Alan Menken is undoubtedly one of this generation’s most preeminent composers of film and stage. His work with Disney has helped defined the musical movie experience of countless young people, and his musical stage adaptations continue to innovate and leave audiences awe-struck, allowing us to fall in love all over again with songs like “A Whole New World,” “Part of Your World,” “Beauty and the Beast” and so many more.
We were beyond honored to have the opportunity to ask Menken a few questions about his musical background, his process of adapting film music to the stage and just what it’s like to have Grammys, Oscars and Tonys solidifying a musical career that can truly be called epic.
So much of your work has played a central role in shaping countless childhood cinematic and musical experiences for the past 25+ years. Is there anything from your own experience that inspires your Disney and other children’s film compositions?
A.M. My memories of growing up with the classic Disney movies, as well as other great film musicals, remain a very strong part of what motivates my writing of film music; both song scores and dramatic underscore. ‘Fantasia‘ introduced me to the relationship between visual images and classical music. And, in general, the larger-than-life emotional peaks that were achieved in various movie musicals, from ‘Top Hat‘ and ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy!‘ to ‘South Pacific‘ and ‘The Kind and I‘ to ‘Gypsy‘ and ‘West Side Story‘ to the animated greats like ‘Peter Pan,’ ‘Dumbo‘ and ‘Pinocchio‘ live in me as reminders of what is possible in songwriting and film scores.
We read in your biography that you weren’t the biggest fan of piano practice growing up. Would you be able to offer any words of wisdom to developing young musicians and aspiring composers?
A.M. I would certainly encourage every aspiring composer or musician to find music teachers they like and enjoy learning from. Even though I did sometimes sneak away from my piano practicing and “fool around” at the piano, it was important that I was engaged in the process of becoming acquainted with great piano pieces and great composers. Having a balanced approach to studying music, with both discipline and freedom, is the key to growing as an artist. If you’re not looking forward to playing music or improvising or creating on a daily basis then it’s important to look at why, and find another way to approach the miracle that is music.
You took your early musical career to the stage, writing scores for shows including the extraordinary ‘Little Shop of Horrors.’ Was it a natural progression to transition from theatre to film scores? How did that shift come about, and did you always know you wanted to compose for both the theatre and movies?
A.M. In respect to writing musicals, the progression from theater to film was a natural and relatively easy one for me. In essence, the craft of writing musicals remains essentially the same, irrespective of the medium. The differences come in regard to writing dramatic underscore for films. There definitely was a big learning curve for me in making that leap.
How does your process of composing for musical theatre differ from that of composing for film?
A.M. The differences only occur in the nuts and bolts of production. But, in terms of what the songs need to accomplish and how that is achieved, the crafts are the same. A composer has to capture the dramatic moment, through the voices of the characters, constantly moving the story forward within each song and throughout the song score.
Similarly, you’ve written many of movie history’s most beloved scores, which you’ve then transitioned to Broadway. Would you be able to walk us through that process? Are there any unique challenges or opportunities you see in adapting film scores for theatre?
A.M. In general, a Broadway musical, as a form, will utilize many more song moments than a film musical. There are no close-ups or panoramic views to lean on for story telling. On stage, the music and the lyrics need to take on much of what a camera might achieve on the screen.
With accomplishments spanning from your work with Disney and other blockbuster films to television features to huge Broadway smash hits, how do you choose which projects to work on?
A.M. I look for projects that have a compelling story, with a unique and powerfully motivated central character, a strong dramatic conflict and an interesting set of stylist possibilities, related to time, place and tone. Plus, sometimes I am very influenced by the artistic collaboration that a project offers me; a particular director or writer or producer or production company.
We also can’t help but mention those 11 Grammys, eight Academy Awards, seven Golden Globes, Tony Award, Hollywood Star and all the other professional accolades you’ve earned. What does the critical success mean to you, and what do you consider the keys to success?
A.M. Critical success is immensely gratifying. We all have egos and insecurities. It’s always nice to know that our work is appreciated and admired. But, in the end, it’s most important to be fully engrossed in the creative process. Love the process of writing and working together with others. Try to keep your mind off the results as much as you can. Do your best work and the results will come.
[blockquote source=”Alan Menken”]Try to keep your mind off the results as much as you can. Do your best work and the results will come.[/blockquote]
How do you continue to innovate? Do you look at composing the same way today as you did when you kicked off your musical career?
A.M. My approach to composing is very much what it always has been, since I was a child. There’s a sense of wonder and joy in creating a new melody or a new song or capturing a mood or a moment in music.
It’s pretty difficult to browse your catalogue of work and not feel awe-inspired, from ‘The Little Mermaid’s’ debut in 1989 to this year’s ‘Aladdin: The Musical’ on Broadway. Might you be able to share a sneak peek into any upcoming projects?
A.M. My upcoming projects range from stage musicals (‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame, ‘A Bronx Tale’ and ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’) to film musicals (‘Sausage Party’ and a live-action ‘Beauty and the Beast’) to a new musical series on ABC, ‘Galavant.’
Our very sincerest thanks to Alan Menken for taking time out of his busy creative schedule to answer our questions. Be sure to shop our entire array of Alan Menken-penned sheet music (there’s really so many gems, you could explore and play for hours upon hours). And check out Alan Menken’s Official Website to learn more about his current and past projects and his musical background.