Disney legend Alan Menken talks creation, composition, and collaboration

In the days leading up to Aladdin’s opening night in Melbourne, a small group of Australian arts journalists were invited to interview the legendary composer, Alan Menken.

In the time available to us, we were treated to a medley of Menken’s theatre compositions (including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Little Shop of Horrors, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Enchanted, and Tangled – whew, what a list!), regaled with stories of Tony Awards and Razzies (both received for Newsies), and reacquainted with our favourite animated musicals through the eyes of a so-called “Disney relic”.

Menken’s discussion moved quickly from thought to thought as he was grilled by hungry theatre journalists/obsessive Disney consumers, so AussieTheatre have compiled some of his stand-out quotes from the interview. Below, see the theatre giant discuss creation, composition and revisiting his famous work with new collaborators.

On Aladdin in Australia, and allowing others to live inside and modify his creative vision:

I loved [the Melbourne production], and obviously I had thoughts, but they were mostly like, “why did I put the drum back beat on that song? That shouldn’t be there!” I loved the production. I also noticed, of course, lines that were changed specifically for an Australian audience, lines that were in the New York production that we took out… I liken myself to an architect in that I create these shows, create the structure, create how it works, and then other people are going to build it, other people are going to live in it, and they should live in it the way they want to live in it.

On the joys of collaboration, and Disney musicals moving from screen to stage – and sometimes back again:

Alan Menken plays a medley of his compositions. Image by TPR Media.

In general, I’m pretty satisfied with all of the things I’ve done… There are things I’d like to fix, I’d like to go back and fix King David, but my dance card is filled for I don’t know how many years by Disney saying, “we’re going to do this again!” and I go, okay, well, here we go again… I like to be home and play with my dogs, enjoy some time off, but right now as soon as I get home I have to go blasting into the Aladdin movie, which is going to be a whole other thing. I don’t find the writing daunting, I find protecting the legacy to be a little daunting sometimes because new people come in and they want to reinvent it. […] I don’t mind it being reinvented, but I need to understand where I fit into that and how I can preserve what we’ve done, but also move it forward. It’s always a challenge, figuring out (if it’s a new musical) what the vocabulary is going to be, what the structure is going to be, and if you’re re-doing something, figuring out what new thing you’re going to bring to it and figuring out what you’re going to do with it… The best part is collaboration. There’s no more collaborative form than musical theatre. Your lyricist and book writer and director, you need people to bounce things off and it’s just energising to work with people.

On his work inspiring a new generation of beloved musical theatre composers:

We haven’t started [The live Little Mermaid film] yet, I imagine there will be new songs, because I’m collaborating with Lin-Manuel Miranda. I doubt he’s not gonna write new songs… Lin, I knew him when he was a kid. He was a huge Little Mermaid fan. He went to Hunter High with my niece, Jenny, and I hear from my sister, “‘Oh there’s this very talented young boy, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and he’s such a fan, would you sign this poster for him?’ and I said sure. And here we are, working together.

I have these projects, and they are like children, you know? They go out in the world and they live their lives. Aladdin is living Aladdin‘s life out there, soon to be in three different forms. Beauty and the Beast is now in three different forms, Little Shop of Horrors is in two. It’s amazing to me, and maybe the less I try to figure it out, the better it is.

If I had my choice, I would rather start something new. That’s the most fun for me, is doing the invention from the very beginning, that’s why doing A Bronx Tale was so much fun, I hope [Australia] gets to see it. And Sister Act (the stage show), which I believe probably would have won [the Best Musical Tony] had it not come up against Book of Mormon. I love that show, by Bobby Lopez, who I’ve also known since he was a kid! It’s so interesting, there’s this whole new generation that grew up on my stuff so [my work] is manifesting all over the place, and I look at it and I go, “wow, life is amazing.”

On his advice for composers trying to break into the industry:

It’s not about you. Just be in love with the process, and if someone doesn’t like a song, throw it out. Move on, always be moving on. It’s about the characters, the story, the collaboration, it’s not about you. That’s how you can survive doing all the projects that we do, that I do in the theatre. Just move on, start something new.

[…] You should know that success may or may not come, and try to have that not matter. Just keep creating. Keep putting things out there. There’s an image of digging for gold, you’re not going to [find it immediately], you have to dig and dig, so you had better enjoy digging. Maybe there’s gold down there, but maybe there’s not. Have it be enough that you enjoy digging.

In the time since this interview was conducted, casting details have been revealed for Disney’s upcoming live adaptation of Aladdin, and Menken has hinted at the possibility of adapting Hercules for the stage. We don’t envy his workload, but look forward to many more years of Menken’s film and stage magic.

Aladdin Australia continues to play successfully in Melbourne, and will later tour to Brisbane and Perth. 

Maddi Ostapiw

Maddi is a performer who has been too scared to stand in the spotlight for the last few years, so she channels her need for love and appreciation into writing about the theatre instead. An energetic consumer of musical theatre, she is currently earning a degree in journalism and teaches voice in her small hometown. Maddi is normally covered in cat fur, has an opinion on everything, and in the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, is not throwing away her shot.

Maddi Ostapiw

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