Interview with Alan Menken

If you know anything about Disney and its music, you surely know the name Alan Menken. Alan has created the songs and music from such timeless Disney classics as “Beauty and the Beast”, “Aladdin”, “The Little Mermaid” and the list just goes on. His last work is on Disney’s new hit film “Tangled”. With the awards season around the corner and Alan’s score and songs for “Tangled” is already buzzing up a storm. Movie Mikes had a chance to chat with Alan about his music and his process for creating such memorable songs.

Click here to purchase Alan’s scores

Mike Gencarelli: Tell us about how you originally got involved with Disney?
Alan Menken: I originally got involved through my late collaborator Howard Ashman. The contact to Disney though really came from a number of directions. One the main directions was David Geffman, who produced our “Little Shop of Horrors” movie and a close associate to Jeffrey Katzenberg. They were looking for talent young composers and work on their animated musicals.

MG: When you are collaborating on a song, which comes first: the music or the lyrics?
AM: What comes first is us giving ourselves a clear assignment. We have a lot of questions we want to have answers for ourselves and the coordination with the directors, before I touch the piano or my collaborator touches the PC.  But generally these days I would say the music comes first. Often we will have a title and I will write a piece of music around that title. I always will write with my collaborator in the room to structure what I am thinking musically. That way it is in total coordination with his imagination and he is able to figure out what he wants to say.  How much we wants to say? What the dramatic impulse will be? How long he wants the sentences to be? So, generally music first but with a strong tense of what will be said in mind as I write the music.

MG: How do you you feel the music in “Tangled” differs from other Disney films?
AM: At least in a couple of places it is more guitar and folk rock orientated than any of the others. That was the intention, when I looked at Rapunzel with her long hair and her urge for freedom. I wanted to think what fresh vocabulary we could give to this that hasn’t been heard before but still compatible to the classic Disney sound. I thought about Joni Mitchell and the song ‘Chelsea Morning’ and I felt folk rock as something that would be a good place to go.

MG: Tell us what was your favorite track on the “Tangled” soundtrack?
AM: Well I love ‘I See The Light’. The song is a great moment in the film and I am very happy with the beauty and simplicity of the song. ‘Mother Knows Best’ is a track I was very pleased with. Honestly, I was happy with the whole thing in general. To bring up the score tracks, ‘Waiting for the Lights’ is one of the best score moments I believe I have ever written.

MG: When do you start to create the music? Is prior to seeing footage or is it when you have a script?
AM: I get to be involved at the very top of the project and the very end of the project…and everything in between. In the very beginning when we are writing songs, there is nothing but an empty room with some sketches around. We have some story ideas and we all sort of start together. It is very important. We are hired not only to write but to also consult as to where songs should go and how they should function. We also need to make sure the score has a life of it own but at the same time be totally compatible with what the characters in the story are doing. Then I get to be at the very end, when I am really there working with the directors and fulfilling their vision of how they want to finish the movie.

MG: How was it working with directors Nathan Greno And Byron Howard on “Tangled”?
AM: Actually they where very hands on. They are younger and they had a strong vision of what they wanted. They actually forced me to go to places I haven’t gone before, as far as the score is more live-action. The underscore that is. They were very concerned about wanting to keep the songs contemporary. They definitely guided me in a different direction and I was very grateful for that.

MG: I personally grew up listening to your music for “Aladdin”, “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid”, how do you feel that your music has affected so many people?
AM: It is incredible! I look back at it as those where the years of my life when I first started regularly in Hollywood and I enjoyed that time. It was great. As to the affect it had on people, that was obviously something that went far beyond what any of us could have predicted. I feel blessed, I think is the best way to look at it. I feel like I was just doing what I do and I was very fortunate.

MG: Of all the films you have worked on, do you have a favorite?
AM: Not really. No, I don’t. Honestly I can say truthfully every one of them are scores that I am equally proud of. As a movie and as a general experience, the one that did not receive the success it deserves was “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. That was clearly the most ambitious of our projects.

MG: How does it feel to have won more Academy awards then any other living composer in Oscar history?
AM: Actually, its any living person [laughs]. I was winning at a time when my scores we getting sort of two for one. We were getting recognized for scores and also as individual songs. It was new form that was very dominate. I am very proud of what we did but I think it is a fluke that I have won so many.

MG: Any truth to the rumor of a live action “Beauty and the Beast” film?
AM: There was but it is now shelved. We were actually working on it though. Doug Wright had written a new Umberto and I wrote a new song for Tim Rice. Who knows it may find the light of day.  But at the moment, no.

MG: Are you still planning to adapt “Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Newsies” for the stage?
AM: Yes it is. Those are on the way. Actually we have basically four or five stage musicals in the works at the moment and a number of them are actually adaptations of films.

MG: Do you find that more different to adapt music for the stage than for the screen?
AM: Well stage is definitely more hands on. There is no point where is it “finished” since it is constantly being rewritten and constantly being reinterpreted on stage every time it is being performed. Where as with film you get it right once. You can walk away and let others do what they do and enjoy it. The technique of what we do as writers is very much the same though. We still have to tell the story, speak through the characters and use the same type of dramatic techniques that we use on stage and in film.

MG: What do you feel the future holds for films with music in them like in “Tangled”?
AM: It is hard to say, it really is. I am always pleased and a bit surprised when they come back and say they want to do another. There is always an issue with doing full out musicals. First since there is a whole other layer of expense and work that has to happen in order for a musical to work correctly. Also because the public’s appetite for musicals waxes and wanes, you know it comes and goes. I would say when “Tangled” was supposed to be released, I figured we would be pretty much done with musicals for a while. I think the success of “Tangled” has been a revelation and a surprise and therefore I think there will be at least another one. But I do not know what it will be or when it will be. But luckily, knock on wood, we kept the form alive to fight another day.

Click here to purchase Alan’s scores


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