A composer who I have always liked and thought was just so quick witted and talented is Alan Menken, but somehow I never got round to writing about him, there was a time I had an interview arranged at around the time when Pocahontas was released, but an editor of the publication that I was going to write the article for voiced his opinion saying that Menken was not a film music composer and the composers people pulled the interview. Well, the editor was right? Menken is not just a film score composer he is so much more and has given us and so many children and their children now they themselves are grown up and married so many wonderful melodies, and familiar songs both in film and for stage productions. The composer is such a talent, such a remarkable music-smith and creator of haunting and catchy themes and tunes.
And when you look beyond his most familiar and popular works for Disney, such as Aladdin, Pocahontas, Beauty and the Beast, Hercules, The Hunchback of Notre Dame etc, well there is so much more in the way of actual film scores, symphonic works that are filled with drama and romance, overflowing with melancholy and brimming with inventive and innovative themes, nuances and interludes that support, enhance and ingratiate each and every frame of film.
He is a purveyor of emotions via his varied and affecting compositions, a composer who laces and weaves his musical magic into the fabric of every movie he has scored so the music becomes an integral and important component of the filmmaking process. If you watch the sections of for example Pocahontas which are underscored by Menken, and I am talking about just score no vocals, he is a master of etching his own distinctive musical fingerprint into each scene or sequence, adding poignancy, conveying comedy, and bringing emotion and romance to the proceedings without overpowering or drowning out what is occurring on screen. His subtle approach at times just adding that touch of magic or underlining a moment of dramatic content and elevating them so that they are more impacting and effective.
So, when someone says to me Alan Menken is not a film music composer, I do remind them of the various scenes in movies that would not have been as affecting without his music. Yes, he writes wonderfully catchy tunes and underlines and punctuates the lyrics of the various lyricists he has collaborated with, but his is not just a composer of show tunes, he is a talented, chameleon like Maestro, who can turn his hand and his style of composition to any scenario, so let’s not Pidgeon hole him or categorize him because some seem to ignore his music.
There has always been a certain snobbery amongst film music collectors, as in they buy film music and refuse to even entertain TV scores or musicals and these include those popular Disney animated features that I have mentioned and many others too. All I am going to say to them is “You are Missing Out on so much”. I still live in hope that one day Mr. Menken may agree to an interview, but until then let’s take a look at his great body of work shall we.
My first encounter with his music was when my daughter watched The Little Mermaid, which was way back in 1989 now.
But let’s not forget Little Shop of Horrors which hit the screens in 1986 and was a Broadway show four years before this in 1982, but I think it was the work he did on the Disney animated movies that brought Menken to the attention of the mainstream.
Yes, the songs in Little Mermaid were great but I as a film music collector paid attention to the score, yes there is a score and quite a lot of it too. The film was based on the writings of Hans Christian Anderson, with Disney adding its own little touches along the way. A rebellious 16-year-old mermaid Ariel is fascinated with life on land. On one of her visits to the surface, which are forbidden by her controlling father, King Triton, she falls for a human prince. Determined to be with her new love, Ariel makes a dangerous deal with the sea witch Ursula to become human for three days. But when things don’t go as planned for the star-crossed lovers, the King must make the ultimate sacrifice for his daughter.
Its an enjoyable romp and now dubbed as a Disney classic, which I must agree with. Menken’s score is brilliantly utilized within the movie and the lyrics of Howard Ashman are perfectly laced and supported by Menken’s poetic melodies.
So many hits from what a relatively short film is seems an impossible thing but, in this case, it’s true. But were they hits, not really when you think about it, they were familiar to many but big hits as in charting no, but they have gone down in and become a part of the Disney legacy, and I think will remain evergreen with all generations past and present. Menken’s musical score drives and underlines the storyline, adding weight to the more dramatic scenes, and subtly enhancing the romantic content of the film, with some nice but not too obvious what were often referred to as mickey mousing passages in the past for the comedic interludes.
The Little Mermaid is one of the Disney animated tales to receive a live action treatment and should be in cinemas soon, so Menken’s music will once again be on the minds of children of all ages.
Two years later in 1991 Menken and Ashman teamed up once again for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Having lived a life in selfishness, young Prince Adam is cursed by a mysterious enchantress to having the appearance of a monstrous beast. His only hope is to learn to love a young woman and earn her love in return to redeem himself. Ten years later, his chance to do this seems possible when a young maiden named Belle (Paige O’Hara) offers to take her ill father Maurice’s (Rex Everhart’s) place as his prisoner.
With help from the castle’s enchanted staff, who have been turned into crockery, candlesticks and furniture Belle learns to appreciate her captor and immediately falls in love with him. Back in the village however, unscrupulous hunter Gaston (Richard White) has his own plans for Belle. And sets about discrediting her father in the hope that she will agree to be his bride. Again, the songs are the jewels within the film, but the score gives depth and adds moods and atmospherics to the storyline. The composer providing a suitably dramatic score with elements of the songs interwoven within his dramatic content.
The score is a mesmerizing one that surges and drives with strings, percussion and brass combining to create emotive and heart-breaking melodies and cheeky little flourishes that evoke Disney scores of the past such as Cinderella, Bambi, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Filled with expressive and thematic material the score seems as it is caught up and becomes a part of all the goings on in the story as it unfolds. With the composer adding a touch of triumph and joy as the film reaches its climax, which is a mix of emotions both sad and joyous.
After a battle in the castle, where Gaston and his followers are beaten back by the castle staff who are still in their non-human forms the beast fights with Gaston on the battlements, but after sparing Gaston the beast is stabbed and lies dying but at last the love Belle has for him shines through and as the Beast draws his last breath the curse is broken and he transforms back into Adam the man and the prince, and as with every great fairy tale they live happily ever after.
Accompanied by a glorious orchestral flourish which ends in a magnificent and glitteringly grandiose crescendo complete with choir, in keeping with the traditions of Hollywood and Disney. A tale as old as time that ends in a time-honoured way.
In 1992 Disney produced a live action movie Newsies which is a musical that has its storyline loosely based on and around the events of the New York City Newsboys’ Strike of 1899. The musical featured twelve original songs by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, and starred a young Christian Bale, with David Moscow, Bill Pullman, Robert Duvall, and Ann-Margret. The film later inspired a Broadway show, which is unusual for that to happen, but Menken did begin his career in stage musicals, so I guess this was the way to go.
Sadly, the film was not one of Disney’s greatest successes and maybe was something that the studio had decided to do because of Menken’s previous work for them.
But in the same year they released Aladdin, which was a runaway success, and re-united Menken with lyricist Howard Ashman who sadly passed away in 1991 aged just forty. This I think is one of Menken and Ashman’s best collaborations, everything just seemed to fit and slot into place. And with the contribution of the multi-talented Robin Williams, it became a classic in weeks rather than years.
Again, the songs were centre stage but Menken’s vibrant score too augmented and gave life to the story. I think that Menken and Ashman were so successful because they worked on these Disney films as if they were big Broadway musicals, pulling out all the stops and infusing a sense of glamour and over the top lushness into the proceedings, thus making them appealing not just to the children but also the parents and grandparents.
But hey what do I know that’s just my opinion for what its worth, all I know is it worked and worked extremely well. Menken’s score is superb and not only supports and punctuates but seems to be an extension of the film’s storyline. And with so many outstanding songs, Friend Like Me, Prince Ali, and A Whole new World what more could you ask for.
After the death of Howard Ashman, Menken turned to the lyricist Stephen Schwartz for Pocahontas which was released in 1995. Schwartz had found success writing musicals in the 1970’s with shows such as Godspell (1971) and Pippin (1972). And went on to pen Wicked in 2003. Pocahontas, features two hit records, Colours of the Wind which was performed by Vanessa Williams and the love theme from the movie If I Never Knew You, which was performed by John Secada, and Shanice.
The movie won the Oscar for Best Original Score and Best Original song (Colours of the Wind). The soundtrack also featured Just Around the River Bend, which became a firm favourite with cinema goers. Menken’s score boasted many themes and one stood out more than others which was Grandmother Willow, which had a rich and kindly style that was combined with a sense of the mystical and included native American sounds and styles.
As did the vocal Listen with your Heart. The score is an impressive one and the lyrics and vocal performances are flawless. Menken also scored the Disney animated feature Hercules in 1997, and in 2007 the music for Enchanted, and in 2010 worked on the Disney production Tangled,
Two years later he was the composer on Mirror Mirror, which was a slightly different take on Snow White. Menken providing the film with a magnificent score. There is so much more to Alan Menken than you think, talent oozes from him, music flows from his fingertips and he has I think been responsible for putting the melodies back into Disney productions.
Alan Menken was born July 22nd, 1949 at French Hospital in New York City, to young aspiring actress/playwright, Judy Menken and boogie-woogie piano-playing dentist, Norman Menken, DDS. He grew up in a home, filled with music and theatre (and comedy and drama) in New Rochelle, New York, along with his sisters, Faye, and Leah. Alan has always said that from an early age it was always a composer that he wanted to be and make music a career. Well, he certainly has done this and has thus far had a glittering career that has given the world so many wonderful pieces of music and so many memorable songs, that delight and enthrall audiences of all ages.
The composer shows no signs of slowing (and why should he), he has recently scored Disenchanted for Disney, which contains a stunning symphonic soundtrack, that is overflowing with glorious themes and contains hauntingly sweet and typical Disney like lyrics from Stephen Schwartz. It is in many ways a homage to the vintage and animation movies as produced by Disney, such as Sleeping Beauty, etc. The style employed is instantly recognizable as being Disney through and through, maybe a little too syrupy for hardened film score fans, but it works so well within the movie and has the added bonus of being entertaining away from the images and the storyline that is unfolding on screen. It also has that unique and welcome Menken style stamped firmly upon it and through it. The soundtrack is available NOW on digital platforms. and the movie is streaming on Disney plus. Check them out.