Great music has the power to define times, places and generations.
It would be hard to find a composer that has touched more hearts than Alan Menken. Along with the late lyricist Howard Ashman, he scored and wrote songs in acclaimed Disney animated films such as “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin” as well as Broadway shows such as “Little Shop of Horrors.” With 12 Grammys, eight Academy Awards and seven Golden Globes under his belt, Menken is a legend.
Queens College students had the opportunity to talk to Menken via web-cam during Professor Peter Calandra’s film scoring course at the Aaron Copland School of Music.
Calandra worked with Menken during the off-Broadway run of “Little Shop of Horrors” where he served as pianist, conductor and musical director of the production. This connection made Menken an obvious choice as a guest for the film scoring class.
Calandra connected his laptop to a classroom projector, bringing Menken right into the classroom.
“I think everyone grew up on your music,” Calandra said to Menken, referring to his work in Disney films.
He first became involved with Disney in the late ’80s through Ashman, Menken said. Michael Eisner, CEO and chairman of Disney at the time, was looking for young talent who could adapt theatrical works. When Ashman met with Eisner and his associates they presented him with three potential films: A Tina Turner biography, an animated version of “The Thief of Baghdad” and an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid”. Ashman chose the latter and asked Menken to collaborate.
“The Little Mermaid,” which just celebrated its 25th anniversary, turned things around for Disney, Menken said.
“Disney was in the doldrums then,” Menken said. “Our assignment was to write a musical that could sit on the shelf with the other Disney classics.”
However, the film was different in its original conception, Menken said. Sebastian, the uptight Jamaican crab with a flair for conducting, was originally supposed to be a stuffy English butler type. Once they decided to make the character Jamaican, the score and many songs became inspired by calypso.
Menken and Ashman continued this method by writing “Beauty and the Beast” as a “French musical,” Menken said. While “Under the Sea” was the big calypso production number in “Mermaid,” the song-writing team created “Be Our Guest” with the French theme in mind.
“You should be able to say ‘it is the blank musical,’” said Menken.
Over the years Menken had to opportunity to adapt the music in the films into Broadway shows. “Beauty and the Beast” ran on Broadway from 1994 to 2007, establishing its place as the eighth longest running Broadway show in history. In recent years, Disney has dominated Broadway with “The Lion King,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Newsies” and, most recently, “Aladdin.”
When bringing a show to Broadway, he is able to write new songs and include some that may have been cut from the films, Menken said.
“Proud of Your Boy,” originally written by Ashman and Menken for “Aladdin,” was added into the 2014 Broadway production. When Aladdin’s mother was cut from the film, the team made the decision to cut the song as well. The song meant a lot to Ashman, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1991, Menken said. However, his last song lives on Broadway.
Menken continues to write music for Disney today. Most recently he worked on the stage adaptation of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which is running at La Jolla Playhouse in California.
He was also involved with “Galavant,” a musical-comedy television show slated to premiere on ABC next year.
Despite his awards and critical acclaim, Menken remains a down to earth man with a pure love of music. He lives in Westchester, N.Y., with his wife of 43 years.
He answered a few questions from students, while also giving them advice on breaking into the music industry.
“Piracy has so greatly eaten away at what I make,” Menken said.
He also referenced programs like Spotify that make it difficult for musicians to make money. Menken said that live music is where the money is.
However, many students remain set on pursuing careers as musicians no matter how much money they make.
Senior vocal performance major Nathalie Escudero was one of many students inspired by Menken’s music in the Disney films.
“One of the reasons I decided to become a musician was because of Disney,” Escudero said.