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.



Have you ever felt stifled or censored by Disney?
There are certainly limits to what you can do. The cruelty of your humor has to be tempered with the fact that it’s going to reach the entire Disney audience, and we’ve all had the experience of what trouble you can get in. You could say that [Beauty and the Beast’s] Gaston is making fun of this particularly dumb guy, but there are other aspects of Gaston, that Howard was reaching at, that certain people are going to have fun with but other people are going to have no idea are in there — if you know what I mean. At the same time, when we wrote “Arabian Nights” at the top of Aladdin and were making fun of Arab stereotypes, that was clearly something we had to soften. When we were writing Home on the Range and looking for ways to make our outlaw more fun, Glenn and I had a lot of fat jokes in there, and they had to go.

Are you ever able to explore your darker side?
Yeah, I certainly have edgier work. Leap of Faith is edgier, Sister Act [the Musical] is somewhat edgier. I thought Little Shop of Horrors was really edgy. I thought kids were going to be scared — all the blood, the severed limbs being fed — and of course it became a favorite of young audiences. I don’t usually do things that succeed by shock value, but it doesn’t come out of any strict moral code on my part. It just doesn’t resonate for me emotionally. I really like telling stories. The times when art is most significant to me is when things are really raw and painful — when they can speak to you and either give you solace or insight. Shock value stuff doesn’t do that for me.

When are Sister Act and Leap of Faith expected to hit Broadway?
Sister Act played in Los Angeles about a year ago and then Atlanta last winter. We’re retooling it, and it’s slated to have a production in London next fall. Leap of Faith is having workshops this spring, will go into production late in ’08, and come to Broadway in spring of ’09. But it’s very hard to predict anything.

Until then, what should I see if The Little Mermaid is sold-out?
Hairspray, Spring Awakening, Young Frankenstein sight unseen, Rent for the 10th time. But to be honest, I don’t see a lot of musicals. I live up here in the sticks of northern Westchester [County, outside New York City] — which I really like — except it becomes difficult for me to make it into the city. I’m very involved with my writing and I travel a lot, so I don’t see nearly as much as I'd like to. I’m always behind.

Finally — and this might be like Sophie’s choice — if you could only pick one, which of your songs would you want to be remembered for?
Oh, Jesus. I can’t. Unless you’re going to be the Nazi and hold a gun to my children’s heads, I can’t.

Tags: Theater