As Beauty and the Beast shatters box office records worldwide, Sean Wilson looks back at the illustrious Disney career of its celebrated composer Alan Menken…
Disney’s in-vogue trend of rebooting their animated classics shows no signs of abating, as their live-action take on 1991 masterpiece Beauty and the Beast waltzes onto screens. Starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens in the lead roles, it’s a movie that hews pretty closely to the template of the original (with one or two additional vignettes including a new Beast solo performance), and one critical aspect of its nostalgia is the return of composer Alan Menken.
A man synonymous with the Disney brand ever since the company’s renaissance back in 1989, Menken’s return to Beauty and the Beast territory is a key factor in the new movie’s success, the composer bolstering his original, enchanting score with reworked versions of classic tunes like ‘Be Our Guest’ and throwing in all-new ones, too. The music creates a vital link to the past yet its essential updates also remind us this is a revised version for a new generation, old and new meeting in the middle. And if you wanted to be reminded as to why Menken is so important to the movie, here’s a little Disney recap.
SEE ALSO: Read our interview with Alan Menken here
The Little Mermaid (1989)
Disney’s fortunes were not in a good way come the late 1980s, the studio having suffered a long line of flops like The Black Cauldron and various upheavals with its animation staff. No-one could have predicted that the sweet and uplifting story of Ariel would go down a storm, heralding a new era for the company. Much of the success was arguably down to Menken, already noted for his multifaceted stage work like Little Shop of Horrors who, with his late lyricist Howard Ashman, helped inaugurate a sense of freshness and joy in both the songs and score. The two men repackaged that elusive sense of Disney magic for a new generation, winning two Oscars and helping open the door to arguably the most fruitful period in Disney’s history.
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The upsurge in Disney’s fortunes continued with the release of this exquisite masterpiece, a sumptuous romantic fable whose depth of emotion and visual storytelling casts a long shadow over much of today’s releases. A great deal of the story’s conviction can be credited to both Menken and Ashman who, in an about-face from the infectious calypso of The Little Mermaid, invest a far more melancholy, elegiac mood befitting the nature of the storyline. A magnificent tapestry of the exuberant (‘Be Our Guest’) and the heartfelt (the title number, which won an Oscar), it’s all glued together by Menken’s robust underscore (another Academy Award-winner). Who can forget the gentle piano and glockenspiel accompanying David Ogden Stiers’ opening narration?
Completing an extraordinary creative hat-trick for Menken, this uproarious, thrilling and uniquely Disney take on the Arabian Nights mythology allowed the composer to move his orchestral textures into new territory, drawing on the rich instrumentation of the Middle East, yielding yet another Oscar for Best Score in the process. At the same time he honours the Disney formula by letting rip with the showstopping numbers we’ve come to expect, although the exuberance was this time tinged with real sadness: Menken’s close friend and collaborator Howard Ashman passed away eight months before the release of the film, and the esteemed Tim Rice was brought in to help complete the songs. Even so, the Aladdin soundtrack stands as a powerful testament to the extraordinarily imaginative partnership between Ashman and Menken, one that helped save Disney from the doldrums.
One of Disney’s more controversial offerings saw them straying into far more grown-up territory than usual (to be followed the following year by The Hunchback of Notre Dame), this 1995 animation dogged by claims of whitewashing and historical misappropriation. Regardless of the film’s flaws it did allow for a much more sincere and grown-up musical accompaniment from Menken, whose scores and songs gained in stature as the Disney renaissance proceeded. Whatever doubts people harbour over the movie it’s difficult to quibble with the beauty of the film’s main number, ‘Colours of the Wind’, an earnest and heartfelt attempt to invest young listeners in Native American culture and the contours of the landscape. And yes, Menken garnered another two Oscars for both score and song.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Disney’s most unashamedly dark and grown-up offering of their renaissance period, this updating of Victor Hugo’s classic novel strikes a somewhat uneasy balance between cutesy (hello, anthropomorphic horse) and the adult, represented by the complex and turbulent relationship between the disfigured hunchback Quasimodo and his intimidating master, Frollo. It’s a Disney movie that makes far more demands of its young audience than usual, a canvas that allows Menken to deliver arguably his finest Disney score: a richly emotional, Gothic work as cavernous and expansive as Notre Dame itself. In fact, it’s the rare instance when Menken’s score is perhaps more memorable than his songs, particularly the choral explosions in the fire and brimstone finale.
By the time the late 1990s had rolled around times had changed again and CGI animation spearheaded by Pixar’s Toy Story was in vogue. Although hand-drawn animation refused to go down without a fight, there’s little denying that Hercules is the weakest Disney offering from this period, despite the scene-stealing vocal work from James Woods as Hades. Menken’s accompanying soundtrack isn’t his most memorable but being the pro he is, still manages to pull one or two winners out of the bag, namely ‘Go the Distance’ with lyrics by regular David Zippel that was eventually covered by both Michael Bolton and Ricky Martin.
Fast forward 10 years and the proverbial wave of nostalgia had hit all those who grew up with the classic Disney movies of the late 80s and 90s. As that audience came of age the challenge was on to hit the sweet spot between accommodating them and ushering in a new generation of viewers. This delightful animated/live-action hybrid was the answer, flying high off Amy Adams’ terrific central performance whilst an important connection to the past is granted by Menken’s typically lush score, a vibrant reminder (and ever-so-sly send-up) of a singular musical legacy encompassing past glories like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Reuniting with lyricist Stephen Schwartz three of Menken’s songs were nominated at the Oscars.
Post 2009’s The Princess and the Frog Disney were back in a big way, and swiftly making in-roads on their own CGI animations to rival the likes of Pixar and DreamWorks. By now it was well established that Menken’s music was a potent weapon in unifying lovers of the original Disney classics whilst also serving to enchant younger viewers just becoming acquainted with the studio. This wickedly funny tale on the Rapunzel tale doesn’t just feature one of the funniest comedy horses in cinema but also reinforced Menken’s importance to the Disney legacy, garnering yet another Oscar nomination for ‘I See the Light’.
Beauty and the Beast (2017)
It’s a bold move for a composer to return to musical territory they’ve previously staked out, let alone something as revolutionary and wonderful as Beauty and the Beast. However Menken’s work is more than just music: it’s another layer of ethereal, magical dialogue that enriches the animation, telling us so much when the characters are seemingly doing so little. It therefore made perfect sense that he returned for Bill Condon’s sumptuous live-action remake, taking full advantage of the movie’s hefty budget to richly interconnect his various underscore themes whilst also re-staging key songs in a manner that ensures their continued relevance for a new audience. The movie also allows Menken the opportunity to write all-new material, none better than Dan Stevens’ superbly performed Beast solo ‘Evermore’, the composer bridging old and new with the kind of delicate touch for which he has become famous.
Sean Wilson is a writer, journalist and soundtrack fan, and can be found on Twitter here.