An Interview with Alan Menken by Wolfgang Breyer
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.15/No.57/1996
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
Where were you born, what is your musical background, and how did you become a film composer?
I was born in New York City, in Manhattan. When I was very young we moved to New Rochelle, which is above New York. My dad is a dentist, and all the men in our family were dentists. My father’s father was a dentist, my uncles were dentists. I somehow disappointed them when I showed an interest in music instead. At a very young age I began playing the piano and the violin, and I began writing songs and musical pieces.
I went to New York University. At first I went there as a pre-med and graduated with a degree in music. It was a degree in musicology, because they didn’t have a music department there. For what I do, and for what I did, I consider a degree in music to be not very important. The main thing was that I was writing songs, I was writing musical themes, I was writing pop material, I accompanied ballet classes on the piano, I accompanied singers, I wrote special material for club acts such as lyrics, I wrote jingles, and most importantly, I joined the BMI musical theatre workshop which had a great conductor named Raymond Engel. I studied with him the craft of writing musical theater.
Shortly after that I met Howard Ashman, and our first show, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, was produced in 1979. Our second show, Little Shop of Horrors, put us on the map. In-between I did a show with Michael Bennett called Battle of the Giants, I did a show called Real-Life Funnies, but it was the Little Shop of Horrors that really went all the way – it became a hit in New York, then Los Angeles, London, and all over the world. It became a successful movie. It was Little Shop of Horrors that brought Howard and myself to the attention of Disney. We began writing animated features: LITTLE MERMAID, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, ALADDIN and POCAHONTAS. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST was a dapted into a Broadway show. There’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL which opened last year, and many other projects I’ve done at Disney and elsewhere.
Which orchestral cues for POCAHONTAS were you particularly proud of? “Ship at Sea” is a very dramatic piece…
“Ship at Sea” is a cue that always reminded me of a cue from LITTLE MERMAID, the storm sequence, which is one of the first underscore cues I ever wrote. I worked so hard on the storm sequence; it took me weeks just to figure out my style of scoring. But “Ship at Sea” was written in a couple of hours. I developed as a scorer over the years. “Ship at Sea” is the second musical piece in POCAHONTAS. The only material that one has heard is “The Virginia Company”. So “Ship at Sea” basically takes the “Virginia Company” theme and plays with it all kinds of ways. I also introduced into “Ship at Sea” the theme that becomes John Smith’s theme, which was taken from the bridge section. Basically “Ship at Sea” works toward a climax. There’s a storm coming, waves begin to crash, you have the Smith theme heroically rising, the music ebbs also.
Which orchestral cues in LITTLE MERMAID were particularly important?
I always loved “Fireworks” because it’s a fanfare. You have this twinkling figure and there’s this brass fanfare coming against it.
I like “Flotsam and Jetsam” a lot…
It was by Kurt Weill. It’s an offshoot of LITTLE MERMAID’S theme, very playful, it’s eastern European, and it’s a little bit influenced by Grieg.
Which orchestral piece is your own personal favorite in BEAUTYAND THE BEAST?
There are a couple of times in your career when you write a piece of music that will have the strength of a song. The “Prologue” in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST has that strength. The very first thing you hear is very impressionistic; it is certainly influenced by the impressionist composers and also by Saint Saens.
I am particularly fond of “First Transformation”…
That one has everything plus the kitchen sink. First of all you have the “death” of the Beast. I took the BEAUTY AND THE BEAST theme and played it as an elegy, as a very mournful piece. And then you have the miraculous moment when he rises in the air – as that happens I start this churning figure and it culminates in their kiss. Then she realizes that this handsome prince is actually this grotesque beast that’s she’s been in love with. It’s fun to go back to the comedic elements in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, as they transform back into human beings.
In ALADDIN there’s a wonderful cue called “The Marketplace”.
It’s filled with dramatic material that I’ve been playing with since I was a child. I always wanted to write a cue like that. It’s a piece of music that was very influenced by Middle Eastern motifs. What I tried to do was writing a piece that had a feeling of being complete, yet had a lot of action. It’s very ebullient.
There’s the memorable “Farewell” theme in POCAHONTAS…
I’ve never had a piece of music that I’ve written that has apparently caused more tears. It’s both the culmination and the end of a love story, and they’re going to be separated. That cue was actually written 6 months before the film was released, because they wanted to have it for early previews. Pocahontas is running, the wind is blowing in her hair and you hear the chorus…
When you started to work for Disney, was that the realization of a dream?
When I was a child, Disney was just about the greatest artistic influence in our lives at that time. I grew up seeing DUMBO, CINDERELLA, FANTASIA, THE LADY AND THE TRAMP — these were great experiences. I realized as a child the influence of music on those projects.
Do you think that the use of music in animation has changed over the years? In the old days they chose a song writer and an orchestral composer, but you are both….
It is something new. I have Howard Ashman to thank for that. When we were deciding who was going to score LITTLE MERMAID, Howard said, “Why don’t you do it?” I said, “I’ve never scored before.” And he said, “You can learn.” I had a very bad experience prior to my working with Disney, and that was on LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. Here we had this hit musical, it was adapted into a film, and the first recognition that it received in terms of awards was a nomination for Best Score. It went to a man named Miles Goodman, because I wasn’t eligible to be recognized for Best Score because my songs had been written for the off-Broadway musical. That was shocking to me. I realized that in Hollywood, there’s a distinction between the song score and the underscore. To me, my works are complete works; I wanted to have the same stamp on all of the work. Consequently, I took on the job of underscoring LITTLE MERMAID.
How did you feel when you first heard that “The Oscar for Best Original Score” goes to A LITTLE MERMAID’ (1989)..?
I felt a number of things. I was shocked, I was thrilled, I felt like a mule had kicked me in the back. I also felt kind of guilty, because this had been my first score, and I know that there is a natural advantage that flows to me because of the songs. So I said kind of sheepishly, “I’ll take it, I’ll take it!” But I understand that it’s going to be very difficult for a purely dramatic underscore to compete with these projects because of the recognition factor, and consequently there has been a rule change. This year (this interview took place in September 1995 – LVDV) there is going to be a separate category for dramatic underscore and musical. Which I think is good. It gives those orchestral writers back the pure recognition of their work which is so brilliant. But no one could have been more gracious than John Williams. That summer, there was a “Little Mermaid” suite that was played by the Boston Pops, and who was conducting it? John Williams!
You have won six Oscars, two Grammies, two Golden Globes…
Actually it’s nine Grammies, six Golden Globes, six Oscars.
For POCAHONTAS I’m sure that you’ll be nominated again. How important is it for you and your career to win such awards?
Well, it’s very nice to win those awards. It’ll be very painful to lose if I felt that what I lost to wasn’t as good! We’re in a field that has a lot of politics and I’m sure that there are those who feel, rightfully so, that “Hasn’t Alan Menken won enough awards?” But at the same time, if the work merits it, then I think it’s only fair that it be awarded.
What is your working relationship like with your collaborators? What comes first, the melody or the words?
The process of writing the songs always changes within every collaboration. With Howard Ashman, often we would start with the idea of a song and then just sit down together. I’d either give him a piece of music, or maybe he’d have a title and I’d write the music to the title. Or maybe I’d just give him a pure piece of music, maybe he’d give me a lyric, and I would set the lyric (to music).
There was every sort of graduation of change. I found that basically to be the case with most of my collaborations. The exception being Tim Rice, because Tim and I don’t often write in the same room. He’ll send me a lyric or I’ll send him a piece of music. I found that my collaborators are such talented people, we all have so many experiences that we’re able to write in a wide variety of ways.
What is your composing technique like? How important is the orchestrator?
The orchestrator is unbelievably important to me. I think I work with the best orchestrators in the world. My prime orchestrator, Danny True, is a brilliant orchestrator. I worked on LINCOLN and on HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DRAME with Michael Starabin. When I get my orchestrators I give them my complete piano arrangement, and in terms of score I give them a two-stave piano score. We have a discussion about every cue, what the intention is; sometimes I’m more specific about the voicing but sometimes I’ll just say, “Take a look at the video and orchestrate it.” Danny often finds new nuances so that it becomes an artistic collaboration with my orchestrator.
Why didn’t you write the underscore for NEWSIES?
I didn’t have the time and I wish I could have. I believe it was released in March – BEAUTY AND THE BEAST had been released in December. It was only 3 months’ difference. I was working heavily on BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. It was decided that we should get another underscorer for NEWSIES. If it happened now I might request that they put the release date off so that I’d be able to score it…
How did you get the assignment to score the TV documentary LINCOLN? I think it was your first real orchestral score…
Actually the Kunhardts, who directed that documentary, are neighbors of mine. They live close by. They liked my work a lot. They had no way of knowing that I could write that kind of score. They contacted me after LITTLE MERMAID, even before BEAUTY AND THE BEAST was released. They used some piano temp versions of things of mine, for a year beforehand, as they worked on their documentary.