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MUSIC Alan Menken talks music, storytelling, Howard Ashman
by John Stadelman
2019-03-27

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Legendary score composer Alan Menken—best known for his Oscar-winning work on classic Disney animated films including The Little Mermaid and Aladdin—will be in Chicago playing a retrospective show Saturday, March 30.

Menken talked with Windy City Times about score writing, live-action remakes and the legacy of Howard Ashman, the legendary gay composer with whom he often collaborated.

Windy City Times: Score composing is such a story-based genre. How do you integrate the storytelling element into the music? Does your process vary between projects, or does it stay the same?

Alan Menken: By definition, when I write a score, I'm reflecting the characters and storyline for a project. Sometimes the intention of the music is to establish time and place. In a literal sense, that means choice that reflects the musical vocabulary of a culture at [a] particular time. Sometimes the choice of style is meant as a comment—a cultural wink that establishes a link between something contemporary and something ancient or mythological. And, of course, sometimes the musical choice is an emotional underpinning that is simply "Menken"-esque.

Since I strive to never repeat myself in my scores. I deliberately start each project in a fresh way. And, when there are new collaborators and new story influences, that task is made easier.

WCT: What was it like working with Howard Ashman on the Disney movies? How was the creative environment and overall process?

AM: Howard was a true genius, in that he understood how to deliver a story through making the smartest musical choice. I reveled in my good fortune in being in a collaboration with such a sure compass. As he grew ill and finally passed away at a tragically young age, the influence of Howard made me grow in ways I had never imagined.

Howard Ashman and I only got to work together for 12 years, over five incredible projects. But in some way, I feel like he has been an intrinsic part of everything I've done since.

WCT: What did you learn from Howard about composing and music, and creativity in general?

AM: The lessons I learned from Howard range from choosing the right subject matter and stylistic voice for a musical to understanding the rhythm and structure of musical theater storytelling. He could be blisteringly critical. And he could be the most incredible support imaginable. He was impassioned and loyal and generous.

WCT: You've been working on the scores for live action remakes of quite a few of the classic Disney films you were involved in. What has that been like, to return to old material within a different medium?

AM: The main differences are defined by the medium as well as the vision and the agenda of the creative team. And those differences can be exciting and, at the same time, challenging.

I am collaborating with new lyricists. We're both revising pre-existing songs and creating new song moments to fit a new director's or writer's approach to story. Sometimes those additions are motivated as much by an external desire to be eligible for recognition as a "new" work as they are motivated by a need to dig deeper into material. Distinguishing between those motivations can be frustrating. But all the hard work inevitably results in a work with greater depth and specificity.

WCT: You worked with Howard on many of those songs and, unfortunately, he isn't around to help this time. How has that been?

AM: It's bittersweet to bring our songs back to life in new ways without his input or involvement. To witness new wonderful actors and creative talents rediscovering our gems is amazing. And I hope in some way Howard's spirit is in touch with that.

WCT: What advice do you have for film and theater score composers who are just starting out, or for people who want to get into this work?

AM: Serve the work, rather than your own ego or emotional needs. Yes, the work we do is emotional. But that emotion is channeled through the characters and story. Never fall in love with your own work to the extent that you are unwilling to push it aside and create something new instead. Our field is very collaborative. And success hinges on your ability to be part of a team; part of a greater whole.

The other basic advice is to always be creating something new. The act of creating keeps your talents alive, just like a workout in the gym keeps your muscles strong.

You may think you know what your best and most important work is. But the audience is your collaborator, too. Listen to them as much as you do your own heart.

WCT: You'll be in Chicago on March 30 for a retrospective show, performing and covering pieces that span across your career. Could you talk a bit about what it will be like?

AM: My concert allows me to bring together work from nearly 50 years. I play and sing and talk through career highlights and personal insights and emotional moments and telling anecdotes. And behind me on the stage are three screens that illuminate things and expand the experience. The first act leads up to the incredible success of our Disney animated musicals combined with huge personal changes due to the AIDS crisis and the passing of Howard Ashman.

The second act starts with my Broadway shows and the continuation of my Disney projects, and it moves through lots of my film and stage work that some people might be unaware of. And I will preview some exciting new work that no audiences have heard before. I've been blessed with a long and rich career that I never could have dreamed of having. And A Whole New World of Alan Menken means a great deal to me because it allows all the many aspects and facets of my work to be joined in one concert experience.

"A Whole New World of Alan Menken" will show at the Auditorium Theatre on Saturday, March 30, at 7:30 p.m. Find tickets and more information at www.auditoriumtheatre.org/shows/alanmenken/ .


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