Alan Menken: The Musical Renaissance

Alan Menken really hasn’t scored many movies, probably the least of the composers in the Composer Series, but his impact on Hollywood is substantial.  His story starts in musical theater, and quickly transitions into his work on the big screen.  His work with Howard Ashman is another example of amazing collaboration and his part of the Disney renaissance should be recognized. 

Alan Menken was born in New Rochelle, New York in 1949.  His family was musical, with his father playing the standards of Gershwin and hit Broadway songs.  It wasn’t long until the young Menken began composing at the piano instead of practicing.  In high school, he continued playing violin and piano.  Coming from a long line of family of dentists (including his grandfather, uncle and father), he took premed classes when he got accepted into New York University in 1967.  Not surprisingly, Menken followed his heart, and took music classes and eventually graduated NYU in 1971 with a degree in music. 

After graduation, Menken found himself playing piano in clubs, performing his own work and writing jingles.  Working in the New York cabaret scene, he found himself writing revues and musicals.  To please his parents, Menken signed up for the BMI Musical Theater Workshop, which was led by Lehman Engel.  The program provided a workshop for musical theater composers and lyricists – many other ‘graduates’ have gone on to lengthy Broadway careers.  At the Workshop, he met Howard Ashman.  Their first collaboration was on the 1979 musical God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, based on the Kurt Vonnegut novel.  The musical premiered at the WPA Theater in New York, where Ashman was the artistic director.  Their next work together was Little Shop of Horrors, with music by Menken and lyrics and book by Ashman.  Opening Off-Broadway in 1982, the show lasted until 1987 becoming one of the longest running and highest grossing Off-Broadway musical.  It is no surprise that the hit show would make it to the big screen.  The film version of Little Shop of Horrors (1986), retooled some songs and added a song "Mean Green Mother From Outer Space", which was nominated for Best Song at the 59th Academy Awards. 

Menken’s life would change with his next project.  The journey to The Little Mermaid (1989), starting when Howard Ashman was first brought on as a writer for the film in 1987.  As the story changed, Menken and Ashman’s Broadway sensibilities were added to the structure of the film.  While as a team, they wrote several songs including "Kiss the Girl", "Part of Your World" and "Under the Sea".  Menken’s role for the film expanded as he was hired to write the underscore to the film.  The film ended up being a complete success, winning Disney over to a new renaissance of animated musical films.  Ashman and Menken were nominated twice for Best Song at the Oscars for "Kiss the Girl" and winning for "Under the Sea".  Pitted against nominees like John Williams, Dave Grusin and James Horner, Menken took home both the Golden Globe for Original Score as well as the Academy Award for Original Score

Menken’s other music contributions around the same time were "Measure of a Man" from Rocky V (1990) and several songs for Sesame Street in 1989 and 1990 (It’s Gonna Get Dirty Again, Todos un Pueblo and Martian Family (Yip Yip Song)). 

It should not be a surprise that Disney’s next project Beauty and the Beast (1991) featured an underscore by Menken and songs by Menken and Ashman.  The songs include: "Belle", "Something There", "Beauty and the Beast" and "Be Our Guest".  At the time, Ashman began suffering from complications of AIDS, but began working on the next Disney project, Aladdin (1992).  Ashman died at the age of 50 during production, never seeing the finished film.  At the Oscars, the film itself was nominated for Best Picture (a first for an animated film), and the songs "Be Our Guest" and "Belle" were nominated.  The score by Menken won as well as the title song, "Beauty and the Beast".  The score/song won also at the Golden Globes, and won numerous Grammys (thanks to the pop version of the title song). 

With Ashman’s death and only a few songs written for Aladdin (1992), Menken turned to lyricist Tim Rice to finish the rest of the songs.  Songs for the film include: "Arabian Nights", "Prince Ali", "Friend Like Me" and "A Whole New World".  Like Beauty and Mermaid, Menken’s score contains themes from the songs in the underscore.  Menken took over the award ceremonies yet again, especially at the Oscars, with "Friend Like Me" nominated (Ashman’s last posthumous nomination) and both the song "A Whole New World" and the score winning 2 more Oscars for Menken. 

Also in 1992 were Menken’s songs for the live-action Disney film Newsies.  (JAC Redford provided the score for the film).  Menken also wrote a song for Home Alone 2 (1992) called "My Christmas Tree".  Proving he was more than a “song man”, Menken scored the PBS TV documentary Lincoln (1992).  He scored another live action film, Life With Mikey (1993).  Menken did compose one song for the film – "Cold Enough to Snow", with lyrics with future collaborator Stephen Schwartz.  In 1994, Beauty and the Beast was adapted for the Broadway stage, with new songs added with lyrics by Tim Rice.

It was Stephen Schwartz that was brought with Menken for the next Disney film, Pocahontas (1995).  Following the past formula, Menken composed the underscore and songs.  The songs included "Just Around the Riverbend", "If I Never Knew You", and the runaway hit "Colors of the Wind".  The song’s pop version was a large success on the Billboard charts – winning a Grammy, Golden Globe and Oscar.  Menken’s score also won the Oscar for Best Score (the first year of the two categories for Comedy/Dramatic Score).  Menken and Schwartz also collaborated on the next Disney film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996).  Again, songs by the duo with the score by Menken.  The score is actually darker than the rest of the film, and while it relies on the songs for melodies, but uses Latin chants.  Songs included: "Out There", "Topsy Turvy" and "God Help the Outcasts".  While no songs were nominated from the film, the score was both nominated for the Golden Globe and the Oscar.  (This would be the last time Menken would be nominated in the score categories).  Menken next composed the score and songs for the next Disney film, Hercules (1997).  The hit song "Go the Distance" was nominated for Best Song at the Oscars .  Around this time, Menken also had stage works like the oratorio King David (with Tim Rice, 1997) and the German musical version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1999). 

As the Disney renaissance passed, Menken didn’t score any more Disney films until 2004’s flop Home on the Range.  Menken composed the Western themed score, and of course – the songs.  This time, he found a new collaborator - lyricist Glenn Slater.  Menken also scored the live-action film Noel (2004), and also did a song called "Winter Light", with lyricist Stephen Schwartz.  Menken’s next film was The Shaggy Dog (2006), in which he only did the underscore.  Menken’s next Disney role was for the songs and score of Enchanted (2007), which purposely incorporated great Disney moments.  He took over the song category at the Academy Awards with three nominations for: "Happy Working Song", "So Close", and "That’s How You Know". 

In 2008, Menken returned to Broadway with the adaptation of The Little Mermaid.  The film songs remained, with extra songs by Menken and Glenn Slater.  Menken and Slater also worked on the Disney animated film Tangled (2010).  Yet again, Menken provided the score.   The song "I See the Light" was nominated for the Golden Globe, Oscar and won a Grammy.  Menken contributed the song "Star Spangled Man" to the film Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011.    

With no intention of slowing down, Menken composed the songs for the musical Sister Act, Leap of Faith and a stage adaptation of Newsies.  In a rare move for a composer, all three shows were on at the same time on Broadway in 2012.  It was Newsies that won Menken his first Tony Award for original score.  In 2012 he also scored the film Mirror Mirror.

Menken was inducted as a Disney Legend in 2001, and in 2008 was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.  He is a storyteller in both song and score, and one of the most prolific composers in the past decades.  It was Menken and Disney that perhaps changed the Academy Award rules twice – once for the split in Dramatic/Comedy score to get anyone else to win, and then in the Best Song category so that not as many songs from a film could be nominated. 

While his collaboration with Howard Ashman was the peak, he was able to work with Tim Rice, Stephen Schwartz and Glenn Slater and their work was equally effective.  Menken currently holds the record for living person with the most Academy Awards with 8 wins.  Alan Menken has become a treasure on screen and on stage, with countless children and adults alike mesmerized by his melodies.  
Menken (L) and Ashman (R) winning the Oscar for "Under the Sea" (1989)

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