Bobby Lopez through my sister. He went to the same school my niece went to, and I would hear about Bobby Lopez and how talented he was. He actually at one point wanted to be my assistant, but I didn’t need an assistant at the time. As I remember, I wrote one of his recommendation letters for college.
And Lin was crazy about The Little Mermaid, just rabid over it, and I signed his poster when he was a kid. Now, of course, we’re collaborating on the live-action The Little Mermaid. He’ll be writing lyrics for me. With Benj and Justin, my daughter went to University of Michigan, and I met them there first in Ann Arbor. Now I’ve gotten quite close to them. It’s really gratifying that they have that much respect for Howard and for me.
What do you think it is about that Disney Renaissance era that has inspired this generation of songwriters, who now all happen to be working with Disney?
It was an incredible period. We were bringing a blend of theater and pop to a medium that everyone thought was dead. And then it came back to life. It magnified everything that we did. A song like “Under the Sea,” if it wasn’t for animation, it probably would be some cabaret song in some club—a clever little tune and that’s it—as opposed to becoming an Oscar winner. The opportunity was so huge because it was animation and because it was Disney.
You’ve had an incredibly prolific career as a songwriter and composer, but what was the first song you ever wrote?
It was probably an awful song! My sister did a commedia dell’arte show when she was in college, and she asked me, the little brother, to write the songs. I remember I wrote a song that went [singing], “Why am I so lonely? / I wish I knew / My thoughts are so confused / I don’t know what to do / If she’d give me only one little clue / As I stare at her from above / Am I falling in love?” It was very, very basic—moon, June, above, love, glove, whatever.
Some of my early songs were also influenced by Bob Dylan. I wrote a song, [singing in a very Bob Dylan voice] “She’s gone, and I want to die / Though I’m living a lie / She’d have stayed if only I had asked / But I know I can’t live in the past.” I think I was 11 years old when I wrote that, so I had very little past to live in. But that’s how we develop as songwriters. We imitate. That’s what we do.