If you have ever spent an afternoon with “A Whole New World” or “Be Our Guest” or “Under the Sea” Our Guest” stuck in your head, you can thank composer Alan Menken. Menken scored The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and many other Disney classics. He says he prefers his songs “to be hum-able.” A new live action 3-D version of Beauty and the Beast opens Friday. The studio is repeating the story with real people Emma Watson and a cast of famous voices, for the 25th anniversary of the beloved animated version. They’ve kept the old songs and added some new ones. Menken composed three new songs for the live action version.
When Menken’s writing for Disney, he says he’s trying to move the story forward through song. He says, “Songs should have an infectious melody and rhythm.” They should forbid an emotion, of happiness, or of celebration, or of laughter, or of sadness, or of love, or of sorrow, whatever. He further says, “I wonder the whole idea is to make the viewer feel very cozy, just like slipping into a warm bath.” “It’s just the same vibes, the same sounds. Again, not the same melody, but it’s a situation where everything is combined for a comforting feeling.” Hardworking Menken collected plenty of comforts and reward the awards cabinet in his studio holds eight Oscars, 11 Grammys, a Tony and seven Golden Globes award.
The Oscars were sometimes for Best Score and Best Song. And the music keeps coming. He’s about to work with Lin-Manuel Miranda on a new live-action version of The Little Mermaid. But a new job doesn’t send the 67-year-old Menken racing to the piano. First, he needs lots of information: What’s the story? Who’s the protagonist? Where would a song fit? What’s the reason for singing?
Menken’s musical chops were developed off-Broadway. He and lyricist Howard Ashman’s success with the 1982 comedy rock horror musical Little Shop of Horrors got Hollywood’s attention. But, initially, when he first started working at Disney animation, he had some reservations. Ashman and Menken’s first musical film The Little Mermaid animation in 1989 was a life saver for Disney. It raised the studio out of a slump and led to more big hits. There were also clunkers 1997’s Hercules didn’t do that well.