There are a great many dentists in the world, but there is only one Alan Menken – and the world is all the better for the Disney legend’s decision to take up a career at the piano rather than the dental chair. Nothing was more clear when Menken took the stage at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, Calif. on Sept. 30, where he utterly delighted the very first audience of his one-man show “A Whole New World of Alan Menken.”
“You’re my Guinea pigs,” he told the packed house, filled with fans who were obviously comfortable with the evening to come. Throughout the show, Menken shared the stories behind his beloved songs and performed from the expansive catalogue.
Menken kicked off the evening by sharing a photo of his own home office, not terribly unlike his father’s dental office above the garage he knew as a kid. “He was worried about me, ’cause I was a really ADD kid,” Menken said of his dad, “but I loved music.” With amusement, and a little bit of mischievousness in his voice, he described sitting down to practice Beethoven as an 11 year-old, already interested in writing his own music instead. “I’d just make up my own thing and my parents were none the wiser. I just loved to entertain,” he said, sharing how he would pen his own music at a young age, inspired by Bob Dylan.
Menken later enrolled at NYU as a pre-med student. “That didn’t last for too long,” he laughed. His career in music was beginning to take shape as he was asked to write a musical for the school’s Hall of Fame players and music for a rock ballet – where he met his wife of almost 44 years, Janis Roswick. “I fell for her right away, and despite the fact that I probably looked crazy she actually liked me too.
“We were struggling artists together,” he said of the early years of their marriage. Menken’s work at that point took him to writing for Sesame Street, accompanying ballet classes and penning jingles, including one for Round-Up pesticide.
His life began to change when he started working with the late Howard Ashman. The two collaborated on a number of projects, beginning with a musical adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and Little Shop of Horrors.
He went on to describe life after the success of Little Shop, when he, his wife and their first daughter moved out of the city. “It was wonderful to be there…the AIDS crisis had really hit hard, our lives, and so much because of all the people, the dancers Janis knew, the actors and singers,” he recalled, moved by the memories. But despite how dark the world had been at the time, Menken can point to a bright spot – spending time with his daughter, watching Disney classics. “We would sit and watch Winnie the Pooh and Snow White, Fantasia. It was honestly the one safe place in the world…sitting and watching a Disney animated movie.”
Then the life-changing call from Ashman came. Disney had asked the duo to come work on a new project. “I thought about the transformative power of legendary Disney musicals. The awesome responsibility of writing something that would sit on the shelf alongside all the other classics, and the impact of this changed my life forever.”
Taking a seat at the piano again, Menken delivered a fun medley of “Part of Your World,” “Kiss the Girl,” “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and “Under the Sea.” The final tune, sung by our favorite crustaceous conductor, Sebastian, delivered Menken and Ashman an Oscar win for Best Song, in addition to their Best Score win for The Little Mermaid.
Menken recalled how his collaborator broke the news that he was HIV positive when they returned to New York. “Back then it was a death sentence,” he said, But the two continued to write, stepping into their next project Beauty and the Beast excited to break new ground. “We had gotten really ambitious, a lot of songs and dramaturgical ideas,” including the film’s infamous 7-minute opening number, “Belle.”
As for the celebratory hit “Be Our Guest,” the final number was a bit of an accident as Menken shared. Ashman had asked for music to write to while working on lyrics for the song. “Let me just whip out a typical Parisian kind of thing,” Menken told his partner, intending to throw out what he thought was just dummy music until he had lyrics to compose for. But nothing worked when Ashman handed over his part of the work. “It had to be that dumb piece of music,” Menken laughed with a grin before performing the dinner scene’s fanfare.
Though it was hard, and impossible to imagine how to write without Ashman after he passed away in 1991, just six months before Beauty and the Beast‘s debut, Menken’s career continued to move forward. “I was faced with the daunting prospect of finishing [Aladdin] without him,” he said. “I was nervous.” Menken would go on to write “A Whole New World” with lyricist Tim Rice, then inadvertently rescued Stephen Schwartz from leaving the music business entirely.
After being discouraged by recent disappointments, the Wicked composer had been planning returning to school to pursue psychology. “Luckily us working together pulled [Stephen] back,” Menken said, performing the first song they wrote together, “Colors of the Wind.” The duo then created the score to “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which, while not overly successful as a film eventually became a stage musical that is currently playing around the world. “I never give up on any of my projects, they’re like my children” Menken said. “I’m so blessed that my babies get a second and third life.”
The 1992 box office flop Newsies was Menken’s second project to see renewed life in a new production. Thanks to a generation of fans who continued to keep Newsies alive in school and camp productions, Disney made the decision to take the story of striking newsboys to the stage. Menken re-teamed with Jack Feldman to develop more music while Hairspray‘s Harvey Fierstein wrote the show. “Halfway through our first read-through we looked at each other and went ‘This could go to Broadway.'”
The 2012 production took home the Tony Awards for Best Original Song and Best Choreography.
Menken also entertained the audience with the story of being taken to dinner by Disney leadership, where they proposed a new project. “It’s a western from the point of view of cows,” they told him of Home on the Range. As part of their research, Menken joined animators on a cattle drive. “You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a group of animators riding horses going ‘Come on cow! Come on cow!’ Honestly, I loved it,” he exclaimed.
Though Home on the Range may not be the first Disney film that comes to mind when one thinks of Alan Menken, the project became especially memorable even as it became less of a traditional musical. “One song survived, and seemed especially poignant,” he said, noting that the attacks of 9/11 took place midway through the film’s production, before singing “Will The Sun Ever Shine Again.”
Another of Disney’s films long in development was 2007’s Enchanted, starring Amy Adams as Princess Giselle, tricked by a villainous queen and sent to present-day New York City. “I heard about the idea and I wanted in,” Menken said, remembering how much he loved the fresh take on a Disney princess movie. Eventually, as the movie finally started to come together, “I heard they were looking for songwriters to parody my style,” he mused, getting a hearty laugh from the audience. “I said…’I…I can parody my style’,” and so he did, successfully. If there were any doubt, he proved it with a medley of Enchanted‘s songs that had the concert hall cheering.
Since, Menken has continued to work on numerous projects that include the USO number featured in Captain America: The First Avenger, a number for the R-rated animated feature Sausage Party and ABC’s medieval musical comedy Galavant. “It was hard work but it was so much fun,” he said of the series, for which he and lyricist Glenn Slater penned roughly 60 songs for 18 episodes.
Perhaps the biggest thrill came late in the evening, when Menken returned to the stage for an encore. After the trip through nearly every project he’s worked on, Menken surprised all by announcing the very first performance of a song from the upcoming live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast.
(Naturally, this writer cannot in good conscience reveal and spoil the tune, but it is safe to say that Menken has penned another gem, sure to be adored.)
“Looking back at that young guy,” he said, pointing to a picture of himself as a young composer, “and even earlier at that 12 year old son of a dentist…I could never have imagined that one day I would have a life filled with so many blessings.” To close the evening Menken lovingly performed Aladdin‘s “Proud of Your Boy,” a ballad he wrote with and dedicated to Howard Ashman.
Alan Menken’s next production, A Bronx Tale opens in November at the Longacre Theatre.
For as long as Shelli Weinstein can remember Disney Magic has been as vital as breathing. She lovingly recalls family trips upon trips to Disney World, boasts a collection of Lady and the Tramp memorabilia and especially adores all Disney projects that fall under “animated” and/or “musical.” She is also a huge Star Wars fan and loves runDisney. When she’s not at Disneyland, Shelli can be found working in the entertainment biz – her previous work can be found on Variety and TVGuide.com – enjoying an abundance of great TV shows and tweeting with Galavant (or otherwise Disney-related) GIFs. Some of her (many) favorite Disney works include WALL-E, Meet the Robinsons, Hercules, Zootopia, Phineas and Ferb and the brilliant score to the stage production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Photos: Drew Kelley