Composer Alan Menken On His Disney Tunes: 'I Prefer Them To Be Hummable'

Mar 16, 2017
Originally published on March 27, 2017 7:56 am

If you've ever spent an afternoon with "Under the Sea" or "A Whole New World" or "Be Our Guest" stuck in your head, you can thank composer Alan Menken.

Menken scored The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and many other Disney classics. He says he prefers his songs "to be hummable."

A new live action 3-D version of Beauty and the Beast opens Friday. For the 25th anniversary of the beloved animated version, the studio is re-telling the story with real people — Emma Watson and a cast of famous voices. They've kept the old songs, and added some new ones. Menken wrote three new songs for the live action version.

When Menken's writing for Disney, he says he's trying to move the story forward through song.

"Songs should have an infectious melody and rhythm," he says. They "should elicit an emotion, of happiness, or of celebration, or of sadness, or of sorrow, or of love, or of laughter — whatever."

The songs also need to fit the character and the dramatic situation. The composer and various lyricists have followed these rules in a passel of Disney pictures. At an upright piano on press day in a fancy Beverly Hills hotel, Menken played us a medley of familiar Disney tunes:

"It's new music, but it really isn't new music," says Tim Page, a Pulitzer prize-winning music critic, who is now a professor of music and journalism at the University of Southern California. Page points out that there's always something familiar about Disney songs.

"I think the whole idea is to make the viewer feel very comfortable, almost like slipping into a warm bath," he says. "It's just the same sounds, the same vibes. Again, not the same melody, but it's a situation where everything is combined for a comfort feeling."

Hardworking Menken reaped plenty of comfort and reward — the awards cabinet in his studio holds eight Oscars, 11 Grammys, seven Golden Globes and a Tony award.

The Oscars were sometimes for Best Song and Best Score. And the music keeps coming. He's about to work with Lin-Manuel Miranda on a new live action version of The Little Mermaid.

But a new job doesn't send the 67-year-old Menken racing to the piano. First, he needs lots of information: What's the story? Who's the protagonist? Where would a song fit? What's the reason for singing?

"Where does it start and where does it end, and what's the title and what song might it remind us of? ..." Menken asks. "A million questions and only then will I sit and ... start to play the piano."

Menken's musical chops were developed off-Broadway. He and lyricist Howard Ashman's success with the 1982 comedy rock horror musical Little Shop of Horrors got Hollywood's attention.

But when he first started working at Disney animation, he had some reservations. "I can't tell you how many people said to me: Ugh, man, take a powder. Nobody takes animated musicals seriously," he recalls.

Menken and Ashman's first musical film — The Little Mermaid animation in 1989 — was a life saver for Disney. It lifted the studio out of a slump, and led to more big hits.

There were also clunkers — 1997's Hercules didn't do that well. And yet, when asked for a best song that never made it to the screen, Menken picked this Hercules tune:

"That was a song we lost, and it was a beautiful song, I thought," he says.

But it just didn't fit, so it hit the cutting-room floor. For most of his career, Menken has written keepers. And, dubbed a Disney Legend in 2001, he understands the power of the films he helps to make. In some very dark days — the death of his longtime lyricist Howard Ashman, and other friends — he'd sit with his young daughters and watch old animated films.

"It was the only safe space I could be where it just felt," he says. "I went back to being a child, in a magical way. I couldn't get there with Saturday morning cartoons or a traditional Hollywood movie, necessarily. But there's a primal thread in the Disney animated art that just lands. And, I felt it as an adult. I still do — it's powerful."

It's a pretty sure bet that a new generation of children will grow up knowing Menken's songs from the new Beauty and the Beast. Just as they know, so well, his '80s and '90s classics.

Radio producer Danny Hajek and web producer Beth Novey contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A Disney deluge is upon us. The widely publicized, new, live-action, 3-D "Beauty And The Beast" opens this week. To celebrate the animated version's recent 25th anniversary, the studio is retelling the story with real people, Emma Watson and a cast of famous voices. They've kept the old songs and added some new ones. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg is in Southern California, and she got a chance to talk with the composer.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: If you have a kid, are a kid or just love Disney, at some point in your life, you have likely found yourself singing this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEAUTY AND THE BEAST")

ANGELA LANSBURY: (Singing) Tale as old as time, true as it can be. Barely even friends, then somebody bends unexpectedly.

STAMBERG: Composer Alan Menken wrote three new songs for the live-action version. You'll hear a smidge of one of them in a bit - but first, Menken on what a Disney song has to do.

ALAN MENKEN: If possible, you want to move story forward through the song. Songs should have an infectious melody and rhythm and, I think, should elicit an emotion of happiness or of celebration or of sadness or of sorrow or of love or laughter, whatever.

STAMBERG: Does it have to be hummable?

MENKEN: I prefer them to be hummable, yes (laughter).

STAMBERG: And why would that be?

MENKEN: Because hummable is good.

STAMBERG: Also, Disney songs must be right for the character who's singing them and for the dramatic situation. The composer and various lyricists have followed these rules in a passel of Disney pictures. At an upright piano on press day in a fancy Beverly Hills hotel, Mr. Menken played us a medley.

MENKEN: (Playing piano).

STAMBERG: "The Little Mermaid."

MENKEN: (Singing, playing piano) Under the sea, under the sea - darling, it's better down where it's wetter. Take it from me.

STAMBERG: "Pocahontas."

MENKEN: (Singing, playing piano) Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon or asked the grinning bobcat why he grinned? Can you sing with all the voices of the mountain? Can you paint with all the colors of the wind - paint with all the colors of the wind?

STAMBERG: "Aladdin."

MENKEN: (Singing, playing piano) A whole new world, a new, fantastic point of view - no one to tell us no, where to go, say we're only dreaming.

TIM PAGE: It's new music, but it really isn't new music.

STAMBERG: Tim Page, Pulitzer Prize winner when he was music critic for The Washington Post. Now a professor of music and journalism at the University of Southern California, Tim Page says there's always something familiar about Disney songs.

PAGE: I think the whole idea is to make the viewer feel very comfortable, almost like slipping into a warm bath. It's just the same sounds, the same vibes. Again, not the same melody, but it's a situation where everything is combined for a kind of comfort feeling.

STAMBERG: The result - a lot of comfort and reward for hard-working Alan Menken.

MENKEN: I have an awards cabinet in my studio where I keep my eight Oscars, my 11 Grammys, my seven Golden Globes and my Tony Award.

STAMBERG: Think have a future in this business (laughter)?

MENKEN: Well, thanks.

STAMBERG: The Oscars were sometimes for best song and best score, and the music keeps on coming. A new movie job - he's about to work with Lin-Manuel Miranda on a new live-action version of "The Little Mermaid." A new job doesn't send the 67-year-old Menken racing to the piano. First, he needs lots of information - what's the story? Who's the protagonist? Where would a song fit? What's the reason for singing?

MENKEN: Where does it start? And where does it end? And what's the title? And what song might it remind us of? And blah - a million questions - and only then will I sit and - OK. Now I have all that information; I'll start to play the piano.

STAMBERG: Menken's musical chops were developed off-Broadway. He and lyricist Howard Ashman's success with the 1982 comedy rock horror musical "Little Shop Of Horrors" got Hollywood's attention.

MENKEN: Actually, when I first started working at Disney animation, I can't tell you how many people said to me - oh, man, take a powder. Nobody takes animated musicals seriously. I swear.

STAMBERG: But Menken and Ashman's first musical film, "The Little Mermaid" animation in 1989, was a lifesaver for Disney. It lifted the studio out of a slump and led to more big hits. There were also clunkers. 1997's "Hercules" didn't do that well. Still, when asked for a best song that never made it to the screen, Menken picked this one from "Hercules."

MENKEN: (Singing, playing piano) No one seems to think too much of me here. And they're glad to tell it to my face. And they're right. I'm not supposed to be here. I'm completely out of place. Somehow there has got to be a reason. Evenings as I try to think it through, there's a bolt from the blue...

That was a song we lost. And it was a beautiful song, I thought.

STAMBERG: But it just didn't fit, so it hit the cutting room floor. For most of his career, Alan Menken has written keepers. And dubbed a Disney legend in 2001, he understands the power of the films he helps to make. In some very dark days, the death of his longtime lyricist Howard Ashman, other friends, he would sit with his young daughters and watch old animated films.

MENKEN: And it was the only safe space I could be where it just felt - I went back to being a child in a magical way. And I couldn't get it with Saturday morning cartoons or a traditional Hollywood movie necessarily. But there's a primal thread in the Disney animated art that just lands. I felt it as an adult, and I still do. It's powerful.

MENKEN: (Singing, playing piano) How does a moment last forever? How can a story never die?

STAMBERG: This is one of the new songs Alan Menken composed for "Beauty And The Beast," lyrics by Tim Rice who did "The Lion King" and "Evita."

MENKEN: (Singing, playing piano) Sometimes our happiness is captured. Sometimes that time and place stand still. Love lives on inside our hearts and always will.

STAMBERG: It's a pretty sure bet that new generations of children will grow up knowing this song just as they know so well the ones that have been around for a while.

AMAYA: (Singing) Beauty and the beast.

STAMBERG: Near Burbank, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEAUTY AND THE BEAST")

ARIANA GRANDE: (Singing) Tale as old as time...

JOHN LEGEND: (Singing) Song as old as rhyme...

ARIANA GRANDE AND JOHN LEGEND: (Singing) Beauty and the beast... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.