By Brandon Voss
Originally published on Advocate.com January 04 2008 12:00 AM ET
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. As the stage version of The Little
Mermaid prepares to open January 10 at Broadway’s
Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Menken told Advocate.com how
he’s floated on without his beloved friend.
I recently heard you sing selections from The
Little Mermaid for an intimate press audience.
Do you enjoy performing your own compositions?
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?
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?
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
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.
Has your work changed since Howard’s death?
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.
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
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
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.
Have you ever felt stifled or censored by Disney?
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 [-person] 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
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