An interview with Alan Menken
It's not surprising that the 1991 Disney version of "Beauty and the Beast" is heading back into theaters. A box office smash, it became the first animated feature to receive a Best Picture Academy Award nomination and has inspired video sequels, a TV-series and even a successful Broadway show.
Debuting at the Sprint IMAX theater at the Kansas City Zoo this week, "Beauty and the Beast" proves that age and the magnified IMAX format haven't diminished its wit or emotional force. Often, the enlarged screen allows a viewer to savor the skill of the animators as never before.
Much of the credit for the enduring charm of this flick belongs to composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman. Their title song won an Oscar, and Menken's incidental score earned the same prize. Having won eight Academy Awards in all for his scores and tunes for animated films - more little gold men than any other living person - Menken's name is now bound to Disney's. Little more than a decade ago, however, the connection seemed almost unlikely.
Speaking from his home in New York, Menken recalls, "When we started 'Beauty and the Beast,' 'The Little Mermaid' (which took home an Oscar for the Ashman-Menken song "Under the Sea" and another one for the score) hadn't been released. The company didn't know what the reaction was going to be. Initially, when we first started the project, there was a request that I just write the songs and someone else would write the underscore for this one. I said, 'No. That's not my relationship with Howard. We are a musical theater writing team.' To Disney's credit, they said, 'We understand. That's fine.'"
Before going into animation, Ashman and Menken seemed an odd choice to be scoring family cartoons. The two had been responsible for the hit stage musical and subsequent movie "Little Shop of Horrors," adapted from Roger Corman's cult horror flick. With its sophisticated and delightfully kinky lyrics, one can hardly imagine that the two would have adapted so well to animation. Nonetheless, the Disney company saw potential in the duo.
"Disney made very untraditional choices when they wanted to revive the classic animation, and they really wanted to go to musical theater talent and forgo the normal Hollywood route," Menken states.
"First of all, you go to the top. (Disney chairman) Michael Eisner was a theater major in college. He's always loved the theater. Many of the people who ended up being producers of the Disney animated features had either been production stage managers of tours or on Broadway. There's a very strong theater component in the animated field, certainly in the Disney animated field.
"Howard got tremendous humor out of sort of just trashing the characters and certainly having the characters trashing themselves,"
Menken says of his writing partner. "'Gaston' (the film's villain, voiced by Richard White), if you think about it, isn't all that different from 'Dentist!' in 'Little Shop of Horrors.' (The dentist) says, 'Look how proud of me Mom is going to be because I can cause so much pain.' He's got this childish, goofy pleasure in how dull the drill is. In 'Gaston,' he has a childish, goofy pleasure out of how far he can spit, how much hair he has on his chest and how he decorates with antlers."
A decade after Ashman's death, his partner still speaks glowingly of the man's talent with words and characterization. When reminded of the intricacy and precision of Ashman's lyrics, Menken replies by reciting the opening lines to "Friend like Me" from "Aladdin."
Surprisingly, Menken doesn't sing the words to the song, but recites them as if he were a dramatic actor reading a poem.
"Howard Ashman was the most gifted musical theater talent of our generation as far as I'm concerned," he says. "He was able to combine adult and child, traditional theater and totally hip references, and childlike innocence and completely jaded, almost cruel humor. It was in one package."
Fans of the duo's artistry are in for a special treat with the new IMAX version because it includes a tune, "Human Again," which was deleted from the initial release.
"It was one of our most ambitious songs in terms of animation, maybe our most," says Menken. "There was a whole section where we see time passing and Belle and the Beast getting closer together. (Starts singing) 'Tick-tock, Tick-tock. Time goes. The day passes. Getting closer.' (It was) almost very 'A Little Night Music'-ish. That's the part that didn't work. We loved it, so it was very hard to figure out how to remove it.
"When it came to the Broadway show, just take all that (section) out, and (the song) worked. Sometimes it takes a little clarity, but (with the cartoon) we didn't have time. We were coming up close to the release date of the movie. We just wrote another song called 'Something There,' which ended up being a really sweet song. Now, I can have my cake and eat it, too."
Menken may be happy to have the song restored, but 'Beauty and the Beast' leaves the composer with a sad feeling, because on March 14 of 1991, Ashman died of complications due to AIDS. He was only 40 years old.
"There's a lot of emotion in it. For me, there's a lot of personal emotion because you have to realize that Howard Ashman never lived to see 'Beauty and the Beast.' He didn't think it would be (as popular as it became). He was very satisfied with 'The Little Mermaid' and 'Little Shop of Horrors.' Howard was very angry. When he died - I hope in peace - he was very angry. He said, 'You're going to go on, and I'm not going to be able to do it.' It really upset him."
Ashman's loss was especially hard on the Disney creative team because as executive producer, he guided the writing. For example, he came up with the idea of making the Beast's servants into enchanted household objects. Although Ashman handled the script for the musicals he penned with Menken, crafting the screenplay for the cartoons was impossible by the time "Beauty and the Beast" went into production.
"He couldn't handle writing the script himself because frankly he was constantly under medical care. That frustrated him," Menken recalls.
While Ashman's contribution to his partner's work was invaluable, Menken has enjoyed successful collaborations with other lyricists ("A
Whole New World" written with Tim Rice and "Colors of the Wind" written with Stephen Schwartz won Oscars). In addition, he has written memorable tunes for performers like Mel Gibson, Danny De Vito and Robin Williams, who weren't known for their ability to carry a tune.
"I never write with a particular vocalist in mind," the composer explains. "I tend to write very rangy material, but sometimes you have to make accommodations, especially if it's onstage. In films, you can say, 'You go up to that note, and then we'll get a sound-alike to do the high notes. You can do it digitally. It's so bizarre that you can do that. By the time we came into 'Pocahontas,' Mel (Gibson) came into a tradition where people were doing the dialogue and singing, and everyone wanted to try it. Some succeed better than others."
In one case, Menken had to make radical adjustments because of an incident that occurred with Tom Hulce ("Amadeus"), the voice of Quasimodo in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."
"There was one notorious session where the director had done something that I didn't know about," Menken remembers. "Just prior to a session where we were recording 'Heaven's Light,' they had had a session where Quasimodo had done all of his screaming. 'Noooo!' 'Sanctuary!' It went on for HOURS, and Tom came in with his vocal chords completely shredded. We were up against it. We had to get a vocal that day. It wasn't a matter of we could wait a couple of weeks. Tom was deeply involved in doing a theater piece in Seattle, so we only had that day. We had a couple of unbelievable studio machinations to get his vocal that day. We divided the notes of the song into notes in various ranges, and I only had him sing those notes so he wouldn't have to change his position, and it came out sounding great."
The precision that Menken devotes to his craft becomes obvious when he is told that composer Kurt Weill had to rewrite the melody for
"September Song" to accommodate actor Walter Houston's reported nine-note range. Menken asks incredulously, "It's nine notes?" He hums the tune and then instantly taps out the melody on a keyboard to test the anecdote. Over the phone, Weill's melody sounds note-perfect.
"Actually, that's 10 notes," Menken declares.
Despite his own gifts, Menken never hesitates to credit a collaborator for an idea. When complimented on the reggae tinge to the "Little Mermaid" songs, he replies, "That was Howard's idea. It's hard writing lyrics. I work with lyricists, and I think they're better lyricists than I am. I think that David Zippel ("Hercules") or Tim Rice in terms of the work that I did with them are better than I am. I'm a good lyricist, and I can often come up with really good suggestions, but I benefit from working with really good lyricists."
Menken also is candid about projects that had disappointing results.
"I don't think 'Hercules' ever got the audience or recognition it deserved," Menken says. "It was so funny and clever, but it was sold as a kid's cartoon. Part of it is also the way Disney marketed it.
They overcompensated on 'Hunchback.' They were afraid that people were going to say, 'too adult and too dark.' The ad campaign became
'Join the Party.' In doing so, they did lure in younger viewers, many of whom said, 'This is dark. It's not what we expected.' Then they overcompensated on 'Hercules' and marketed it as being very, very kid-friendly. There was also a sense that maybe people felt, 'OK, I know what these animateds are now. I get it, and there was not quite the same demand to see it or buy the album. But we'd had such phenomenal success, so I guess it's inevitable."
The composer is working on a new animated feature, "Sweating Bullets," for a 2003 release. The western about three cows out to save their farm teams him with vocalist k.d. lang and lyricist Glen Slater. Despite all that he has accomplished or will do, Menken has received a special honor for his labors. His melodies can be heard in just about every corner of the globe.
"It shows up in a lot of different ways," he says. "Certainly, if I go into the Walt Disney World park, I feel like a visiting potentate or something, which is quite incredible. Anywhere I go in the world, I run into it. It's unbelievably gratifying."