Alan Menken and the Musical Legacy of Beauty and the Beast

The legendary composer speaks with Den of Geek about making the live-action Beauty and the Beast for both old and new audiences.

Alan Menken is a living legend. The eight-time Academy Award-winning composer and songwriter’s music was a crucial element in the revival of Disney’s animation brand. Films like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Little Mermaid brought the company to new heights of success and became classics for an entirely new generation of fans, and Menken’s scores and tunes (many written with late lyricist Howard Ashman) were an indelible part of the fabric of those magical movies.

Beauty and the Beast in particular, the 1991 animated masterpiece, is considered by many fans to be a perfect film, so the idea of doing a live-action version may have been daunting at first. But with the successful Broadway adaptation also under his belt, Menken was game for the challenge and collaborated with lyricist Tim Rice on three new songs, all while updating the existing, often brilliant score for new voices like Emma Watson (Belle), Dan Stevens (Beast), Luke Evans (Gaston) and Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts). Den of Geek had a chance to speak with Menken about updating Beauty, working with director Bill Condon and composing for a new generation of actors.

Den of Geek: When you look back, what’s your fondest memory of the original film or score?

Alan Menken: Writing it. The highlights for me always is the writing, and it was an intensely creative time to say the least, and a very emotional time. To get to write these songs and this musical and then to work with Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach and Paige O’Hara and Richard White. It was fantastic. I loved watching recordings and all that and of course scoring the movie is always a thrill, but still, in the moment of creation is always the highlight for me.

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People have said that the animated film is a perfect movie. Do you remember the first time you watched it?

You mean complete? The first time I watched it, complete, in public – because remember I was scoring it so it’s hard to know, because then you see it in so many gradations – was in Orlando, I believe. It was an opening down there. It was a screening and it was very emotional. Very emotional. Howard had passed away six months before and when it got to the end and his dedication and Mickey Mouse with a tear, that was very emotional.

What was your reaction when Disney said they’re going to do this as a live action film?

It was first brought up and I went, “Okay. Great. What are the details?” There’s no way for me to have a complete reaction without knowing the details. They could be working on a script for a year. They could be working on a script for a year and a half, two years, whatever. Maybe it won’t get greenlit at all. It all becomes a hypothetical until you see the script.

I began to really then realize what was going to happen when Bill Condon was named as director, and I was able to meet with Bill. First of all, I loved his work. I know his early work as a director but on just musicals, he had written the screenplay for Chicago, he had directed the Dreamgirls movie. I had heard great things about him as somebody who loved musical theater, and I met him and he’s really smart and collaborative. He’s just the real deal.

Then we had our discussions about, “Where are we going to change things? What are the new areas we want to open up?” He said he really wanted to feel — which is logical for a live action film — more of a sense of reality, so therefore more of a sense of the 18th century. More of a sense of France. I loved that. I also wanted to bring more French into the music because I just love Debussy and Ravel and boulevard music. There is a great flavor of French music that I wanted to continue to weave into the score.

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Then there’s also the backstory elements where we want to give more backstory to Belle and Maurice coming to the town, and to the Beast. Once that was defined, then we looked at what the new song moments would be. Who am I going to collaborate with? I re-teamed with Tim Rice, who had worked on the Broadway show with me, and then we wrote three new songs.

One of my mantras was “Don’t screw it up.” You want to make sure that what you’re going to do is both going to please people who love Beauty and the Beast. You don’t want to alienate those people but you want to also have it be a new experience and have a freshness to it. Serve both those agendas.

Did you start completely from scratch with the new songs? Was there anything that you had that didn’t make the stage show?

There were two songs from the stage show that I would have loved to have had. One was “Human Again” that Howard Ashman and I had written, and it got into the (1991) movie in a slightly reduced form. It was a nine-minute number. Then we got it into the Broadway show as well, but it just was not going to fit the form of what we wanted to do for the live-action movie. Really, “Something There” filled that moment of transition in a more economical way.

Then there was a number that ended Act I of the Broadway show called “If I Can’t Love Her” which was very popular, and I love that song, but because of a two-act structure for stage musicals, we had to go for the moment where the Beast out of anger drives Belle away and he goes, “If I can’t love her, who would I ever love?” This is a different format and we went for the moment where the Beast lets Belle go voluntarily because he loves her, and because he doesn’t want her to feel like she’s a prisoner. That’s the new number called “Evermore.”

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Then there’s a music box number at the top, “How Does a Moment Last Forever,” and then a lullaby moment, “Days in the Sun.” There are themes from the Broadway show that worked their way into the score as well, so in a way, this really is an amalgam of both the Broadway show and the animated film, and yet those elements are threads that come in and serve a revised agenda but one that’s very true to what we originally started with.

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How is it working with this cast? For example, Luke has roots in musical theater but by and large the public’s only seen him in movies…

That’s true. Luke does in fact have roots in musicals, and God, he’s so good. The bulk of the cast was very fluent with musicals. We have Audra McDonald, who’s the Meryl Streep of musical theater, as the wardrobe. Of course you have Kevin Kline who I first saw on Broadway in On the Twentieth Century, and you have Josh Gad who was in Book of Mormon, and Luke Evans, who absolutely is incredible. If he hasn’t been in a lot of stage musicals, he should be. Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, who is very experienced with musicals. I don’t know if you know that or not, but she is.

On the other side, you have our two leads, and they’re new to musicals. Both of them. They needed to be helped and they had trepidation, and that’s where most of the work went, into giving them the space to help learn how to deliver a number in a dramatic situation and feel confident about their voices. It was just a process. They had their vocal coaches. They had Michael Kosarin, my musical director. I tried to hang back more with them because I, as composer, could be a little bit of an intimidating prospect.

Older generations actors maybe come from a time when musicals were at their peak, especially the traditional stage musicals. Do younger actors have maybe a harder time with the genre?

No, it’s almost the reverse. This generation of young actors are so into musical theater. I think it’s every bit as much or more than in the previous generations. This is probably the greatest generation we’ve had of musical theater talent. Just through the roof. Certainly the younger people who grew up with my music, they might have more trepidation simply because they see me as a certain kind of figure, I suppose. I don’t know, I can’t really judge entirely. But in general, the younger actors are gung ho about musicals.

You’re working on a live-action version of The Little Mermaid next with Lin-Manuel Miranda?

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I’m not sure which will be next. We have Aladdin coming. You have Mermaid coming. We have a sequel to Enchanted coming. That’s just Disney. Then there’s two other studios, there’s other things that I’m working on. None yet greenlit, so I can’t say. Honestly can’t say what’s next, but yes, I’m slated to work with Lin-Manuel Miranda. He’s going to write lyrics for new songs with me and also I think function as a producer on Mermaid.

Beauty and the Beast is out in theaters this Friday (March 17).