In a rare, in-depth one-on-one interview, the Oscar-, Grammy- and Tony-winning composer Alan Menken sat down with Billboard on Broadway host Rebecca Milzoff to discuss his long, varied career and how his work blending pop and musical theater has evolved over the years.
Growing up, Menken loved classical music (which he traces to his love of Fantasia) and heard musical theater albums regularly around the house, but says he "really wanted to be a rock musician - as far as I was concerned that was going to be what I was going to do….I basically wanted to be Billy Joel or Elton John or Jackson Browne." It was through the BMI Musical Theater Workshop that he discovered the unique challenges of composing for different characters in a theatrical context. "It brings things out in you that are beyond what you'd write for yourself," he says.
While he started out in the downtown, off-Broadway musical theater world - eventually writing the cult-hit Little Shop of Horrors with his longtime collaborator, the late lyricist Howard Ashman - Menken insists that there's little truly significant difference between working in the live theater milieu and that of a Disney animated film, where he and Ashman found stunning success starting with The Little Mermaid in 1989.
"The composing process is pretty much the same: you're writing for a character, for a moment. You're creating a score that has to have an emotional and story logic to it. You want a dramatic arc. You want all the songs to push story forward," he explains. "That's the same whether it's for stage or film or television or whatever."
Going on to discuss his many talented collaborators over the years (who also included Tim Rice and Stephen Schwartz), Menken describes what he looks for in a composing colleague. "I work in a dramatic context, meaning we write with a lot of character specifics, a lot of story specifics. There's a lot of architecture in our songs," he says. "I look for someone who's smart... somebody who has experience, who doesn't cling to ideas stubbornly, who's always ready to move on and try something new. That's my attitude as well."
Whenever he plays his songs, Menken says he still flashes back to the initial impulse that drove their creation. "The first song I think we wrote for Aladdin was 'Arabian Nights,'" he recalls. "It's a very specific style. We wanted to have that sense of the camel walking through the sand - the physicality of the camel. The main theme is very much the prayer you'd hear from a minaret, but music very associated with Arab culture. We knew it would be some combination of authentically inspired music and then music from totally out of left field, winking at prior adaptations of the story." When he and Rice turned in "A Whole New World" to the Disney team, he remembers, "the reaction was, 'Whoa!'"
While he's thrilled by the new lives his Disney scores have found on stage, he says that "probably if it was up to me, I never would have taken any of the movies to Broadway, or taken the shows and moved them onscreen. Given my druthers, I'd frankly rather move on and write something new."
Aladdin is playing on Broadway now at the New Amsterdam Theatre. Listen to the full episode - which includes Menken's own in-office performances of "A Whole New World" and "Friend Like Me" - below or on iTunes.