Alan Menken: The First Act

As The Little Mermaid prepares for its Broadway debut, composer Alan Menken reflects on his years of collaboration and friendship with the late gay lyricist Howard Ashman.

BY Brandon Voss

January 04 2008 12:00 AM ET

Just nominated for a Best Original Song Golden Globe Award for his work on Enchanted, eight-time Academy Award-winning composer Alan Menken is best known for his collaborations with lyricist Howard Ashman, who succumbed to AIDS in 1991 after completing Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. With the stage version of The Little Mermaid opening January 10 at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Menken explains how he’s floated on without his beloved friend.

Advocate.com: I recently heard you sing selections from The Little Mermaid for an intimate press audience. Do you enjoy performing your own compositions?
Alan Menken: I like it. I used to do it a lot more. I actually have to rehearse because I know that I can’t dance through them, especially now that most people know my songs better than I do.

You’ve written new songs and extended others for the stage version of The Little Mermaid. What was the biggest challenge for you in bringing it to Broadway?
The biggest challenge for me was not as big as it was for everybody else. Physically bringing The Little Mermaid to the stage was the biggest challenge. It was very natural and very clear where the new songs needed to go. The biggest challenge, I guess, was finding a way to deepen the characters of Prince Eric and King Triton, and really nail that emotional arc that runs through the show in a way that gives it more context and substance, and gives a greater depth to the score.

Was it difficult to revisit these characters after almost 20 years?
This is something I’ve done many times before, but obviously, doing something without Howard is very different than doing something with Howard. I went through that first on Aladdin, and I went through it on Broadway’s Beauty and the Beast, and now I’ve gone through it on Mermaid. So I’m certainly used to it. Getting back into the heads of the characters was not hard for me, but another challenge is making room for other people to claim authorial ownership of these characters as well.

Did it feel odd to retool Howard’s and your songs with lyricist Glenn Slater?
It wasn’t terribly odd. Again, it’s something I’m very used to. And I always felt that Glenn was a good match for Howard, that he had a similar, wicked, slightly cruel sense of humor. He’s similarly hip. He’s a different person than Howard, and I would never want to even attempt to re-create the soul of Howard. But the souls of the characters, as interpreted through Glenn, are very compatible with those interpreted through Howard.

How did you deal with Howard’s passing?
It was about a year of passing, so to speak, because back in those days we assumed that AIDS was a death sentence. Howard knew all the way back when we were just starting Little Mermaid, when the Little Shop of Horrors movie was coming out, but none of us knew until five years later. He did so much with that shadow hanging over him. In terms of Mermaid, what was hanging over us was between the lines and maybe on a subconscious level, but I did not know. When he finally told me, right after the Academy Awards for The Little Mermaid, in one way it was sad, traumatizing, and frightening. In another way, it cleared things up. It was very important to him to maintain secrecy all throughout us working on Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, and he passed away not knowing that there were going to be major changes in Aladdin. They didn’t want to come to him and tell him, “We’re cutting the character of the mother, we’re cutting the sidekicks, and all these different changes are going to be happening.” And he passed away thinking that Beauty was not going to be successful — he thought, No, it’s wrong, it’s not working. But that was his general nature. He was very much a problem solver and often — I hate to say it — a glass-half-empty guy. But he created some of the greatest full glasses for all of us out of all that.

Tags: Theater

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