Alan Menken

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A Whole New Way of Experiencing the World of Alan Menken

By Libby Slate

At a recent event celebrating the 25th anniversary of Disney's animated film musical Beauty and the Beast, one participant said of the score's creators, "They brought Broadway to animation."

"They" would be lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, who, pre-Disney, had had a smash global hit with Off-Broadway's Little Shop of Horrors and then gave the world the scores to Disney's The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.

Sadly, Ashman died of AIDS in 1991 at age 40. Menken, however, is still going strong—Hercules strong, to name a subsequent Disney animated film—having seen all three of his films with Ashman translated to Broadway hits and teamed with other lyricists for film, theater and television projects. Along the way, he's won eight Academy Awards® , 11 Grammy® Awards and one Tony® Award, along with dozens of other honors.

 Alan Menken medley video

On September 30, Center audiences will be treated to an evening of Menken's performances and reminiscences when the composer takes the stage for the one-man show A Whole New World of Alan Menken at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. Menken has performed his own material previously, but, true to its title, this full-length evening is the premiere of a brand-new show. The idea developed during discussions about a concert for PBS' Great Performances and also about a series of live concerts with singers and symphony orchestras.

"I said, 'I'm actually more comfortable sitting at a piano by myself and playing my songs,' " Menken relates over the phone. "I can clear my head, be more spontaneous. I don't have to worry about learning someone else's key for the arrangements. I'm juggling an insane amount of work in my writing career, which is 95 percent of what I do in my life."

Menken's management company suggested a trial run of a solo concert, which could then remain a standalone show or be incorporated into a symphony concert. "So you guys," he announces gleefully,"are the guinea pigs!"

The composer is spending some of his summer deciding on his concert selections—something which could take the entire season, given his vast body of work. His other Disney films include Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Home on the Range, Tangled and the live-action Enchanted. On stage, there are Newsies and King David, plus non-Disney productions Sister Act and Leap of Faith. Television work includes 60 songs for the recent ABC series Galavant. Among his lyricist-collaborators through the years are Stephen Schwartz, Tim Rice, Glenn Slater and David Zippel.

Presumably, Menken's Oscar® -winning numbers will be on the program: "Under the Sea" from The Little Mermaid, "Beauty and the Beast" from that movie, "A Whole New World" from Aladdin and "Colors of the Wind" from Pocahontas, the latter written with Schwartz. Other candidates include early rock musicals, cabaret songs and even commercial jingles.

"Do I put in songs that are familiar to people, or include songs that are unfamiliar, or have more interesting anecdotes attached to them?" Menken muses. "I put together a list and said, 'Well, that's a five-hour concert!' "

Alan Menken quote

Not that the "guinea-pig" audience would probably mind. Whatever the selections, Menken says that a good song is one that represents "a marriage of a moment and music and lyrics, as specifically as possible. The key to making the moment is to be sure the song goes somewhere in the context of the story, that it progresses. You want to find the specific musical vocabulary that informs the song, and do something original and memorable with that vocabulary.

"A song is a conversation, a direct communication between you and the listener," he adds "But as a songwriter [rather than a lyricist], generally, I'm not the one communicating; I'm the architect of the house that someone else is living in. The song is the construction of a moment that fits the lyric. It's a very powerful medium, capable of such emotional resonance."

Menken wrote his first full musical as a student at New York University, where he graduated in 1971 with a degree in musicology. That same year, he wrote a rock ballet for a dance company, where he met ballet dancer Janis Roswick. They have been married since 1972, and have two daughters.

His first musical with Ashman was God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, based on a Kurt Vonnegut novel, which opened Off-Off-Broadway and then Off-Broadway in 1979. In 1982 the two struck gold with Little Shop of Horrors, a rock horror-comedy based on a Roger Corman film, which became the most successful Off-Broadway show in history.

Nowadays, Menken has numerous projects in the works, including a live-action film version of Beauty and the Beast. How does it feel to have created such enduring, beloved music over the course of his career?

"It's amazing, gratifying, humbling." Menken replies. "It's a huge factor in my life. It's an amazing blessing."

Libby Slate is a frequent contributor to Center publications


Dates: September 30, 2016
Tickets: $49 and up
For tickets and information, visit
or call (714) 556-2787.
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