Walt Disney Records is 60 years old this year. To kick off the celebration, Alan Menken appeared in a special evening of conversation and song at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles on Wednesday, June 1. Hosted by Scott Goldman, vice-president of the Grammy Foundation and MusiCares, “An Evening with Alan Menken” was held in the museum’s Clive Davis Theater.
In his introduction, Goldman mentioned that Menken had won eleven Grammys, eight Oscars, and a Tony Award. He also brought up his next project, which Menken described as a “thing this weekend at the Hollywood Bowl.” He jokingly referred to it as his "Little Mermaid Variety Show." Various guest artists would perform all the songs from the movie, as well as an added song from the Broadway production, "Her Voice." “I love that song,” Menken said, “Even though I wrote it.” He said he was looking forward to performing a special medley for the 19,000 audience members that were expected that Saturday night.
Goldman kicked off the discussion of Menken’s career with Disney by discussing his own childhood adoration of Disneyland. What of Disney, he wondered, had the biggest impact on young Alan Menken. Without hesitation, Menken said he was struck by Fantasia, with its intersection of classical music and animation. “It was incredible,” he marveled. He also spoke of growing up with Pinocchio and Dumbo, before moving on to The Beatles and Bob Dylan. And then, you have kids, he said. Watching the classic Disney films with his own children made him realize what a safe place they were.
When credited with having a large part in reinvigorating that “safe place,” Menken said, “Music is a language.” In the Disney musicals, he went on, songs were integral in pushing forward stories. “You can credit me,” he concluded, “But you’ve really got to credit Howard Ashman.” At the mention of his late collaborator’s name, the audience broke into applause.
They met at the WPA Theater in New York City. Two early collaborations were an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and Little Shop of Horrors. Menken described Ashman as a daunting figure—a triple threat who wrote the book, composed the lyrics, and was the director. But, Menken pointed out, it freed him up to concentrate on the music. He also joked, “Right now I’m working on six things and I’m exhausted. I don’t recommend it.”
When asked about key elements in creating a musical, Menken said that for him every show needed an “I want” moment that was expressed in song. For Eliza Doolittle (My Fair Lady) it was "Wouldn’t It Be Loverly" (“All I want is a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air.”). For Audrey (Little Shop of Horrors) it was "Somewhere That’s Green." For Quasimodo (Hunchback of Notre Dame) it was "Out There." Get this to an audience early, advised Menken, and then go along on the journey with them.
Goldman asked about the difference between stage musicals and film musicals. On Broadway, Menken said, the composer is king. In films, the process requires the composer to be able to step aside. His advice: “Get out of your own way.” Nowhere, he said, was this more evident than in the underscoring. This is a matter of knowing when to be the squeaky wheel, and when to shut up. “It’s not about me,” he said, “I have to write like the character.”
In discussing the extensive demos that he and Ashman created for their film scores, Menken spoke of using various pieces of hardware, ranging from the early Apple SE30 through to the MIDI Performer. They would do full performances with music and dialogue to illustrate exactly what they were seeking. In some cases, they would try different versions of the same material. When Angela Lansbury received her first demo of Beauty and the Beast, Menken said, she was sent a pop version he had done. After she expressed doubts, they hastily provided her with Ashman’s warm cockney version. This was the one that inspired the memorable “one take” performance with the New York Philharmonic.
Menken also spoke of his reservations with Robin Williams as the Genie. The song "Friend Like Me" was supposed to be a Fats Waller piece and he was convinced the comedian would not be able to pull it off. But after seeing Williams’ rehearsal regimen, and seeing him dutifully perform a full-on Waller version (with some Cab Calloway thrown in for good measure), Menken and the production team cut him loose for the memorable performance preserved in the film.
When the conversation turned to the subject of the “Disney Renaissance” of the 1980s, Menken quietly observed, “It was amazing.” Asked why audiences at that time responded so well to these film musicals (a genre that had been declared dead), Menken claimed, “There was a hunger for them.” He described it as a primal need, something that fulfills the child in each of us. He described the characters and stories in Disney musicals of that time as universal, compassionate, and interesting. “If you can go smoothly and directly at an emotion,” he concluded, “Go at it.”
As the evening wound down, Menken was asked to describe the impact of Howard Ashman on their collaborations. “Howard was the greatest musical theater talent of our generation,” he said simply. As he described specific songs and lyrics they shared, he choked up, concluding, “I learned so much from Howard.”
After a short audience question and answer period, Alan Menken performed a medley he had written specifically for his Hollywood Bowl performance. It went beyond The Little Mermaid and even beyond his Disney films.
Here is the list of the songs in the medley, and the source of each:
Little Shop of Horrors
- "Little Shop of Horrors"
- "Somewhere That’s Green"
- "Suddenly Seymour"
- "Friend Like Me"
- "Prince Ali"
- "A Whole New World"
- "King of New York"
- "Seize the Day"
- "Santa Fe"
- "Happy Working Song"
- "That’s How You Know"
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
- "The Bells of Notre Dame"
- "Out There"
Home on the Range
- "Will the Sun Ever Shine Again"
- "Colors of the Wind"
- "Zero to Hero"
- "Go the Distance"
Captain America: The First Avenger
- "Star Spangled Man"
- "When Will My Life Begin?"
- "Mother Knows Best"
- "I See the Light"
Beauty and the Beast
- "Be Our Guest"
- "Beauty and the Beast"
The Little Mermaid
- "Part of Your World"
- "Kiss the Girl"
- "Poor Unfortunate Souls"
- "Under the Sea"
- "Part of Your World (reprise and finale)"