Alan Menken brought Broadway to Disney’s animated films. Now he’s bringing Disney back to Broadway — among other things.
Composer Alan Menken is living the fairy-tale existence of many of his musical subjects. An eight-time Oscar-winning composer with numerous film credits and multiplatinum soundtracks under his belt, he has become ubiquitous with the second golden age of Disney animation, which he helped kick-start by collaborating with the late lyricist Howard Ashman on music for the breakthrough triumvirate of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. By bringing Broadway sensibilities to animated Disney films (he and Ashman composed the Off Broadway hit Little Shop of Horrors), Menken not only reinvigorated the films, he also inspired the company to stage them on the Great White Way and in theaters around the globe. That clever move reaped big bucks for the studio and has created an even stronger brand for the selected titles.
Just because he’s made a huge mark, however, does not mean he’s resting on his laurels. Having done a number of other Disney films since then, Menken is currently juggling no fewer than four projects: the semianimated, Roger Rabbit–style musical film Enchanted, due out in November; the ’70s-flavored, bound-for-Broadway musical rendition of the Whoopi Goldberg movie Sister Act; his gospel musical Leap of Faith, to be directed by Taylor Hackford; and the upcoming Broadway staging of The Little Mermaid, which will feature many new songs and which is currently undergoing its test run at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. When he had time to come up for air, the congenial, loquacious Menken spoke about his fun but frenzied life.
How do you keep from burning out? I think I’ve already gotten past it. I don’t know what burnout would look like. If burnout is coming into my house, nearly falling over sideways, and saying I can’t talk to another person, and then falling asleep on the couch — then I’m burned out. But somehow, the next morning I get up and go, “Okay, what do I have to do today?” And I will say honestly that my songs and music are not suffering. I think this is the best work I’ve ever done in my career, so I’m hanging in there.
How are they going to stage The Little Mermaid on Broadway? You know, I have no idea how they’re going to do it. They’ve described it to me, and I’ve seen the set and understand the plans, but I’ve got to see it to believe it. If it works, it’s going to be spectacular and really unusual. And if it doesn’t … whew!
With Broadway shows being more than two hours long, you’re writing a lot of new material, especially as the original movie is only 80 minutes long. The shorter, the better for the animated. And, by the way, the shorter, the better on Broadway too. Nobody wants to sit through a three-hour musical. I don’t care if it’s Les Mis or anything.
Everything’s getting epic these days. It is, but people still appreciate the 90-minute musical, like Little Shop of Horrors. We’re trying to cut down Sister Act into a lean, mean, entertainment machine. And, by the way, we’ve gotten wonderful reviews out of town. Sister Act is a very funny and tight musical. In every case, you really have to emphasize tightness.
Didn’t you work with Alice Cooper on a stage project? Alice Cooper and I started working years ago on a theatrical-concert idea that was the seven deadly sins according to Alice Cooper. It was called Alice’s Deadly Seven. It was a concept of Rob Roth, who directed the stage version of Beauty and the Beast and of Aida. He and I have a Busby Berkeley project that has been pitched for years as a big Las Vegas–style production, and it may happen in the next couple of years. Rob brought Alice and me together.
We got in a room and started working on this material. Alice wrote the lyrics, and I wrote the music. I did the demos, and we both sang parts of these. He would take my demos, and a couple of times, he came back with the demos he had done with members of Guns N’ Roses. It just never went any further. I think Alice is waiting until the record label he’s working with is ready to really do this right. This is one of those old-fashioned, big, fat concept albums. One of these days, if we stay healthy and live long enough, we’ll do it.
You went to my alma mater, NYU, which bought up much of the East Village, especially along 14th Street, where the Palladium club used to be. I saw the Stones there. They were promoting “Satisfaction.” That was their big single. It was almost like an R&B show. [Sings the riff] They would finish the song, Mick would go offstage, and the remaining Stones would still be onstage [playing]. Mick would towel off and then come back on. It was pretty amazing.
Are your daughters following in your path as an artist? My younger daughter, Nora, graduated from the Interlochen Arts Academy, which is up in the wilds of Michigan. It is a wonderful art school and one of the best in the country. She is about to go to college to study musical theater. My older daughter would be graduating [from college] now, but she’s taking a leave of absence to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter and is doing really well. Her professional name is Anna Rose, and she performs in clubs in Los Angeles. She has a band situation out there, and she’s putting together a band here in New York. She’s hitting it on all cylinders.
Is there a dream project you’d like to do someday? I suppose one of my dream projects is to put all my songs together in a concert or a package. Maybe I could go out and perform them myself. I’m very happy with where my career has ended up, but if there’s anything that I’d want to do now, I suppose it would be to find a way to bring my songs under the same umbrella with my performances of them. I just don’t know if anyone really wants to see a 58-year-old guy rock out.
Another thing I might want to do is work in a more operatic medium, where it’s more purely artistic, where I’m not writing so much to a directly commercially based medium. Something that I’m more able to fully conceive as I want it and have it performed and appreciated on its own merits and not put out there as something that has to earn $100 million at the box office.
That’s always a challenge. It is. But I don’t lie awake at night thinking about what I want to do. At the moment, what I want to do is get to my house in the Caribbean and have a rum and put on some suntan lotion for extended periods. But I’m going to have to wait a good deal of time before that can happen.