Some 40 years after the halcyon days of animated films, best exemplified by Walt Disney’s Pinocchio and Dumbo, a new golden age of the form has arisen, prompted by Disney’s own The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), and Aladdin (1992). “Commerce has overwhelmed art, which is why Hollywood movies aren’t as good as they used to be,” Walt Disney Pictures chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg told Janet Maslin of the New York Times. “The process has been corrupted. It is too much about money and not enough about good entertainment.” With these films, however, Disney has freed itself from this corruption, wedding popular appeal with artistic filmmaking. At the creative heart of this accomplishment, beyond the lush visual imagery that fills the screen, lie the aurally captivating scores of Alan Menken.
With his lyricist/partner Howard Ashman, Menken created songs that are not only toe-tapping and memorable, but, in the best theatrical tradition, help advance the story and provide audiences with a deeper insight into the characters who sing them. Before Ashman’s death from AIDS, in 1991, Menken and Ashman “seemed to many critics the most promising writing team to emerge in the [previous] decade,” David J. Fox observed in the Los Angeles Times, “demonstrating the ability to adapt familiar styles while infusing the idiom with a revitalizing freshness.”
Born and raised in New Rochelle, New York, Menken began his creative exploration at the piano at age six. “I was very small and a late developer,” he told People’s Elizabeth Sporkin. “I would yearn and dream at the piano. I would go off into other worlds.” As a child he also studied the violin. But when Menken attended New York University, he began with a major in pre-med—his father was a dentist. He disliked the curriculum, however, and eventually graduated with a degree in music.
Menken’s life as a composer and musician after college consisted of performing in clubs and accompanying ballerinas at practice (one of whom eventually became his wife) at the Hebrew Arts Center in New York City. He soon began taking musical-theater workshop classes at the licensing agency Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) while pursuing a career writing advertising jingles. In 1978 Menken met Ashman—then an aspiring playwright and director of the BPI Theater—through their classes together at BMI with legendary Broadway conductor Lehman Engel.
For the Record…
Born in 1949 in New Rochelle, NY; son of Norman (a dentist) and Judith (a housewife) Menken; married wife Janis (a ballet dancer), 1972; children: Anna, Nora. Education: New York University, B.Mus.; attended musical-theater workshops at Broadcast Music, Inc.
Performed in clubs and accompanied ballet dancers at Hebrew Arts Center, New York City; wrote advertising jingles; teamed with lyricist Howard Ashman, 1979. Composer of musicals, including God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, 1979; Little Shop of Horrors, 1982; The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, 1987; and Weird Romance, 1992. Composer of film scores, including Little Shop of Horrors, 1986; The Little Mermaid, 1989; Beauty and the Beast, 1991;Newsies, 1992; and Aladdin, 1992. Also composed score for television documentary Lincoln, 1992.
Selected awards: Academy awards for best original score, 1989, for The Little Mermaid, 1991, for Beauty and the Beast, and 1992, for Aladdin; for best original song, 1989, for “Under the Sea,” from The Little Mermaid (with Howard Ashman), 1991, for “Beauty and the Beast,” from Beauty and the Beast (with Ashman), and 1992, for “A Whole New World,” from Aladdin (with Tim Rice). Grammy awards for best recording for children, 1990, for The Little Mermaid soundtrack (with Ashman); best song written specifically for a motion picture or for television, 1990, for “Under the Sea” (with Ashman); best instrumental composition written for a motion picture or for television, for Beauty and the Beast instrumental score; best song written specifically for a motion picture or for television, for “Beauty and the Beast” (with Ashman); and best album for children, for Beauty and the Beast (with Ashman), all 1993.
Addresses: Office—19 Lily Pond Ln., Katonah, NY 10536.
Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. The production was not a success, a fate that befell several other works by both men immediately thereafter. Menken was “on the verge of giving up theater to do jingles,” as he related to Stephen Holden in the New York Times, when Ashman proposed doing a musical adaptation of Roger Corman’s 1960 horror-comedy film about a flower shop owner who raises a man-eating plant, The Little Shop of Horrors. The resulting 1982 musical was a surprise success, running for a few years Off-Broadway before an equally successful movie version was produced in 1986. The Chicago Tribune’s Richard Christiansen, in a review presaging the team’s trademark, praised the “musical’s rare combination of sweet innocence and sophisticated wit [that] makes it appeal to audiences on many levels.”
It was, perhaps, this combination that also appealed to Disney’s Katzenberg, who offered Menken and Ashman a list of projects in the late 1980s. Their first choice, an animated musical version of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Little Mermaid, surprised Katzenberg, but Menken and Ashman’s singular technique soon convinced him. “In approaching the animated musicals, we did everything as if we were writing a stage show,” Menken explained to LA. Times contributor Fox. “You still have to stage these characters. They have to be able to hold the moment, whether animated or live. And just because people have gotten away with throwing a song under a scene ... that doesn’t mean that the song is really working theatrically.”
Judging by Stanley Kauffmann’s New Republic review of The Little Mermaid, in which he contented that “those old enough to remember Pinocchio and Snow White are not likely to get as much fun out of The Little Mermaid as newcomers to Disney,” Mermaid’s audiences were apparently all newcomers: The film handily broke the “animation barrier,” pulling in a record $84 million in domestic box office sales. The soundtrack recording, with its “hybrid of calypso, Brecht-Weill, and sea [shanties],” as described by New York Times contributor Holden, went platinum—selling over one million copies—just nine weeks after the movie debuted. Menken won an Academy Award for best original score and shared another Oscar with Ashman for best original song for the jaunty “Under the Sea.”
But the awards carry a bitter memory for Menken. A few days after the 1990 Academy Awards ceremony, Ashman told Menken he was HIV-positive. The duo had already begun work on an animated version of the eighteenth-century French fairy tale Beauty and the Beast. Imminent tragedy gave their work an even greater focus and depth, and the resulting 1991 film— Disney’s 30th full-length animated feature—became the company’s then-most successful animated film. “Beauty and the Beast is an unabashed homage to half a century of Broadway’s best,” Jeremy Gerard declared in Variety, “unfolding like an operetta but building in its power exactly like the Golden Age shows of the ’40s and ’50s.” Gerard went on to compare Menken’s score to the works of revered composers Richard Rodgers, Frederick Loewe, and Leonard Bernstein. Katrine Ames, in her review in Newsweek, was equally effusive, stating that the film “has the best songs of any Disney movie since Lady and the Tramp (1955) and the best, most sophisticated score since Sleeping Beauty (1959)—and that was adapted from Tchaikovsky.”
The adulation and awards that followed—including a repeat of the best score and best song Oscars—did little to lift Menken’s spirits after his friend and collaborator’s death the previous spring. “We developed a shorthand,” Menken explained to Paul Freeman in Pulse! “But it never got to the point where it was easy because the standards were so high for both of us. It could sometimes be torture. But, in losing Howard, I lost a partnership that I knew for sure was capable of creating the best work imaginable.”
Having signed a seven-year deal with Walt Disney Studios in 1991 to write songs and scores for various features, Menken soldiered on. With lyricist Jack Feldman, he scored and composed songs for the 1992 Disney release Newsies, an ill-fated live-action musical. He also teamed up with lyricist David Spenser for the Off-Broadway production of a science fiction musical, Weird Romance.
But it was the November release of the Disney film Aladdin that garnered Menken the most attention in 1992. “From last year’s idyllic, arboreal, and altogether lovely Beauty and the Beast, Disney has sprung feet first into a rich and crazy bazaar spilling over with color, music, and characters,” Detroit Free Press movie critic Judy Gerstel observed. For this feature, Menken chose a musical mixture of traditional Arabic themes and 1940s American jazz styles. He had been able to complete three songs for the movie with Ashman, then finished the remaining numbers with lyricist Tim Rice, best known for his collaborations with Andrew Lloyd Webber on the musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. Aladdin outstripped even the phenomenal success of Beauty and the Best, registering record numbers at the box office and winning numerous awards.
1993 found Menken adapting Beauty and the Beast for the stage and completing the score and songs for Pocahontas, another animated Disney feature, set for release in 1994. It is through his association with Disney Pictures that Menken feels he is best contributing to the evolution of the theatrical musical. “People aren’t doing for stage what we are doing for film now,” he told Fox. “We might start considering that the musical has moved to film. ... I never received the kind of support from [stage] producers that I received from the people at Disney. They are the most supportive of dramatic truth— the story told through the songs.”
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (musical), 1979.
Little Shop of Horrors (musical), 1982; (film), 1986.
The Apprenticeship ofDuddy Kravitz (musical), 1987.
The Little Mermaid (film), 1989.
Beauty and the Beast (film), 1991.
Newsies (film), 1992.
Weird Romance (musical), 1992.
Aladdin (film), 1992.
Lincoln (television documentary), 1992.
Little Shop of Horrors, Geffen, 1986.
The Little Mermaid, Disney, 1989.
Beauty and the Beast, Disney, 1991.
Newsies, Disney, 1992.
Aladdin, Disney, 1992.
Lincoln, Angel, 1993.
Billboard, November 2, 1991.
Chicago Tribune, December 4, 1986.
Detroit Free Press, November 25, 1992.
Entertainment Weekly, December 4, 1992; February 5, 1993.
Los Angeles Times, November 15, 1991.
New Republic, December 25, 1989.
Newsweek, November 18, 1991.
New York Times, March 15, 1992; June 23, 1992; December 13, 1992.
People, December 16, 1991; April 27, 1992.
Pulse!, December 1992.
Time, November 9, 1992.
Variety, July 22, 1991; November 18, 1991.
Before the age of 50, composer Alan Menken (born 1949) had won eight Academy awards and four Grammys. His scores for the Walt Disney animated films of the 1990s as well as his success on the Broad way stage have some crediting him with the return of both genres. Disney seems convinced, as well, having asked Menken to prepare the score for all of their animated films as well as some live action features, over a ten year period.
Alan Menken was born on July 22, 1949 in New Rochelle, New York. He was interested in music from an early age and studied both piano and violin in high school. His musical tastes were broad in scope, and included classical, show tunes, rock, and folk. Menken enrolled at New York University in 1967 where, for a time, he took premed courses in order to please his parents. His true passion won out, however, and Menken decided to pursue a musical career. Following graduation, he worked as a songwriter and performed in some New York area clubs. He also wrote and sang commercial jingles.
Menken's career took a swift upswing after he attended the Lehman Engel Musical Workshop of Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI). Engel, a former Broadway pit-band conductor, had become a mentor of sorts for those aspiring to be a part of modern musical theater. The experience led him to playwright Howard Ashman. In 1978, Ashman chose Menken to collaborate with him on a musical version of Kurt Vonnegut's story, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater . BMI also showcased a number of Menken's musicals from 1971 to 1985.
An Off-Broadway Success
In 1982, Menken and Ashman revamped a 1960 Roger Corman cult film and turned it into the off-Broadway hit, Little Shop of Horrors. The show won Best Musical awards from the New York Drama Critics, the Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, and the London Evening Standard. In 1983, Menken received a BMI Career Achievement Award for his body of work for the musical theater, including: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Little Shop of Horrors, Real Life Funnies, as well as his various contributions to musical revues. The Little Shop of Horrors musical was turned into a successful Hollywood motion picture in 1986, directed by Frank Oz. The all-star cast included Rick Moranis, Steve Martin, John Candy and Bill Murray. The film's theme, Mean Green Mother From Outer Space, earned Menken an Academy Award Nomination for Best Song. Menken's father was the inspiration for Steve Martin's character in the film: a sadistic biker-dentist with a nitrous oxide habit. Menken's father was a respected area dentist and president of the American Analgesia Society, an organization that promoted the use of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) as a safe anesthetic.
Menken and Ashman paired up again for 1989's animated Disney hit The Little Mermaid. The show earned the duo their first Academy and Golden Globe Awards for Best Score and Best Song for Under the Sea. Two years later, the duo had another success with Disney's, Beauty and the Beast. Again, the two won the Academy and Golden Globe Awards for Best Score and Best Song. In the meantime, Menken and Ashman were gaining recognition for their sophisticated work from other quarters; some were even crediting them with the revitalization of the American movie musical.
"Of course there'd been songs—and wonderful songs—in Disney films from time immemorial," Stephen Schwartz, the lyricist for Pocahontas, told the Los Angeles Daily Times, "but I think Howard and Alan pioneered the sort of storytelling song idea. If you look at a number like "Belle" in Beauty and the Beast, or even "Poor Unfortunate Souls" in Little Mermaid, those are the kind of advance-the-plot, storytelling songs that you would use in a Broadway show."
For their next project, Ashman approached Disney with the idea of turning the story of Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp into a cartoon. Menken worked with Ashman to create a proposal, including a blueprint and the songs. Before this project had been completed Ashman passed away from AIDS-related complications. Tim Rice, librettist for Evita and Chess, was called upon to complete the work.. Menken and Rice were nominated for a Grammy Award for "A Whole New World (Aladdin's Theme)" in 1992. Because of the death of Ashman, recognition for this song was bittersweet. Menken told the Kansas City Star in 1997, "The enormity of AIDS' impact on the arts, what would today's theater be like today if we still had Michael Bennett and Howard Ashman and Steve Brown and countless other directors, choreographers and composers who are now gone? But I honestly think the loss of Howard Ashman is the biggest I can imagine. He had such a great command of style, storytelling and character."
In addition to his work for Disney, Menken worked on other successful film and music projects in the early 1990s. He wrote "The Measure of a Man," the theme song to Rocky V, recorded by Elton John in 1990. Two years later, he wrote the score for the ABC mini-series, Lincoln. He also collaborated with Jack Feldman on "My Christmas Tree" for Home Alone 2, and the Disney live-action musical film Newsies.
Back to Off-Broadway
Menken made a return to his off-Broadway roots in 1992 at the WPA Theater on West 23rd Street in New York. This was the theater where he and Ashman had collaborated to produce the score for Little Shop of Horrors ten years prior. Menken and Spencer collaborated to create the musical Weird Romance. The show, directed by Barry Harman, was performed in two acts, based on two science fiction stories. The first was The Girl Who Was Plugged In, by Alice B. Sheldon (written under the name James Tiptree Jr.), a sort of Pygmalion tale set in a future with robots. The second, Her Pilgrim Soul, by Alan Brennert, is a tragic love story about a dead woman who is reincarnated in hologram form to live the rest of her life through a computer. Brennert wrote the book for the musical as well.
Menken collaborated with Rice again in 1994 on the stage musical adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. He had recommended the project to Disney several times. Disney spent $12 million to put the show together, making it the most expensive Broadway musical until that time. Menken and Rice wrote eight new songs, in addition to the Menken-Ashman songs. The stage version was directed by Robert Jess Roth and choreographed by Matt West. Star singers Debbie Gibson and Toni Braxton both played the role of Belle; Gary Beach, who played Lumiere, was nominated for a Tony Award for his role. The musical received several Tony Award and Drama Desk Award nominations, including Best Musical, but was ultimately overshadowed by Stephen Sondheim's Passion. Critic Michael Grossberg of the Columbus Dispatch wrote, "Contrary to popular rumor, Lloyd Webber is not today's only mega-successful theatrical composer. Alan Menken expanded his score for Beauty and the Beast when the Disney-animated film was adapted into the lavish Broadway musical. Menken's songs with lyricist Tim Rice didn't quite measure up to Menken's lively, lovely work with his late partner, lyricist Howard Ashman, but Gaston's pompous ode to himself ("Me") ranks high as rousing musical comedy."
In 1995, Menken collaborated with Stephen Schwartz on the score for Disney's Pocahontas, and won the 1995 Academy Award for Best Score and Best Song as well as the Golden Globe Award for "Colors of the Wind," performed by Vanessa Williams. Menken told the Los Angeles Daily Times, "I would be less than honest if I didn't express a certain frustration when the animated projects are referred to as 'for kids.' They're not kids' music, and I get upset when someone comes up to me and goes: 'Alan Menken, it's nice to meet you. My three-year-old just loves your songs.' And I'm now able to translate that in my brain into, 'I love your songs."'
The next Menken-Schwartz collaboration for Disney was thought to be a little less suitable for children. Based on Victor Hugo's gothic 19th-century tale, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was darker than previous Menken projects, though Disney did brighten the plot considerably. Critic Susan Stark wrote in The Detroit News, "Like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, Hunchback will likely yield not one, but at least two best song Oscar nominations for Menken, plus a nomination for best score. Precedent says he'll win in both categories, which will make him the top Oscar winner of all time." Although the score was considered ambitious, it did not earn Menken a ninth Academy Award.
Menken's King David oratorio, with libretto by Tim Rice, was supposed to premiere in Jerusalem during the summer of 1996 as part of the Jerusalem 3000 celebrations. The show was not ready in time, however, so it opened a year later in New York in honor of Disney's New Amsterdam Theater on Broadway. Menken, Rice, and director Mike Ockrenthad had gone to Jerusalem in November 1994 to research the project. They met with biblical and archeological scholars in order to create a more authentic show. The resulting program, which opened to tepid reviews on May 18, 1997, was a two-hour-and-forty-five-minute epic covering the life of a shepherd-turned-king in Israel.
The following month, Disney's Hercules opened, with score by Menken and lyricist David Zippel. Michael Bolton was selected to sing the track, "Go the Distance" over the closing credits. Critics said the gospel music-inspired soundtrack was a return to the levity of Aladdin in this film about an Ancient Greek "nobody" who becomes a hero.
Recognition and Rewards
In 1998, at BMI's annual Film and Television Awards, the Richard Kirk Award was presented to Alan Menken for Outstanding Career Achievement. Menken also won a BMI Film Music Award for Hercules. Michael Eisner, Chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Company commented, "Alan, it is impossible to fully appreciate what you have achieved in just ten years. In that time, you have helped revive two great American institutions: the animated film and the Broadway musical. When historians write about this era of entertainment, you will be cited as one of the driving forces. Your talent, devotion and tireless energy have made our movies and our shows sing again."
In early 1998, Menken entered into a multi-million dollar agreement with Walt Disney Studios to compose songs and scores for their live-action and animated movies for the next ten years. He will be the exclusive composer for the animated films and will also be allowed to work on one non-Disney, live-action project every two years. This was one of the longest-term contracts in studio history.
Back to the Stage
In June 1999, Menken opened the stage version of Disney's Hunchback in Berlin. Matt Wolf commented in Variety, that this was the most sombre Disney stage show to date. "So why isn't the show as a whole more affecting?" Wolf asks. He concludes that Schwartz and Menken's score "tilts toward the generic." Menken has become philosophic about such criticisms. As he told the Hartford Courant, "Ironically, as you know, as we move forward in time, our culture is moving into a less sophisticated period musically. Were I to write a very beautiful, complicated, sophisticated melody, it would never have a snowball's chance of being heard."
In late 1999, Menken began collaborating with Alice Cooper, the original shock-rocker, on a project that was yet to be completely defined—it would be a Broadway show, a cartoon, or a rock show. Cooper told the San Diego Union-Tribune that the project was called Alice's Deadly Seven and was based on the Seven Deadly Sins. "This is probably the strangest combination since Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello," Cooper said. "(It's) got my words and Alan's melodies and both of us collaborating on arrangements. It's basically three quarters written, and it won't becoming out for two years."
Menken and his wife Janis, a former ballet dancer, reside in Katonah, New York with their two children.
Age, July 11, 1992.
Arizona Republic, February 28, 1999.
Austin American-Statesman, January 7, 1994.
Boston Globe, July 7, 1998.
Chicago Tribune, June 21, 1996.
Columbus Dispatch, December 18, 1994.
Daily Variety, January 23, 1997; May 20, 1997; February 6, 1998.
Detroit News, June 20, 1996.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram, November 24, 1992; February 19, 1998.
Hartford Courant, September 10, 1998.
Hollywood Reporter, May 13, 1998.
Jerusalem Post, June 6, 1997.
Kansas City Star, November 16, 1997.
Los Angeles Daily News, June 23, 1995.
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, February 17, 1998.
Newsday, June 18, 1992.
PR Newswire, April 2, 1997; May 14, 1998.
Palm Beach Post, October 11, 1998.
Record, (Northern New Jersey), May 10, 1992.
St. Petersburg Times, December 4, 1998.
San Diego Union-Tribune, September 2, 1999.
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, November 29, 1998.
Star-Ledger, (Newark, NJ), June 21, 1995.
Sun-Sentinel (Ft. Lauderdale), October 11, 1998.
Tennessean, November 7, 1999.
Times Union, (Albany, NY), May 11, 1997.
Tulsa World, August 29, 1999.
Variety, June 21, 1999.
Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Star, June 26, 1997.
Alan Menken -Biography, http://remus.rutgers.edu/~yurtim/menken/bio.html, (October 27, 1999).
Hollywood.com, http://www.hollywood.com/movietalk/celebrities/amenken/html/bios.html, (October 27, 1999).
Walt Disney Records: Biography of Alan Menken, http://disney.go.com/DisneyRecords/Biographies/Menken_Bio.html, (October 27, 1999).
Walt Disney Theatrical Productions -Bios: Alan Menken, http://disney.go.com./DisneyTheatrical/bios/alan.html?GL=H, (October 27, 1999). □
Composer. Nationality: American. Born: New Rochelle, New York, 22 July 1949. Education: New York University; Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. Family: Married to Janis, two children. Career: Contemplated a medical career before following his earliest ambition to be a musician and composer; performed in local clubs, as well as composing and writing advertising jingles during the mid 1970s; worked on several musicals, made his off-Broadway debut in 1979, his first teaming with Howard Ashman, on God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; 1986—Little Shop of Horrors, also with Ashman, marked his movie debut; 1989—first worked with Ashman for Disney on The Little Mermaid; 1993—reworked Beauty and the Beast for Broadway; 1994—debuted a new musical of Dickens' A Christmas Carol on Broadway; adapted Broadway style to various musical demands of Disney's most commercially successful films throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Awards: Academy Awards, The Little Mermaid, 1989; Beauty and the Beast, 1991; Aladdin, 1992; Pocahontas, 1995. Golden Globe Awards, The Little Mermaid, 1989; Beauty and the Beast, 1991; Aladdin, 1992; Pocahontas, 1995. Grammy Awards, The Little Mermaid, 1989; Beauty and the Beast, 1991; Aladdin, 1992; Pocahontas, 1995. New York Drama Critic's Award, The Drama Desk Award, the Outer Critic's Circle Award, The London Evening Standard Award for Best Musical for Little Shop of Horrors, 1986. BMI Career Achievement Award; Tony and Drama Desk Award for Beauty and the Beast, 1993; Razzie awards for Worst Original Song for Newsies, 1993, and Rocky v, 1991. Address: The Schukat Company, 340 West 55th Street, Apt. 1A, NY 10019–3744, U.S.A.
Films as Composer:
Little Shop of Horrors (Oz)
The Little Mermaid (Musker/Clements)
Rocky V (song only—Avildsen)
Beauty and the Beast (Trousdale/Wise)
Newsies (Ortega); Aladdin (Musker/Clements); Home Alone 2 (song only—Columbus)
Life with Mikey (Lapine)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Trousdale/Wise)
Hercules (Trousdale and Wise)
On MENKEN: articles—
The Hollywood Reporter (Hollywood), July 1991.
Teitelbaum, Sheldon, "Disney's Aladdin," in Cinefantastique (New York), 1 December 1992.
Soundtrack (London), March 1996.
Spaeth, Jeanne, "Alan Menken on Music's Many Forms," in Music Educator's Journal (Reston, Virginia), 1 November 1997
* * *
A graduate of the New York musical theatre, Alan Menken has benefitted from a financially and creatively fruitful association with the Walt Disney Studios. Reaching a peak of creativity at a time when the studio's lumbering animation division finally kicked into life again, Menken has composed some memorable music for films that are essentially the last musical outpost of modern Hollywood.
In a well-worn route to musical success, Menken performed in clubs and even contributed advertising jingles before he met his first significant collaborator, lyricist Howard Ashman. With Ashman Menken wrote God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, which met with some success when it opened off-Broadway. He remained devoted to the New York stage, providing music for theatre workshops, from the rock musical Battle of the Giants (Atina: Evil Queen of the Galaxy), to the more traditional Real Life Funnies, as well as countless reviews.
Teamed with Ashman once again, Menken achieved his first feature film success on Little Shop of Horrors, providing vibrant and larger-than-life music for Ashman's aggressively witty lyrics. For their efforts Menken and Ashman received several awards, as well as an Oscar nomination for the song "Mean Green Mother from Outer Space."
Further forays into the theatre, such as The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, were truncated by the beginning of his association with Disney. Hired to write the songs for The Little Mermaid, based on a Hans Christian Andersen story, Menken and Ashman came up with a selection that brought the film alive and carried the drama instead of simply interrupting it.
Inspired by the calypso tradition, the songs allowed for Ashman's typically witty and irreverent verbal gymnastics and became an integral part of the film's success, returning Disney to the forefront of musical films at a time when the genre was redundant. Menken and Ashman had succeeded where others had failed by finding a fine balance of catchy, amusing songs that offered insight into the characters' innermost thoughts. Other films had simply treated characters like marketing opportunities for the spin-off album.
Modern cinema audiences had proved wary of musicals, unwilling or unable to suspend their disbelief long enough for a song break within a comedy or a drama. Disbelief is so much more easily suspended when applied to an animated film where reality is stylised. Menken and Ashman consolidated their success with Beauty and the Beast, writing a collection of folksy, funny, traditional-sounding ballads—songs reminiscent of the contemporary American musical theatre.
Menken's working relationship with Howard Ashman was by no means exclusive; indeed, he recharged his creative batteries by working with many other lyricists, notably Jack Feldman on the schmaltzy "My Christmas Tree" in Home Alone 2 and on the illjudged but brave live-action musical Newsies. Unfazed by occasional disappointments, Menken worked on scoring television miniseries and contributing a song to Rocky V in collaboration with Elton John. He returned to Disney to work on Aladdin, and with Ashman wrote some of the most memorable songs of his career, in spite of Ashman's failing health and eventual death during production. Hurriedly teamed with Tim Rice, a British lyricist from a similarly theatrical tradition, Menken was sensitive to his new collaborator and his very different way of working. Together they came up with the remainder of the songs, including the Oscar-winning number "A Whole New World."
Such was the success of Disney's animated output that the studio decided the musicals should play on Broadway. Menken was the man responsible for adding songs, tweaking existing numbers and ensuring everything was in order musically. Beauty and the Beast subsequently opened to great acclaim.
Menken's niche at Disney has proved every bit as comfortable and familiar as the podium from which he annually collects his Academy Award. His precocious talents and prodigious output have dominated the Best Song category for several years.
Menken has continued to produce varied, good quality music with whomever he has been assigned to work. Broadway lyricist Stephen Schwartz worked with him on Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, while David Zippel was his collaborator on Hercules. Menken is happiest being involved in the collaborative process, which at Disney means that the songwriters are amongst the various talents involved in the earliest stages of story discussions. With the exhaustive 3-to-5-year production schedule that an animated film typically requires, this also allows more time for the songwriter and lyricist to produce exactly the right songs for the plot as it unfolds.
Given the contrasting nature of the projects, and Menken's own ability to mimic so many musical traditions and styles, there hardly seems a repeated note in his work. He admits that the challenge to produce something different invigorates him, and that is certainly the case with the relentlessly pounding beat of "Savages" in Pocahontas, and the over-the-top genie number "You Ain't Never Had a Friend Like Me" in Aladdin. Because of the scale of the success of Disney's output in the 1980s and 1990s, Menken's music has become familiar to audiences beyond cinema. An indication of his wider success is the popularity of ice-dance adaptations of Disney movies such as Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. In these live concerts, several of which have been recorded for TV and video, Menken's music is the backdrop for ice skating displays. Most recently, the skater Michelle Kwan starred in a performance entitled Michelle Kwan Skates to Disney's Greatest Hits, in which many of the musical numbers were composed by Menken. For Hercules, Disney's animated epic of 1997, Menken's music had to match the scale of the movie and its subject. True to form, he managed to come up with spectacular tunes to match the images on the screen.
These numbers and the hundreds of others like them are typically memorable, typically successful, and, by their impact and individualism, typically Menken.
—Anwar Brett, updated by Chris Routledge
Best-selling album since 1990: Aladdin (1992)
Composer Alan Menken has been a workhorse in the animated film industry. His toe-tapping, literate music breathed life into the once dead genre, resurrecting it to spectacular popularity. From time to time, Menken returns to his musical theater roots and achieves similar success.
Growing up in suburban New Rochelle, New York, about twenty-five minutes out of Manhattan, it was his parents' foregone conclusion that Menken would become a dentist. His father and many members of his immediate and extended family were all successful dentists. Menken did not have dental ambitions, but was influenced by the Menken family's love of music—particularly Broadway musicals. Menken studied piano and violin as a youngster and later attended New York University. He appeased his parents by studying pre-med before gravitating toward the prestigious university's music department. After graduating with a music degree, Menken supported himself by playing clubs and writing "jingles"—music for advertising campaigns. In 1978 he composed the music for an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, which played off-Broadway at New York's WPA Theatre. The show teamed Menken with playwright/lyricist Howard Ashman and initiated an exceptionally productive twelve-year creative partnership until it was interrupted by Ashman's death in 1991.
After several lukewarm stage forays, Menken met success in 1982 by combining his music with Ashman's lyrics to create, Little Shop of Horrors, a witty, off-the-wall show about a geeky flower shop owner and his array of man-eating plants. It became the third-longest running off-Broadway play in history and in 1986, Warner Bros. turned it into a successful film. Menken's song, "Mean Green Mother from Outer Space," written specifically for the film version of Little Shop of Horrors, received an Academy Award nomination for Best Song. More importantly, it brought his talent to the attention of Disney Studios who offered Menken and Ashman the opportunity to develop several animated film projects of their choosing.
Their first effort, The Little Mermaid (1989), was enormously well received, won two Academy Awards, and began a long string of successful Disney-produced animated films, marking a comeback for the studio and for the entire genre as well. It also began a string of Academy Awards for Menken. His next project was an eighteenth-century French tale called Beauty and the Beast (1991). The movie was so popular that Disney immediately made plans for its transformation into a Broadway musical. Nevertheless, Beauty and the Beast was shaded with sadness as Ashman died from complications of AIDS before the movie was released. In addition, the successful team had almost completed work on their third animated film, Aladdin (1992). Disney enlisted lyricist Tim Rice to finish the project. Rice, who was the librettist for Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar, also worked with Menken on the Broadway version of Beauty and the Beast, which opened in 1994 and featured eight new songs by Menken. Beauty and the Beast has had over 4,000 performances in its triumphant Broadway run.
Aladdin was even more successful than the previous two blockbuster films, and Menken continued reaping praise for his clever melodies that furthered the films' plot lines in the same way that theatrical musicals traditionally do. In 1992 he went back to the theater and collaborated with lyricist David Spencer on another off-Broadway success, Weird Romance. He also began work, with Lynn Ahrens as lyricist, on a new musical adaptation of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Story, which receives, since its opening in 1994, a two-month Christmas holiday performance every year in New York's Madison Square Garden Theater.
Over the next five years, Menken composed the music for an onslaught of Disney animated musicals, including Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), and Hercules (1997), all of which further contributed to his collection of eight Academy Awards. In 1998, Disney Studios offered Menken a ten-year multimillion-dollar contract to write music for their upcoming projects.
His Little Shop of Horrors, already one of the most widely produced plays in the world, circled back to New York and opened on Broadway in the summer of 2003. Additionally, Menken is at work with lyricist Glenn Slater to transform The Little Mermaid into a Broadway production. Along the way he has written songs for a number of other projects, most notably the theme for the film Rocky V (1990), and "The Measure of a Man" and "My Christmas Tree" from the hit movie Home Alone 2 (1992). A new Disney animated musical, Home on the Range, is scheduled for release in 2004. Billed as a comic western, it features Menken again teaming with Slater.
Menken's music will forever be considered a principal reason for the resurgence of animated films. He was at his zenith during the years that he teamed with Ashman.
Little Shop of Horrors (stage) (Geffen, 1982); Little Shop of Horrors (film) (Geffen, 1986); The Little Mermaid (Walt Disney, 1989); Beauty and the Beast (film) (Walt Disney, 1991); Lincoln (Angel, 1992); Aladdin (Walt Disney, 1992); Weird Romance (Columbia, 1993); Beauty and the Beast (stage) (Wonderland, 1994); A Christmas Carol (MSG, 1994); Pocahontas (Wonderland, 1995); The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Wonderland, 1996); King David (Trunksong, 1997).
MENKEN, ALAN (1949– ), U.S. composer. Born and raised in New Rochelle, New York, Menken was extremely musical as a child, learning to play the piano, violin, guitar, and accordion. However, it was not until he had graduated from New York University with a liberal arts degree that he decided to pursue a career in music. While attending the Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop, Menken first discovered and nurtured his passion for musical theater. As he unsuccessfully attempted to get his first musicals produced, Menken supported himself by writing and singing commercial jingles. His career changed forever when he met lyricist Howard Ashman, with whom he first collaborated on the wpa production of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1979) and with whom he went on to create the score for the Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors. Since his first Oscar nomination for best song for "Mean Green Mother from Outer Space" from the film version of Little Shop of Horrors (1986), Menken has won a series of awards almost too long to count, including Tony, Emmy, Grammy, and Oscar Awards. In fact, Menken is tied with legendary costume designer Edith *Head for most Oscar Awards won – they both have eight. Menken has produced some of his best-known work since the late 1980s, composing the scores for such Disney films as The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and Pocahontas (1995).
[Casey Schwartz (2nd ed.)]