BWW EXCLUSIVE: Alan Menken Talks TANGLED, SISTER ACT, LEAP OF FAITH, HUNCHBACK, ALADDIN & More
This weekend I spoke to multi-Academy Award-winning composer and Broadway tunesmith Alan Menken about everything from his early stage work with lyricist and director Howard Ashman on LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS to their tenure virtually re-inventing the movie musical with their string of stirring scores for Disney animated films starting with THE LITTLE MERMAID in 1989, through to BEAUTY & THE BEAST, ALADDIN and, following Ashman's death, working with Stephen Schwartz on THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, POCAHANTAS and, most recently, ENCHANTED. Menken has also participated in adapting almost all of those projects to the stage in the intervening years, oftentimes composing several new songs. His newest stage projects to reach Broadway will be this season's SISTER ACT and the recent out of town tryout eyeing Broadway, LEAP OF FAITH. In this exciting conversation, we touch upon nearly all of these projects, plus discuss casting possibilities for his new Broadway shows and the projects on the horizon - among them, stage adaptations of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, NEWSIES and ALADDIN - and, at some point soon, ENCHANTED 2! Plus, will Angela Lansbury reunite with her BEAUTY & THE BEAST Academy Award-garnering collaborator to do SISTER ACT on Broadway? Over the course of our discussion, the Mouse Maestro - this melodic mastermind known as Menken - proved himself to be as easily enjoyable and affably likeable as his many multi-award-winning melodies for those marvelous film and stage musicals - for many of us born in the eighties, our very first introduction to musical theatre.
PC: What do you think of rap in musical theatre? Why isn't there a great rap musical on Broadway yet?
AM: I do think that rap has a place... I mean, look at INTO THE WOODS! (Laughs.)
PC: I just asked Steve about the Witch's Rap last week and we got into his reasoning behind it.
AM: Oh, really? I didn't know he knew it was rap when he did that. (Pause.) I think rap will find its way in somewhere... I mean, SISTER ACT has a little rap in it - a little bit.
PC: That's true! What a great score that is. One of my favorites in a very, very long time.
AM: So nice of you! Thank you.
PC: The disco pastiche is thrilling and just perfectly spot-on.
AM: I'm really glad you like it!
PC: So, you intentionally wanted to incorporate rap into SISTER ACT - in addition to the Motown and disco sounds?
AM: Listen, any musical form that has been around long enough to have cultural resonance beyond just being a cutting edge kind of communication - but, especially, when it begins to reflect on a time and reflect on a culture - is effective in a musical. And, rap is reaching the point where it can be effectively used in musicals to tell a story, I think.
PC: I agree. Lin-Manuel Miranda is the only one who has had a rap-though musical successfully produced on Broadway, though.
AM: I think rap's time is coming - not that I'm going to be the one writing it, necessarily! (Laughs.)
PC: You re-introduced the Caribbean/reggae sound on Broadway most recently with THE LITTLE MERMAID, as well. How did that inspiration arise?
AM: It was just... Howard thought... it was an arbitrary - not so much arbitrary, but a more entertaining and a better choice than having a stuffy English crab - choice. It was Howard's idea. What I do is just check out the form [of music] and then have fun with it. It's something... I just enjoy doing it. If the opportunity ever arises to incorporate rap...
PC: Like in SISTER ACT.
AM: Right. We did incorporate it into SISTER ACT where it was appropriate.
PC: A rapping nun is always an unexpected laugh! It works so wonderfully there.
AM: Ha! Yeah. Right.
PC: I was just talking to Don Hahn about all the great cut songs you wrote with Howard for ALADDIN. Could you tell me about those?
AM: We're getting them back!
PC: How so?
AM: We're doing a stage musical of ALADDIN and all those songs are going to be in it.
PC: How wonderful! Tell me everything! Who's doing the adaptation with you?
AM: Chad Beguelin wrote the book. He did a fantastic job. He and I also wrote a new song that will be going in, along with a lot of the cut Howard Ashman songs and some of the cut Tim Rice songs, and a song that I wrote music and lyrics for that was in the theatrical adaptation at California Adventure.
PC: That's quite a team, then - you, Ashman, Rice, Beguelin! Will it be substantially different from the film?
AM: It has more of the feeling of a Hope & Crosby road picture - which is what Howard and I originally wanted for the musical. We are going to try it out, hopefully, next summer.
PC: Do you have a design team in place yet? It will be especially important for a stage ALADDIN, I would think.
AM: No, not yet.
PC: It has such great possibilities. It should be good!
AM: Let's hope so! Knock on wood. You never know, you never know.
PC: Speaking of screen to stage adaptations that take a different tone than before: I loved the James Lapine HUNCHBACK in Germany. Will it ever come to the US?
AM: Thank you. We're bringing that one back, too!
PC: Tell me when/what/where.
AM: Stephen and I and Scott Schwartz - who is directing, so it's a bit of a Schwartz family affair - are doing it.
PC: Is it using the Lapine text?
AM: Yes, we are still using James Lapine's book. It's coming.
PC: It's been coming for a long time now! We're ready.
AM: You're telling me! (Laughs.) We've even added some songs.
PC: So this is a reworked version of the German version?
AM: In the interim, after Berlin, Stephen and I worked on a television musical version of HUNCHBACK with some new songs and things. It didn't happen, but we still have some material from that that we are going to be working into it. We are at the starting gate for that, but we have a pretty good idea of what we want to do.
PC: What about ENCHANTED 2? It's at least being bandied about, right? It's on IMDB.
AM: Yeah. It's being bandied about. But, beyond bandying... (Laughs.) There's nothing real yet.
PC: Julie Andrews wasn't sure either! I'd assume she would be asked to return.
AM: Aww, really? She was so wonderful. We need to have her do more than just narrate next time!
PC: Wasn't there a cut song for Idina Menzel in ENCHANTED, too?
AM: Yes, there was.
PC: What happened? Why was it cut?
AM: It was a song at the end of the movie. Rather than go into a break-into-song moment, we went more with a montage moment. It was just... it was out of my hands. It had to do with the economy. We were very disappointed to not have Idina sing.
PC: So were we all!
AM: God, what a waste - to have Idina Menzel and not have her sing!
PC: Maybe she'll eventually do one of your songs on GLEE. What do you think of GLEE? I'm assuming one of your songs will be popping up soon.
AM: Oh, I don't know, maybe they will! But, I have to be careful what I say about this... (Laughs.)
PC: Why is that?
AM: The other day I did an interview and someone asked, "What do you think of GLEE?" And, I said, "I actually don't really have the chance to watch television that much. So, I haven't really seen it very much." Then, Reuters put out an article that said, you know, "Alan Menken: Why I Don't Watch GLEE". (Laughs.)
PC: Jumping to conclusions!
AM: Yeah, and I just said, "I don't watch much television." I guess it's somebody's idea of something interesting. I'm glad I'm interesting to somebody!
PC: You're fascinating! I always print almost the whole conversation, anyway.
AM: Yay! I'm glad someone does!
PC: So, to set the record straight: you do like GLEE?
AM: I think GLEE is wonderful. What I have seen of it is absolutely wonderful. In fact, I am also sort of looking at maybe doing some things... I'm developing a series along with some other people. It's a break-into-song series, but it's different because they are all original songs.
PC: With you writing them? Sounds great.
AM: I love the fact that this generation has so embraced theater music and pop music together because that bodes so well for the future of our business.
PC: Your Disney musicals were really the only real original musicals that had a national, global, profile growing up in the 80s. I mean, Broadway was so atrophied at that point.
PC: THE LITTLE MERMAID and ALADDIN and BEAUTY & THE BEAST - plus, one of the only live-action movie musicals, THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS - were our generation's musicals like Berlin and Porter and Gershwin were before. You had the market completely cornered!
AM: I know. It's great!
PC: Tell me about working with Donna Murphy now in TANGLED since she told me she did one of your shows a million years ago.
AM: Oh, Donna's great. I knew Donna... she was one of our Audrey's for LITTLE SHOP!
PC: Did she ever go on?
AM: I think she did. Did she say she didn't go on? No, no: she went on.
PC: Do you have any memories?
AM: It's one of those things that someone reminds you and you go (Sarcastic.) "Oh, really? I remember that." (Laughs.)
PC: You had a lot of Audreys in ten years!
AM: Right. When you're in a long-running show, there's so many actors that go in and out of your shows over the years.
PC: So it was great to reconnect all these years later, then?
AM: Donna is fantastic. I've known her through the Broadway community all these years. When you get someone in the studio who is that creative and that intense about her work it is just fantastic.
PC: She is so intense in performance.
AM: She just comes in and knows exactly what she wants to do. I mean, if you want to change it, she's open to that, but, she's just thinking all the time. Working with Donna can really spoil you. You have a real partner there to work with.
PC: Did you find that TANGLED's score offered any challenges?
AM: It was all challenges! (Laughs.) The TANGLED score was all challenges. From the opening number, to the end - it's all challenges.
PC: Can you give me an example?
AM: I can give you an example for every song, but... let's take the opening number.
PC: "When Will My Life Begin?"
AM: Right. It's a character who doesn't really have an "I want". I mean, she's trapped in this tower and her life is just fine. But, we need to manufacture a moment where the audience wants her want for her.
PC: Fascinating psychological attack on a song!
AM: Yeah, so she's just busily saying, "Oh, everything's just fine in this tower," but, quietly wondering when her life will begin. And, of course, what we want for her is to get out of that tower.
PC: Tell me the process of coming to this final version of the opening that you used.
AM: I went through - I don't know how many - songs! A lot!
PC: I bet! You're famous for lots of rewrites. So, if you're saying that...
AM: Actually, though, the music for the song that is there now is the music that I wrote for the very first song I wrote for that spot. But, back then it was not called "When Will My Life Begin", it was called "What More Could I Ever Need?"
PC: What changed from version to version?
AM: We went through five or six other songs in-between that were much different. But, they were all very guitar-oriented because I just felt it on a gut level. I mean, I love Joni Mitchell - especially her song called CHELSEA MORNING - and I just felt like, "That feels like just the right feel for this spot."
PC: Did Zachary Levi ever have his own song?
AM: We tried hard to get a song in for him, but we couldn't do it. We had some little things in some other songs, though. He's just fantastic, isn't he?!
PC: Yeah. He's great on the duet with Mandy, "I See The Lights".
AM: Yeah! And, also, about the Mother Gothel song...
PC: It fits Donna like a silk glove!
AM: It was, you know... I wrote that song to appease the directors because they really wanted a musical theatre moment. So, I said, "OK!" I thought it was going to be going a step too far, but it was able to hold in the score and I was very happy about that.
PC: Any other songs that came about in an odd way?
AM: The pump number. There was no basis for a comedy song there. So, we worked hard to find the moment and create the moment and lay all the pipe into the scene and out of the scene and played those characters out. The directors really made it work. I have to really compliment them for that.
PC: They told me that they feel so privileged to have you participate in this project.
AM: That's nice of them. Also, though, let's please not forget Glenn Slater!
PC: Definitely not!
AM: This poor guy... he's such a brilliant collaborator and such a brilliant lyricist and he doesn't yet seem to get the credit he should get for what he's done.
PC: I agree.
AM: They gave him a tough time on LOVE NEVER DIES...
PC: Not me! I say SISTER ACT and LOVE NEVER DIES are two of the best scores of the last ten years, no question.
AM: Oh, great! He just feels like he can't get a break and I tell him that his day is coming and he's done fantastic work on this.
PC: I loved your new songs with him for THE LITTLE MERMAID, too.
AM: Thank you, thank you.
PC: I just have to mention WEIRD ROMANCE to you - that's one of my absolute favorite relatively unknown scores. Do you like it?
AM: David Spencer is a very talented guy and we have another musical called THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ that's up in Canada that's coming in, as well.
PC: Wow! NEWSIES, HUNCHBACK, ALADDIN...
AM: And LEAP OF FAITH!
PC: So, that's moving ahead? Is it being reworked again? Is it coming into New York?
AM: Yes. A definitive and definite yes to all three!
PC: Is there anything you are going to address in the rewrites that you want to mention here?
AM: No! (Laughs.) No, I don't want to specifically address what we are going to change, but, there is still work that still needs to happen.
PC: Is it true that Angela Lansbury may do SISTER ACT on Broadway?
AM: Not that I know of!
PC: I've heard she's been offered Mother Superior.
AM: Well, offered and doing it are two different things, but... (Pause.) Wow, that would be pretty great, I gotta say!
PC: I'm glad you are open to the possibility, then! A BEAUTY & THE BEAST reunion for you two... if it happens!
AM: It would be lovely.
PC: Last question: define collaboration.
AM: Collaboration is being open to each other's ideas and benefiting from each other's perspectives in an open way. Collaboration is all about rewriting and rewriting and rewriting and helping each other to constantly improve a piece. And, it's also about spurring each other on to doing really great, hard work - it's easier to do it in a collaboration than on your own.
PC: I so appreciate this! I can't wait for SISTER ACT and everything else after it! You are totally in top flight form!
AM: Thank you for that, Pat. Really.
PC: Keep up doing all these shows every decade, please. We need you on Broadway!
AM: (Laughs.) I will try, I will try. This was wonderful. Have a great day! Bye bye.
From This Author Pat Cerasaro