Amon Warmann chats with Beauty and the Beast composer Alan Menken…
There are few people more key to Disney’s animated success in the late 80’s and early 90’s than Alan Menken. The legendary composer – who has won a record 8 Oscars for his scores – returned for Beauty and the Beast’s live action adaptation with three new songs in tow, all of which are a perfect fit for the film and its characters.
When we sat down with Menken late last month we quizzed the musician on his process, the differences between working on Beauty and the Beast in the 90’s compared to now, and much more. Have a read below…
How do you manage to write the perfect musical number?
Well, I’m just the best composer! [laughs] No. It’s by asking myself a million questions before I go near the piano. What’s the vocabulary of this musical? What character sings it? What dialogue leads into it? What song is it like? Where does it start and end? What happens within it? You have to think of a million different things and then go “OK, I think I know what it is now”. And then I want my collaborator in the room with me, and then I want as much feedback as I can get, and then I dive in.
How much time does it take you?
Sometimes, after I’ve done a lot of thinking I literally let my hands go when the song is done and sometimes it can take a while. People always ask me if I ever get the writer’s block and the answer is always no. It’s only bad assignments. If it’s a good assignment I will find something. If it’s an assignment I’ve already had before and then to live with the same thing again, that could be difficult. But the most important thing is to really suss out what the song needs to be and then I let my brain take over.
You write songs that resonate with grandfathers but also with their grandchildren. How do you manage to appeal to the 70 year old and the 7 year old?
Music is a vocabulary. When I play the first few notes of something I want you to know dramatically what is being said. I want the audience to get what kind of song this is. I even want you to know that if I take you into a dramatic moment and you remove the lyrics and it’s just the music, at least 50% of what you’re going to get from that scene you’ll be getting simply from the musical choices I’m making. A lot of it has to do with clarity and not being afraid to be accessible and clear. My songs are not about me. I’m being selfish in being selfless because if I say “I wanna write an Alan Menken song to go in here”, it’s not going to be as good. I want to write a Belle song. I want to write a Quasimodo song. I want to write an Aladdin song. Whatever it is I want it to be for that character and for that moment, and then get the hell out of the way.
Amon Warmann: I’m sure working on this film brought back memories of working on the original film all those years ago. Did you find yourself contrasting between then and now?
Not really because it’s such a different situation. In the animated feature we were creating it for the first time. Also, back then we were really in charge; Howard Ashman was the Executive Producer and lyricist, and I was the composer. We were dealing with animation directors who were very smart but we were the ones who know how to write musicals. With the Broadway show I stepped back a little bit because it’s a much broader team putting on a Broadway show and I wanted to be supportive and add the songs I need to add. When it came to this, I stepped back even further. I could because I have a director like Bill Condon, who is so smart and so capable and also loves musicals. I step back a great deal and still give my reactions and my thoughts, but I have a huge team.
The times when I would think back were only where I would ruminate and think “gee, I wish Howard could see this”. I think back on those days with a great deal of affection, but it was also very tough because my collaborator was dying as I was writing it. I should write a book about the creation of that score with Howard, because there were some great moments.
Amon Warmann: You’re about to return to The Little Mermaid in 2018. What can we expect from that, and is there any other film that you feel you have unfinished business with or would just like to add to?
I think it’s possible that Aladdin might precede The Little Mermaid. Lin-Manuel Miranda, I knew him as a kid. He was fanatic about The Little Mermaid as a kid. He went to school with my niece, that’s how I knew him… he’s involved with Mary Poppins right now, so when he’s available and producer Mark Platt is available I’m sure we’ll get into that. But I don’t know who’s going to be directing it or who’s writing the script, so there’s so much left to be determined on that. There’s discussion about Aladdin, there’s discussion about a sequel to Enchanted, and apparently another Little Shop of Horrors movie is in the works at Warner Bros. I’m also working on an original project at Universal.
Amon Warmann: Sounds like you’re busy…
Well at the moment I’m just waiting for everything to be green-lit. Films are weird that way. There’s not much you can do until you’re green-lit. You get it up to that point but it’s ultimately up to whether the studio sits commits the money…
When you have time what music do you listen to?
I tend to listen to old classic rock or new records from old classic rockers, my contemporaries. My daughters are into pop music and I’ll listen to Beyonce’s Lemonade or listen to Adele. And I also listen to classical music a lot.
So many kids grew up listening to your songs. Going back to 1991 did you ever imagine that your songs from Beauty and the Beast and other Disney films would go on to become such classics?
I didn’t think about it. Intellectually I knew that it was likely that a generation would know my songs. None of us know how we’re going to be regarded as the years go by and I still don’t know. I know how I am at the moment because it’s a wonderful moment for me because there’s a generation of writers coming up whether it’s Lin-Manuel Miranda or Bobby Lopez – all people I’ve known since before they were well-known – and I feel like they’re my children. That’s certainly an emotion I never imagined feeling. But at the same time I’m still churning out stuff, and I’m not yet ready to be a patrician. It’s very moving to me when young people come up to me and they always say the same thing – “You wrote the soundtrack to my childhood”. All I was trying to do was make some money [laughs] and do a good job.
Is there a song that you’re most proud of?
I hate that question! [laughs] My pieces are all interrelated like a mosaic, and I can’t pick one. They’re my children.
Amon Warmann: Is there any material which was left on the cutting room floor for whatever reason that you’ve returned to, either with this film or other films?
‘Proud of Your Boy’ which was cut from Aladdin is now huge in the Broadway show of Aladdin, as is a song called ‘High Adventure’. In fact, the Broadway show of Aladdin is filled with songs that were cut. There’s a song that was cut and then put into Beauty and the Beast called ‘Human Again’. That is one of the highlights of that score and it’s also long and ambitious number, especially as it was originally conceived. Every score has its outtake numbers that I think are equally good songs, but we weren’t able to keep them.
Do you think we’re entering a new golden age of movie musical with this and La La Land?
It’s a little early to call it an ‘age’. Ever since the 80’s we’ve been in an era where we’ve certainly had a golden age of animated musicals. We’ve had a golden age of adaptations of stage musicals over and over and over again. And La La Land is a very charming homage to movie musicals. It’s got a sweet heart and magic about it.
Amon Warmann: Even though I hadn’t watched the animated film for a while, the songs you created for that film are so embedded in my mind that I know exactly how they’re sung. The songs are sung a little differently in the movie – how is it for you, helping to create slightly different versions of your work?
I think it’s important that it feels fresh musically. The last thing I want is for something to feel like it was a cut and paste. Any time I could get an old Howard Ashman lyric that was cut – because they’re all so good – that’s precious.
What was the soundtrack of your youth?
Fantasia. Early Disney. Some Broadway shows. I feel most nostalgic for old Pop music. Early Beatles, Rolling Stones, Dylan and the Kinks. But also classical music, because of Fantasia.