The composer of “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin” has words of wisdom for creative strivers. Do the work, but don’t fall in love with it, Alan Menken says. Kill your darlings and keep moving.
“If you fall in love with your own material and it causes you agony to rewrite, you’re going to spend a lot of time in agony,” said Menken, 69, who has an awards cabinet at home for his Grammys (11), Academy Awards (eight) and Tony (2012, for “Newsies”).
“Trust the process. Put it out there, and don’t invest it in emotionally,” Menken said. “When people fall in love with their own work, if you have a success, it makes you act like an a-hole. And if you have a failure, it’s like, ‘Oh, my children, oh my God.’ That whole drama you don’t need.”
Menken is best known for his work on beloved animated Disney films, including “Pocahontas” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” He’s had a long career in the theater as well. His breakout musical, with the late Howard Ashman, was “Little Shop of Horrors,” followed by the musical adaptation of “Sister Act” and “Leap of Faith.”
Menken wrote the music for the 2016 musical “A Bronx Tale,” based on the autobiographical 1993 Chazz Palminteri film about a New York boy charmed by a charismatic mob boss. The national Equity tour of “Bronx Tale” runs in Overture Hall Tuesday through Sunday, May 19, in Overture Hall.
Menken spoke to the Cap Times via phone from his studio in New York following a morning of video work on the new live action “Aladdin.” He was about to embark on a two-and-a-half-week international tour to promote the film. (“Aladdin,” starring Will Smith, opens locally May 23).
You composed some new songs for the live action “Aladdin.” What was it like coming back to it 25 years later?
Just the high-profile nature of the success of these projects, you never get a chance to go, “Oh, it’s back!” because it never goes away.
With Disney, now we’re celebrating the 30th anniversary of “The Little Mermaid” so that’s front and center, and they’re bringing “Beauty” back to Broadway. Plus I’m doing the “Little Mermaid” live action movie, and “Hunchback” is playing all over the world, and there’s talk about being a live action movie with that. There’s going to be a stage musical of “Hercules.”
None of these things go away for me long enough to miss them. It’s a good problem to have, but I prefer when I’m working on something new.
“A Bronx Tale” is specific to New York. Do you think it plays differently in rest of the country?
My sense is there’s a specific audience for “Bronx Tale” and it’s all over the place. That world, the world of the mob, and that Italian kind of ethos, is really fascinating to people. That audience knows what they’re coming to see, they like what they’re coming to see. It’s a show for them.
For people who really know musical theater, they get it. For people who are on the edges, they might go, “Oh, it’s not ‘Hamilton,’” breaking new ground. But it’s the show we wanted to create for “Bronx Tale.”
With Disney (adaptations for the stage), it’s always, “Aw, I thought you were going to do this,” or “Why’d you change that?” Not as much with “Bronx Tale.”
I recently saw a high school production of “Little Shop of Horrors” with more than a dozen doo-wop girls instead of a trio and three people playing the plant, including an onstage singer and dancer. How do you feel about changes like that?
What’s great about live theater is I always say I consider myself an architect. I create a house other people are going to live in. Different people will live in the house differently, use it differently. It’s a live and dynamic experience.
So I like it! Other people might like it less, like if some member of a team has passed away. When it’s a first-time production in a big city, you don’t want a different take on the material, or if the original author’s not alive.
My suspicion is that we designed it right. People will play with it but discover the strength in doing what we intended.
As you’ve become more successful with more demands on your time, has your composition process evolved?
My favorite part is creating. I’ll have collaborators here and we go, OK, what’s the structure of this musical? What’s the concept? What are the song moments, and what song moment are we going to work on today?
You dive into that in the context of what you’ve written. You’re creating a score, so it’s all interdependent. You have to love the work.
Our job is to find the gestalt within a song moment, what needs to happen dramaturgically to push the story forward. What’s the vocabulary we want to be using? What kind of song moment do you want this to be?
With a musical like “Bronx Tale,” as with many musicals I write, style is a big brush I paint with. Even if you mute the lyrics and play the music, you would get a good sense of, “This is what’s happening in this moment.” You’re picking from a palate of colors and styles. That’s the fun of writing musicals is sifting through the possibilities and finding what are the best.
I read that you don’t have a trunk full of songs that you can just pull out to repurpose for the next show, like some composers have done.
I do have a trunk, but I don’t reach into the trunk and say, “That’s a good one, let’s put that there!” It was written for that spot, and it belongs to that spot. For me, it’s not that hard to write a good song. The point is to write a song that’s right for that moment, for that character, in that musical.
It always feels weird to reach in and say we’re going to put that song in there. That would make me crazy. You’re cheating yourself of serving your character.
You move among things quickly. Is that tough?
It’s a necessity. Musicals can take ages to get on, with rights issues other things. If you’re sitting with one musical, or even two projects, you could be spending a lot of down time. The saddest thing I’ve ever seen is to see a writer who wrote a musical. They say, “I love my musical and I couldn’t get it on,” or “I got it on but the reviewer didn’t like it.” And every time you see them still working on that precious musical.
Come on. Start another one, and another one. Don’t let go of the other one but don’t get stuck hawking one thing. Your job is to create a dramatic experience driven by songs. If only to be improving your craft, you should be doing it a lot.
For an artist, no one musical is your career. No one project is your life. Keep doing it and do lots of them. Some of them are going to take off.
And some of them are going to stink!