Menken, Alan (Contemporary Musicians)
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-medis 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 Ashmanhen an aspiring playwright and director of the WPA Theaterhrough their classes together at BMI with legendary Broadway conductor Lehman Engel.
Team Combined Innocence and Wit
Menken and Ashman teamed up the following year to write a stage version of the Kurt Vonnegut novel God 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 platinumelling over one million copiesust 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."
Ashman Stricken by HIV
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 filmisney's 30th full-length animated featureecame 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)nd that was adapted from Tchaikovsky."
The adulation and awards that followedncluding a repeat of the best score and best song Oscarsid 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."
Disney Association Continued
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 truthhe story told through the songs."
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (musical), 1979.
Little Shop of Horrors (musical), 1982; (film), 1986.
The Apprenticeship of Duddy 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.