Regular readers of the site may already be familiar with my Disney nerd status, and thus I was never going to turn down the chance to spend 20 minutes face to face with legendary composer, Alan Menken.
Menken’s work spans theatre (Little Shop Of Horrors, Sister Act) and screen (The Little Mermaid, Beauty And The Beast, Aladdin, Hunchback and more), and we got to touch on all of those as we sat down to chat about his latest project, the music to the film Tangled.
Are my ears deceiving me, or did you sneak a music cue from Beauty And The Beast right near the beginning of Tangled?
It might be there inadvertently! There is one thing that is advertent, which is somewhere in the film, but I won’t tell you where. Oh, I will tell you where! I’ll give you a clue.
There’s a two-measure, big swell, that is basically the same, I don’t know if it’s the same key, but it’s right out of Enchanted. It’s in the film, and it’s almost in an analogous spot from the spot in Enchanted.
I’ve followed your scores for a long time. I’m going score specifically, because I think we talk about the songs a lot. But they never seem to make the round-up albums!
In Disney-lore, for some reason, the scores never quite get appreciated to the same degree, and yet you walk around a Disneyland theme park, and it’s the music people hum to that’s the universal thing. Is that how you see it?
Well, the job when you write film underscore is to be ignored. That comes with the gig, no question about it.
Even if you look at the songs, when we talk about appreciating them, we tend to delve into the lyrics. Yet, the lyrics change from country to country as they’re translated, but the music itself is steadfast. There’s no cultural variation there. The foundation, thus, has to be the music, possibly ahead of the animation, even?
Well, you’re hitting a point… one of my contentions has always been that, when you write a musical, or songs for something dramatic, you should be able to come to the dramatic moment and just play the music, without any words, and have at least seventy-five percent of the meaning of that song communicated just by the choice of the music.
The thing that intrigues me about your work is that it’s across so many different collaborations and tones. You take your work on Hunchback Of Notre Dame, which goes to some really dark places, for instance. Presumably, the differing collaborations work very well for you?
Yeah. Most of my collaborations, certainly post-Howard Ashman but even with Howard, are music first.
Before I met any of these collaborators, I was a lyricist, and a good one. When I write the music for any of my songs, I write as a composer-lyricist in my head. I know whether or not I’m writing the words in my head or not. I know the conversation. I know what is going on dramatically, and I know what my pre-conceptions.
So, I guess the answer here is that, in a sense, I can function as a common denominator dramatically, because I have a sense of what I want dramatically.
Are you not tempted to take on the lyrics for one of these films? That must be a temptation?
Yeah, that’s a temptation. I have. After Howard died, I wrote some of the songs for Aladdin. But the problem is that a) writing lyrics is far more time consuming, and b) there’s a lot of nit-picky stuff that happens that I frankly don’t have the patience for.
I’ve been blessed by having wonderful lyricists. Whatever I gain from writing lyrics, I feel I lose a little bit for the musical aspect by having that lyrical burden on me. But when I’m liberated from worrying about the words, frankly, I feel I’m a better composer.
You clearly have a lot of fun picking the over-arching theme of the film. Is that your first decision?
No. In the case of Tangled, it was a B-section of When Will My Life Begin, the theme that I use. [at which point Mr Menken starts singing the theme out loud] That really was not the major part of any song, because I couldn’t use [he sings another bit here]. And one of the big themes I use when the lanterns in the film are going up is taking from the up-tempo section of [the track] Kingdom Dance. [sings loudly again. He is more tuneful than your interviewer]. I just go, “What can I use? what can I use? Oh, I’ll use that!”
And at the end of the day, it adds up to a score, thank goodness. The only music that I really had that was centrally in a song and centrally in the theme of the movie was I See The Light. And also, I’ve got to say that, to their credit, they were very, very gun-shy about thematic material in the score. They really wanted to minimise it.
So, we minimised it. I really had to pick my spots to bring theme in.
Your music in this as well, and you can trace this back to The Little Mermaid, if not further, is doing the heavy lifting. It’s doing the distillation of the storytelling. It’s condensing lots of really important things about character, such as in the opening song. It feels like you’re putting across 10, 20 pages of screenplay in a song?
Two goals. One is, is there a compelling song moment here? And when I say compelling, it’s not just what the text of the song is, it’s the ‘I get it’ factor.
What is the conceit of the song? Is it funny? Do we get it because it’s ironic and funny? Or is it touching? If it’s going to be exciting, why is it exciting? And also, is it a clear genre? Do people understand what the song is, so that you’re helped by that.
Distill it down to all of that, it will naturally soak up a lot of the thematic material around it, just because of the concept of the song.
Arguably, the crucial part of job, though, is choosing when to be silent?
In terms of composition, that’s arguably one of the most overlooked skills?
[Laughs] Yeah. And the directors are not shy about recommending that!
What you seem to have with the directors on Tangled is coming back to the ethos of Disney in the late 80s, early 90s. Nathan Greno and Byron Howard are young, very driven, and seem almost fearless.
Yet, you’re in a very different position now to how you were back in the time of The Little Mermaid and Beauty And The Beast. You have a far more extensive backlog of credits and experience. So, how does the mechanic change for you? Presumably, the directors are respectful of your work?
Respectful, yeah. And we’re separated by at least 20 years of age. People want to establish their own ground. So, when you bring in the sort of ‘old master’, that can be a little bit daunted. So, on the one hand they’re respectful, and on the other they go, “No, Alan. We don’t want that, we want this.” And there are times I have to go [zips mouth].
There’s a place in the movie where I had a concept for the score. We had initially had a song for the character Flynn. Where he sang a sea shanty. He was singing about what he wanted in his life and his father used to sing him this lullaby. So, it’s a lusty sea shanty, then he sings it wistfully, and then later on, she sings it to him in a tender way. And the song got cut. Okay, fine.
But when we meet Flynn, I said I can almost see this being a Robin Hood moment and really going for that swashbuckling, big, thematic chase. And so, I wrote the cut that way, and the directors said, “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God. No, no, no, no, no, no, no.”
There was a lot of nervousness, and there was a temptation to get defensive and say, “Guys, this is what we talked about.” Sorry, I’ll try it again…!
Do you think Disney, and animated films in general, have been scared off musicals?
Disney as a company, you mean?
Disney as a film company. Certainly the way that animation has gone.
There seems a fear. Lots of films had songs for the sake of it for a while, but we went through a spate of animated films with two or three music CDs for little reason. Do you think we’re getting the anti-reaction now?
Yes, yes. The way I see it is that there’s a wide spectrum of what a musical is. At one end of the spectrum you could say is Hunchback and Beauty And The Beast. At the other end of the spectrum, and I’m talking Disney musicals now, you could say Tarzan and Emperor’s New Groove, which are basically pop-driven. And then there’s all the stuff in between.
And at any given part of the process, they’re going to be going, “We want this. No, we want that. No, that. We want that.”
So, it’s always navigating what kind of musical is this. And frankly, Tangled is certainly far from your classic break into song musical. It’s essentially an action-adventure, romantic comedy with songs. If people respond to the songs, it could become a musical. That could happen. At the same time, it could almost be something that exists without songs.
There is, at Disney, always a constant questioning about what is a musical. Musicals can be very dangerous. Because a) they’re expensive, and b) they either respond to them and it’s big, or they respond to them not at all.
Going even broader than Disney, hasn’t the art of movie music been diluted by celebrity? Even with action adventure films, the score is so far down the list now, instead it seems part of the commercial package is to get ten rock songs on and make an album.
Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
We’re in danger of losing an art. In Tangled, we have a proper score, a different score, one with its own identity. Yet, for you as a composer, watching what’s happened with movies, you’re doing stage musicals and theatre now. Presumably, there must be a reason for that?
I came from theatre, of course. But yes, right now, I have nothing in the pipeline for Disney.
Nothing at all?
No. Snow Queen is not happening. That could turn around like that.
The film version of the Beauty And The Beast Broadway musical?
That was canned.
I’m on [stage musicals] Sister Act, Leap Of Faith. I’m developing a musical. An MGM-RKO idea.
Yeah. It’s an original idea I’m working on, with David Zippel.
With Disney, whether there’s going to be a sequel to Enchanted? Right now? No.
Would you like there to be? You’re not a sequel person, really.
I’ve never had a sequel. That’s true.
I don’t know what’s going to be. But honestly, I’m fine with or without there being more!
And with that, sadly, our time was up. Alan Menken, thank you very much!
Tangled is released in the UK on 28th January. Check back shortly, as we’ve got an interview with the directors, the film’s producer, and another chat with animator Glen Keane to bring to you, too.
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