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.



Has your work changed since Howard’s death?
The biggest change that happened when Howard became ill and after he died was that I had to assume a certain amount of control, when Howard had clearly been the boss. I was the composer, but he was the lyricist, book writer, and director, and those three hats certainly had him pointing the finger and saying, “Let’s do this.” I was a very strong collaborator with him, but it was very clear that I was more the catalyst and he was the spark. Then I had to reach over and grab the flame as we were finishing Aladdin and bringing Beauty and the Beast to the stage. I had to become comfortable representing both of us. When he was alive, I knew that anything I thought was absolutely the right thing. We'd come into a meeting and Howard would say, “No, no, it’s gotta be like this.” And I’d go, “Oh, of course you’re right.” I hope I’ve gained a lot of wisdom since then, and I think he approves, wherever he is, of the choices I’ve made.

Bringing The Little Mermaid to the stage must be very bittersweet.
Oh, it’s always bittersweet. Every day is bittersweet. Trying to re-create the excitement of that collaboration is impossible. You can’t re-create two young writers in their early 30s coming together and writing [God Bless You, Mr.] Rosewater, Little Shop of Horrors, and experiencing Howard’s very rare and unique ability to channel all kinds of American pop, theater, and fascinating musical styles through stories in a really hip, funny way. I know, had Howard lived, we would’ve written countless other projects together, and I’m sure my career would’ve been quite different being a part of that collaboration. He and I both were in other collaborations as well, but I don’t think any of them were equal. I think it was important for him to maintain sort of an independence — same thing for me. It’s hard to say whether there would’ve been an Ashman and Menken like Kander and Ebb and Rodgers and Hammerstein, but we were very close. We were like brothers, but at the same time, we kind of chafed at that.

How did your being straight and his being gay affect your working dynamic?
It was great, but it was just the way it was. At the time I was working with Howard, all of the collaborators I was working with were gay — Tom Eyen, Steve Brown. I lost all of them in one two-year period. It was a whole world of people who perished in one giant tsunami wave. Frankly, through most of it, I and other people kept saying “Well, but Howard’s OK” — because he kept it from us. And then Howard was not OK.

You’ve been married to a woman for about 35 years. But because you’re in musical theater, do you think that some people just assume you’re gay too?
Why, you know something? [Laughs] You may know better than I do. I don’t know and I don’t care. It doesn’t really matter to me. I do find it weird, on some of my projects, to say, “Look at this, it’s an old heterosexual team!” It is kind of strange sometimes. I don’t know if there’s a difference in sensibility, but I’ve treasured my collaborations with all of my gay collaborators. But it’s hard to define, and it’s probably not productive to define. Suffice it to say, I loved Howard as much as I loved anybody in my life.

What was it like for you when Beauty and the Beast closed in July 2007 after more than 13 years on Broadway?
It’s very emotional. I wish it didn’t have to close — and it didn’t, really. Part of it was calculated. In terms of Howard’s memory, you hate to see one chapter end. But I feel like Howard’s an active part of my life now, because so much of what I do is still involved with stuff we’ve done. And I believe there will be many future permutations, spin-offs, and ways of interpreting Beauty and the Beast and the work we did in it.

How did you approach Enchanted considering that, in many ways, it’s a spoof of your signature genre?
Well, even with Little Mermaid there was a spoof aspect to what we were doing. “True Love’s Kiss” is really a spoof on Snow White, so that was OK. When it came to “Happy Working Song,” when she's calling the woodland creatures but it’s really the rats, cockroaches, and pigeons, that was more of a spoof of Belle [from Beauty and the Beast] — but just so loving. It’s not really making fun of the other projects or what I’ve done. It’s a very gentle spoof.

Tags: Theater