Alan Menken Shares the Secret to Decades of Success on Broadway With Disney | Playbill

Special Features Alan Menken Shares the Secret to Decades of Success on Broadway With Disney

As his Broadway version of Disney's Aladdin celebrates its 10th anniversary on the Main Stem, the EGOT winner tells us what makes his musicals so special.

Alan Menken in his studio Heather Gershonowitz

Alan Menken—composer of such magical musicals as Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and, currently celebrating its 10th anniversary of making wishes come true on Broadway, Aladdin—has a shocking secret. “I do not like to write for kids at all. I’m terrible at it,” he told Playbill recently from his idyllic farm estate in Westchester, New York.

And he has receipts. Years ago, one of his two daughters was feeling pretty low after a big birthday failed to pan out as expected, which left Menken feeling crestfallen, too. Being an internationally beloved composer, he decided to cheer her up with what he does best: a heartfelt, original song. “I wrote a song for her called ‘Life is Hard,’” he remembers. “I thought it was the most emotional thing I ever wrote. Everyone just laughed their heads off because, as you can tell from the title, it was so incredibly tone deaf and brain dead. It’s become a running joke in our family.”

Yet the overwhelming majority of Menken’s body of work came to us via classic animated Disney movies, aimed squarely at those kids for which he struggles to write. Menken says the secret to reaching that demographic is actually not to write directly to them, something he says he learned from his first major collaborator, the late Howard Ashman.

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken Everett Collection

“Howard had the ability to write something for the child in all of us, which is very different than writing for children,” Menken shares. The two started their collaboration writing Off-Broadway musicals God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and Little Shop of Horrors. The latter became such a megahit that it caught the eye of Disney executives, who whisked them away to California right as Disney animation was poised to enter a renaissance—a renaissance that was arguably led by Menken and Ashman bringing the Broadway musical back to Disney animation.

READ: All the Actors Who Have Played Aladdin, Jasmine, and the Genie in Aladdin on Broadway

But instead of writing down to a young audience—or perhaps more accurately to what they thought a youthful audience might like—Menken and Ashman wrote material that, while appropriate for young audiences, primarily delighted themselves. It just so happens that it had a similar effect on everyone else. Most of the younger set probably don’t recognize that Beauty and the Beast’s “Be Our Guest” is styled on early 20th century French entertainer Maurice Chevalier, or that Aladdin’s “Friend Like Me” is closely modeled on ‘20s jazz pianist Fats Waller. But they recognize that they love it. And Menken says those reference points helped ground both he and Ashman, giving them a foundation to work from that helped make the final product extra special.

That same ethos extended to how the pair told stories. “Howard was big on adding specifics that made things absolutely real and adult,” says Menken. A big piece of the magic of songs like The Little Mermaid's “Part of Your World” is that it’s not just about what a kid wants—it’s about something everyone wants, a sense of belonging. After all, the song famously follows the structure of their earlier song “Somewhere That’s Green” from the decidedly less kid audience–aimed Little Shop of Horrors—Menken has been known to jokingly call Ariel's ballad “Somewhere That’s Wet.”

Photos: Visiting Alan Menken In Celebration of Aladdin's 10th Anniversary on Broadway

The respect those movies have for their younger audiences is a huge part of their enduring appeal, and it’s certainly a big part of why they tend to stick with people even as they outgrow that primary demographic. The kids whose parents took them to Aladdin in movie theatres in 1992 are now taking their own children to see Aladdin at Broadway’s New Amsterdam Theatre.

That piece is especially poignant for Menken because of Aladdin’s rocky road to the screen. Menken and Ashman completed work on their version of the film’s songs as Ashman was dying of AIDS—“Prince Ali” was literally written from his hospital bed, with Menken at a small electric keyboard. Ashman died in 1991, while Aladdin was still very much in development.

Disney executives ultimately elected to move in a different direction with Aladdin, a decision that left much of Ashman’s final songs on the cutting room floor. When the movie began its journey to the stage decades later, Menken saw an opportunity. “My main agenda going into it was I wanted to bring back in as many of the songs that we originally wrote as possible,” he remembers. If you’ve seen the show, “Proud of Your Boy,” “Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim,” and “High Adventure” were all reinstated from this early version of the project.

And that also meant restoring the movie’s original concept. Aladdin has always been a buddy story, but Ashman and Menken’s initial vision was an homage to the road movies of the ‘40s, a jazzy concept that arguably allowed for a showier musical than the more romantic animated movie. In other words, it was an ideal way to bring the beloved movie to Broadway—and it also means Ashman’s legacy burns even brighter.

READ: Unlocking Disney Magic for Hundreds of NYC Public School Students

James Monroe Iglehart in Aladdin. Cylla von Tiedemann

Ten years of Broadway’s Aladdin later, and indeed after 30 years of a nearly unbroken chain of Alan Menken musicals playing to packed houses on Broadway, the EGOT winner somehow remains humble about his wild success. In fact, he says that’s why he’s enjoyed such a successful career. The songwriter has continued to bring shows to Broadway over the last few decades (plus a smash hit Off-Broadway revival of his and Ashman's Little Shop of Horrors), with titles including Sister Act, Newsies, Leap of Faith, and A Bronx Tale The Musical. There are lots of new shows on the horizon, too, including a stage version of Disney’s Hercules and a musical adaptation of the 1994 film Corrina, Corrina. Menken is one of musical theatre’s most prolific composers—but what puts him in an elite class is not the quantity of his output, but its quality. The vast majority of Menken’s musicals were and are hits.

“I think the less you make it precious and the less weight you put on your success, the more likely you are to continue to be successful,” he shares. As for how he manages to do that despite legions of fans constantly telling Menken he made their childhood, the jury’s out. But it helps that this mantra extends to how he writes shows, too. Menken, as he says he learned from Ashman, is never shy to trash a song that’s not working, no matter how beautiful it may be. “I often tell people, being selfless in a creative situation or in a collaboration is the most selfish thing you can do—because it works better.”

Aladdin is the embodiment of that worldview. After all, the painful loss of Ashman and Menken’s original songs in the ‘90s ended up leaving an open door to a whole new world for Broadway.

Today’s Most Popular News:

Blocking belongs
on the stage,
not on websites.

Our website is made possible by
displaying online advertisements to our visitors.

Please consider supporting us by
whitelisting with your ad blocker.
Thank you!