Alan Menken: The First Act

By Brandon Voss

Originally published on Advocate.com January 04 2008 1:00 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. 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?
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.

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.

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.