Composer. Nationality: American. Born: New Rochelle, New York, 22 July 1949. Education: New York University; Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. Family: Married to Janis, two children. Career: Contemplated a medical career before following his earliest ambition to be a musician and composer; performed in local clubs, as well as composing and writing advertising jingles during the mid
Little Shop of Horrors (Oz)
The Little Mermaid (Musker/Clements)
Rocky V (song only—Avildsen)
Beauty and the Beast (Trousdale/Wise)
Newsies (Ortega); Aladdin (Musker/Clements); Home Alone 2 (song only—Columbus)
Life with Mikey (Lapine)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Trousdale/Wise)
Hercules (Trousdale and Wise)
The Hollywood Reporter (Hollywood), July 1991.
Teitelbaum, Sheldon, "Disney's Aladdin," in Cinefantastique (New York), 1 December 1992.
Williamson, Kim, "Plus: Making Music With Alan Menken," in Boxoffice (Kansas City), 1 June 1995.
Soundtrack (London), March 1996.
Spaeth, Jeanne, "Alan Menken on Music's Many Forms," in Music Educator's Journal (Reston, Virginia), 1 November 1997
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A graduate of the New York musical theatre, Alan Menken has benefitted from a financially and creatively fruitful association with the Walt Disney Studios. Reaching a peak of creativity at a time when the studio's lumbering animation division finally kicked into life again, Menken has composed some memorable music for films that are essentially the last musical outpost of modern Hollywood.
In a well-worn route to musical success, Menken performed in clubs and even contributed advertising jingles before he met his first significant collaborator, lyricist Howard Ashman. With Ashman Menken wrote God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater , which met with some success when it opened off-Broadway. He remained devoted to the New York stage, providing music for theatre workshops, from the rock musical Battle of the Giants ( Atina: Evil Queen of the Galaxy ), to the more traditional Real Life Funnies , as well as countless reviews.
Teamed with Ashman once again, Menken achieved his first feature film success on Little Shop of Horrors , providing vibrant and larger-than-life music for Ashman's aggressively witty lyrics. For their efforts Menken and Ashman received several awards, as well as an Oscar nomination for the song "Mean Green Mother from Outer Space."
Further forays into the theatre, such as The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz , were truncated by the beginning of his association with Disney. Hired to write the songs for The Little Mermaid , based on a Hans Christian Andersen story, Menken and Ashman came up with a selection that brought the film alive and carried the drama instead of simply interrupting it.
Inspired by the calypso tradition, the songs allowed for Ashman's typically witty and irreverent verbal gymnastics and became an integral part of the film's success, returning Disney to the forefront of musical films at a time when the genre was redundant. Menken and Ashman had succeeded where others had failed by finding a fine balance of catchy, amusing songs that offered insight into the characters' innermost thoughts. Other films had simply treated characters like marketing opportunities for the spin-off album.
Modern cinema audiences had proved wary of musicals, unwilling or unable to suspend their disbelief long enough for a song break within a comedy or a drama. Disbelief is so much more easily suspended when applied to an animated film where reality is stylised. Menken and Ashman consolidated their success with Beauty and the Beast , writing a collection of folksy, funny, traditional-sounding ballads—songs reminiscent of the contemporary American musical theatre.
Menken's working relationship with Howard Ashman was by no means exclusive; indeed, he recharged his creative batteries by working with many other lyricists, notably Jack Feldman on the schmaltzy "My Christmas Tree" in Home Alone 2 and on the illjudged but brave live-action musical Newsies. Unfazed by occasional disappointments, Menken worked on scoring television miniseries and contributing a song to Rocky V in collaboration with Elton John. He returned to Disney to work on Aladdin , and with Ashman wrote some of the most memorable songs of his career, in spite of Ashman's failing health and eventual death during production. Hurriedly teamed with Tim Rice, a British lyricist from a similarly theatrical tradition, Menken was sensitive to his new collaborator and his very different way of working. Together they came up with the remainder of the songs, including the Oscar-winning number "A Whole New World."
Such was the success of Disney's animated output that the studio decided the musicals should play on Broadway. Menken was the man responsible for adding songs, tweaking existing numbers and ensuring everything was in order musically. Beauty and the Beast s ubsequently opened to great acclaim.
Menken's niche at Disney has proved every bit as comfortable and familiar as the podium from which he annually collects his Academy Award. His precocious talents and prodigious output have dominated the Best Song category for several years.
Menken has continued to produce varied, good quality music with whomever he has been assigned to work. Broadway lyricist Stephen Schwartz worked with him on Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame , while David Zippel was his collaborator on Hercules. Menken is happiest being involved in the collaborative process, which at Disney means that the songwriters are amongst the various talents involved in the earliest stages of story discussions. With the exhaustive 3-to-5-year production schedule that an animated film typically requires, this also allows more time for the songwriter and lyricist to produce exactly the right songs for the plot as it unfolds.
Given the contrasting nature of the projects, and Menken's own ability to mimic so many musical traditions and styles, there hardly seems a repeated note in his work. He admits that the challenge to produce something different invigorates him, and that is certainly the case with the relentlessly pounding beat of "Savages" in Pocahontas , and the over-the-top genie number "You Ain't Never Had a Friend Like Me" in Aladdin. Because of the scale of the success of Disney's output in the 1980s and 1990s, Menken's music has become familiar to audiences beyond cinema. An indication of his wider success is the popularity of ice-dance adaptations of Disney movies such as Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. In these live concerts, several of which have been recorded for TV and video, Menken's music is the backdrop for ice skating displays. Most recently, the skater Michelle Kwan starred in a performance entitled Michelle Kwan Skates to Disney's Greatest Hits , in which many of the musical numbers were composed by Menken. For Hercules , Disney's animated epic of 1997, Menken's music had to match the scale of the movie and its subject. True to form, he managed to come up with spectacular tunes to match the images on the screen.
These numbers and the hundreds of others like them are typically memorable, typically successful, and, by their impact and individualism, typically Menken.
—Anwar Brett, updated by Chris Routledge