It seems crazy to contemplate a time when Disney musicals had disruptive status on Broadway and in the West End. But when they broke new ground by bringing their animated stories to the stage in the 1990s – thanks in large part to the rowdy musical contributions of Alan Menken – they turned out to be the strangers to the industry.
“Broadway struggled to understand what a company like Disney would look like on Broadway,” says Menken, the songwriter responsible for his first stage show, Beauty and the Beast, and many others that followed. “The theater community is a tight-knit community that has high standards in terms of creating music and where it comes from. Anything new, they look at with skepticism.
Indeed, when he first learned that Disney wanted to stage their stories, “I was afraid, is it going to be like one of those shows in the parks, with someone walking around with a foam head? It was, of course, much more than that.
Musicals are emotional, almost by definition. They need a scenario in which there is a character who has something they desire
Undoubtedly. 28 years since Disney breathed new life into musical theatre, their shows are always guaranteed to be a crowd pleaser. The musical Aladdin (another of Menken’s projects) and The Lion King still reside on Broadway. In London’s West End you’ll find Frozen, Mary Poppins and The Lion King, with Newsies elsewhere in the city.
Longevity has a simple explanation, Menken believes. “Musicals are emotional, almost by definition. They need a storyline where there’s a character who has something they want. How they fight to make it happen is a big part of how most musicals are built,” he says. “Also, a lot of musicals are adaptations, so people come in with comfort on the base script and are able to absorb how the songs interpret that and open it up.”
Menken speaks, polite and enthusiastic despite his time zone and workload, on Zoom from his studio in north Westchester, on the outskirts of New York, with mixers and instruments crammed into the background. “I’ll show you my rewards cabinet,” he said, nodding to his right. “But I think my wife might freak out.”
This week we speak, he’s putting the finishing touches on Disney’s live-action version of The Little Mermaid, promoting the animated film Spellbound, preparing for the upcoming Broadway premiere of Hercules and overseeing a new London production of another of his musical descendants, Sister Act.
In between these projects, he took time out to London’s West End to see the revamped production of Beauty and the Beast, currently on tour, with Dublin as the next stop.
Directed by the original show’s choreographer, Matt West, this modernized Beauty and the Beast stays true to the 1991 Disney film of a prince (here, Shaq Taylor) cursed to be turned into a beast, and his servants into household objects. When he encounters – well, imprisons – the beautiful beautiful bookworm (played by Courtney Stapleton), all hopes are on her to undo the curse.
The stage effects are magical, truly magical. It is an inventive, touching and powerful production. Some songs pop like they never did before
There are new keys, some large, some small. You’ll recognize former X Factor winner Sam Bailey as Mrs. Potts. There is a modernized dynamic between the Beast and Belle, and Gaston (Tom Senior) and his sidekick Le Fou (Louis Stockil). And if the recent kerfuffle over ethnically diverse casting in Prime Video’s Rings of Power and The Little Mermaid remake has irked, look away now.
For these big eyes, the scenography is its crowning glory. It’s a look with no expense spared, blending costumes, choreography, technology and music into a masterful spectacle of storytelling. “The stage effects are magical, truly magical. It’s an inventive, touching and powerful production,” says Menken. Musically, “there are a few songs we removed to make it tighter. Some songs pop like they never have before – Belle brought the house down with A Change in Me. Another song that doesn’t catch not much attention, Human Again, really shone. Be our guest was wonderful. And if I can’t like it. Beauty and the Beast song, it did well too.
Menken, along with his late collaborator, lyricist Howard Ashman, began writing the songs that now define history in 1989. Menken and his family had just purchased his home in north Westchester, and Ashman had just moved nearby of Fishkill with his partner. Invoice. “I remember it was a wonderful time when we were working in my studio. The first songs we sent were Belle and Be Our Guest. We sent via FedEx these days because there was no of the internet, and Howard has such a concern about what the studio was going to say about a seven-minute opening number. Of course, they just said it was awesome. We were opening a lot of doors to musical theater in the writing of Beauty and the Beast.
“But there were also moments of intense pain, before I even knew what the cause was. I could have suspected why, but I just blocked it out. You don’t want to think you’re losing your collaborator He gave excuses for what’s going on with his health, and I bought them with gratitude.
Unbeknownst to Menken, Ashman had AIDS, “dating all the way back to the release of the movie Little Shop of Horrors in 1986. He kept it to himself, because if you’re in public with it, it was the end of your career.”
The joy of writing musical theater is letting go of your own life. It’s not like we’re songwriters writing an album about our love life
But once they got home after winning both The Little Mermaid Oscars for Best Score and Best Original Song (for Under the Sea) at the 1989 Oscars, the truth came out.
“So almost all of the work for Beauty and the Beast was done in the shadow of us, knowing that its days were numbered. And trying to cover that up, stay positive, and keep moving forward in the face of it,” Menken recalled .
The nature of the musical helped divert truth from reality. “The joy of writing musical theater is letting go of your own life. It’s not like we’re songwriters writing an album about our love life.
“So you have moments like Gaston, which looks like a Sigmund Romberg romp, but with the conceit that it’s these thugs singing about how great a guy this log-headed Neanderthal Gaston is. [is]. It was hilarious when Howard put those lyrics in front of me. I was just laughing the whole time I was setting it.
“But there were times when… once he took a Walkman Pro, which was then the creme de la creme of machines, but it didn’t work well. He threw it and smashed it against the wall. There have been many instances like this, where what was bubbling up was so painful and so intense. But ultimately for Howard and me, the finished product supersedes any other personal considerations, as we get into these musicals.
After the soundtrack was completed, the couple moved on to Aladdin. But Ashman died six months before Beauty and the Beast was released and never saw the finished film. “It’s still poignant,” Menken said quietly. “You get to the end of the movie, and there’s a dedication to Howard, and it still tears my heart out.”
The film was an immediate success. A mark of Menken and Ashman’s shared heritage, it won Academy Awards for Best Original Score and Best Original Song, in addition to the film’s other nominations for Best Original Song (again) and Best Sound.
I talk a lot with my therapist. Do I want to take it slow? No. Do I want to do more than just be a songwriter? Maybe. But I love this
When it was adapted into a stage show, Tim Rice proved to be the only person capable of filling Ashman’s shoes. “We were proud that we were able to create a marriage of the work of these two lyricists, and it’s a very cohesive and effective score,” Menken recalled.
Today, there are no signs of slowing down for Menken. In addition to this week’s workload, he’s also working on Disenchanted (the Irish sequel to Enchanted) and an upcoming musical adaptation of Night at the Museum.
After becoming one of the few talents to win every top US award – in his cabinet we would have seen glittering rows of Emmys, Grammys, Oscars and Tony Awards – it begs the question: where can he go from here?
“That’s the question I ask myself all the time, and I don’t really have an answer,” he says. “I talk a lot with my therapist. Do I want to take it slow? No. Do I want to do more than just be a songwriter? Maybe. But I love this.”
Beauty and the Beast plays Bord Gáis Energy TheaterDublin between November 24 and January 8, 2023