Alan Menken can make anyone sing; a mermaid, a hunchback, Rapunzel, a street rat – even a candlestick. As the Oscar-winning composer behind such classics as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Pochahontas, and Aladdin, Menken has mastered the intangible art of writing a great song. His always-catchy, heartfelt, magical tunes have accompanied our finest moments, from childhood, to college, and beyond. Today, Menken brings his music from the screen to Broadway, with the debut of three movie-musical adaptations: Sister Act, Newsies, and Leap of Faith. In doing so, audiences get a glimpse of nuns rockin’ the rafters, newsboys rebelling against the establishment, and rednecks becoming revived. Here, Menken discusses his Broadway shows, the process of writing a musical, and the secret to always moving forward.
With three shows on Broadway and eight Oscars at home, how do you prioritize your projects, all while staying sane?
I just let go of what I do once its down. I’ve been doing this for my entire life, so it’s just one of those things that comes naturally to me. My function in each show is pretty much the same; I create a model of what I think something should be, and then gradually, as it develops, I let go of it. By the time a show gets on, ideally, I’m just kind of visiting it. At the end, it’s not really mine. It sort of belongs to the world, and I’m very comfortable with that.
Where is the greatest joy in the process: creating the show or visiting it?
Creating it. That very first moment where I create it, when I’m in my studio space from the very beginning, wondering what this is going to be and dreaming it up. Once I’ve made all the basic decisions, it just comes through me.
You’ve been dreaming up Leap of Faith for a good 10 years.
Yeah, it’s a hard one. Leap is a hard one. One of the most challenging projects I’ve ever had.
You’ve said that it’s a "thinking person’s musical.”
Yeah, Leap is very adult. It’s very different from what I do, what people know from me as far as the Disney projects or Little Shop of Horrors. It deals with the subject of faith and is about an imposter, a "reverend" who has this revival that he takes around the country. He makes a living off of faking miracles – making people "walk", etc. In this particular town, there’s this disabled boy who really believes in him, and the reverend makes a real miracle happen. At the end, these miracles just tumble out, but you’re left questioning, “Did any miracles happen or are we still being conned by this guy?” It questions the idea of miracles, if they come from the individual or they come from God, and takes you on a mental ride that’s fueled by a gospel and musical theatre score. On the surface, it’s fun and entertaining, but beneath it’s really thought and emotion-provoking.
And is it that complexity that has kept you persevering with the show?
Once I start something, I don’t let go. One of the things about musical theatre is collaboration – it’s all about who you’re working with. I’m a very loyal person; once I’m working with somebody, if I think that it’s a good collaboration, no matter how difficult it gets, I don’t walk away. There were some really tough times with Leap of Faith where I felt like walking away. However, I’ve got to say, the producers have been incredibly devoted to this piece. Also, I’m such a sucker for form. I loved the way the story could be told through the medium of gospel revivals.
Newsies is another film that debuted in 1992 and is now on Broadway.
Newsies has built a life of its own. It’s like Newsies itself forced itself upon us. I’d walk into a mall and there would be pirated performances of it. Kids all over grew up with this as their secret, "Oh, I love that. You like that too?"
What do you think people love about it so much?
Christian Bale (laughs). The boys, the story of empowerment. There’s an innocence about it that’s so cunning, unguarded in a way that you just kind of laugh about it or just adore it. Everything about it has been a total shock. I’m just watching this and giving it what it needs.
Newsies reminds me of Les Miserables for the younger generation. When they’re singing “One For All,” I can’t help but think of “One Day More.”
Your review of it is totally accurate – it’s big, anthemic statements. Newsies takes place at the turn of the century, yet the score is a little rock, R&B, a little honky tonk, vaudeville, and theatre, and it feels appropriate to those characters. I don’t know why. I guess it captures the inner spirit of those boys more than anything else. When we first were writing it, I wanted to make it more turn-of-the-century. And that was horrible. You don’t want to hear these boys singing ragtime. We want these boys singing, “F you, establishment. We’re taking over.” And the show really does deliver that.
Writing a musical is such a collaborative endeavor. How would you describe the process?
You know what it is? It’s like a recipe. Like cooking. You’re adding ingredients and the first ingredient is the one that will be the most dominant in the process. Later, you add those more surface ingredients, and then you cook. Leap of Faith, for example, has been cooking for a long time. Theatre is very alive. You can never totally predict the outcome of what you do. The intriguing part is when the audience has the moment where they say, "I get it. I get what you’re doing, and I’m going on the journey with you."
If you could go back and rewrite any song, what would it be?
One of my biggest regrets was a show Howard [Ashman] and I didn’t get to write. It was based on the movie The Big Street, but he never lived to get the rights. I always wondered what we would have written; it would have been so wonderful and it’s just a lost thing. There was an opening number I wrote with Glenn Slater for Tangled that was different – similar music but a different number – that I liked much more than what got into the movie. What got into the movie is good, but this was one of those, "Ah, if only we got that number in." It’s called, "What More Could I Ever Need." There’s a million things like that where you make compromises: sometimes it really works but still you miss what might have been.
You’ve worked with some incredible, award-winning writers, such as Wicked‘s Stephen Schwartz and Once on This Island‘s Lynn Ahrens. What do you think is the key to theirs’ and your success?
Keep going and get out of your own way. You have to urge yourself to keep going, and going, and going. The people who make it are not actually all that goal-oriented. They’re process-oriented. Do it, do it, do it. That’s why it’s strange to get up there and receive an Oscar or something like that, because I don’t even know what that moment means. I didn’t do this so you would love this. I did this because it’s my coping mechanism. It’s just what I want to do. The only way to figure it out is to keep doing it and then, if you decide you can’t keep doing it, move onto something else.
You have a great voice. Would you ever move on to doing solo concerts or an album?
I do perform at concerts, and I had a record deal for a while with Sony, but I always had other commitments. I still think about it, but there’s only so much you can do in life.
You’ve sure done a lot.