Published in KPBS On Air Magazine June 1997
Alan Menken has written songs for the best of them: from the Hunchback to Hercules, Aladdin to King David. The mega-award-winning composer has crafted melodies for money-grubbing men (Scrooge in the annual “Christmas Carol” at Madison Square Garden), man-eating plants (Audrey in “Little Shop of Horrors”), and singing teapots (Mrs. Potts in “Beauty and the Beast”).
He began off Broadway (“Little Shop”) and then took a star-making career detour to Hollywood, scoring animated Disney films. First came “The Little Mermaid” in 1989, which garnered for Menken and his collaborator/lyricist Howard Ashman two Academy Awards, two Golden Globes, and two Grammys. After five more celebrated animation scores, he made his way back to the Great White Way in triumph. With its own brand-new, grand-old theatre (the freshly-renovated Art Nouveau masterpiece, the New Amsterdam), Disney is cleaning up 42nd Street, and Menken is cleaning up, thanks to Disney.
When the animated version of “Beauty and the Beast” opened in 1991, Broadway theatre critics (including Frank Rich of the New York Times) hailed it as the best musical score of the year.
“We were applauded for the theatrical nature of what we did for animation,” Menken recalled recently by phone. “Prior to that, I’d sat down with Disney’s executives and said, ‘Wouldn’t you like to be involved in theatre?’ And they said no, it’s very risky, it’s not a good investment. But they listened, and they were intrigued.”
After the wild success of “Beauty and the Beast,” Disney’s top brass was ready to make the dramatic, transcontinental leap to Broadway.
“‘Beauty’ was perfect for them,” Menken explained. “A home-grown product. In the family. Easily controllable, because they owned it. They felt it would bring audiences to the theatre that typically come to films and theme parks. And it’s done everything they wanted. It’s wedded Disney to a theatrical audience. It’s been a phenomenal success.”
Has it ever. Since it opened on Broadway in April 1994, “Beauty” has played to over six million people world-wide. It was nominated for nine Tony Awards and a Grammy for Best Show Cast Album. Immediately following the 1994 Tony Awards broadcast, the musical broke Broadway’s all-time box office record with a one-day sales total of nearly $1.3 million. Now there are eight ongoing productions, including New York, where it’s in its third smash year. This month, the U.S. National Touring Company pays an extended visit to San Diego (June 20-July 13, at the Civic Theatre).
The stage musical is true to the creative magic of the film, including elaborate production numbers, outrageous (Tony Award-winning) costumes, and techno-wizardry that features, among other amazements, “the first-known throwable hand-held fireball.” As the Associated Press’ Michael Kuchwara put it, the show is “punctuated by a series of special effects that make “Cats”, “Les Miserables”, “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Miss Saigon” look like chamber musicals.” But it is, after all, a musical; let us not forget the score.
David Richards of the New York Times, said “its lavishness is close to delirium… Happily reminiscent of Lerner and Loewe.”
The stage version adds to the Academy Award-winning score one song by Ashman and Menken not heard in the film, plus new numbers by Menken and Tim Rice (lyricist for “Evita”, “The Lion King,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”).
It’s been a whirlwind of acclaim for Menken, but “Beauty” was bittersweet. During the time they were working on the film, his incredibly talented collaborator/lyricist, Howard Ashman, began a gradual decline from AIDS.
“He died slowly over a course of years as we were writing,” said Menken somberly. “He never even saw the finished product. It was a very difficult period, and also the most exciting period in my career. Tremendously emotional.” After Ashman died, Rice stepped in.
“Tim was such a great palliative,” Menken continues. “Number one, he’s so different from Howard and me, two driven, Type A New York Jews. [As a Briton], he’s much more laid back, and had no ego problem whatsoever coming in. It was just so nice to get back to work.”
Once Menken got back to work he never stopped. In the last three years, he’s scored Disney’s animated “Pocahontas,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and upcoming “Hercules,” and worked on three consecutive “Christmas Carols,” eight stage productions of “ Beauty and the Beast” and, with Rice, has written “King David”, an operatic oratorio that opened Disney’s New Amsterdam Theatre in May, with an onstage concert-style cast of 100. Perhaps his most exciting project (“it’s a big, big life, and a big story”), the new show, already out on CD, is something of a coup. The writers get top billing; it’s called “Alan Menken and Tim Rice’s King David”).
Now at last, Menken’s taking some time off, but he’s making plans to fulfill a few fantasies: to be “composer/lyricist on a musical that starts from my heart… to record an album with me as artist, singing and playing piano, with a full production behind me… and I very much want “King David” to have a long life.”
Menken doesn’t mind being pegged as Disney’s composer: “I’m proudly associated with Disney, so long as Disney is also proudly associated with Alan Menken.” He’s thrilled about the new Disney theatre on Broadway; he feels “connected to it and partly responsible. When Howard and I first came to Disney, we brought a Broadway sensibility… and now there’s this beautiful theatre. But what’s even more amazing is to see 42nd Street blossom…. And the musical is alive and healthy on Broadway. A new audience has come in. It feels like a revival. And I think we helped.”
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.