Composer Spotlight: Alan Menken
With eight Academy Awards to his name, Alan Menken is one of the most successful composers in Hollywood. His primary focus on Disney musicals has made an indelible impression on generations with classics such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Enchanted and Tangled. Although his specialty lies in songwriting, he is also very gifted in orchestral scoring as evidenced by his usual double duty of songwriting & scoring on most of his projects.
Alan began his musical life in the 70’s by working as an accompanist, writing jingles, doing musical theater and songwriting for Sesame Street. Then in 1978, he met playwright Howard Ashman, whose collaboration as lyricist would be integral to their upcoming success. The first breakthrough they had was the 1982 stage musical Little Shop of Horrors. This proved to be a huge success as it set the box-office record for highest grossing Off-Broadway show ever. Six years later, Ashman would invite Menken to join him on a new Disney project. It had been 20 years since The Jungle Book was released and Disney’s new management was trying to rekindle the animated musical genre. That project was The Little Mermaid. The runaway success of this film, as it grossed over $211 million worldwide, sparked a rebirth for Disney and an unprecedented string of hits for Menken. Although he was a veteran songwriter, he had minimal experience writing for orchestra, with this being his first score for a film. But in the end that didn’t matter very much as it earned him his first two Oscars for “Best Song” and “Best Score.” The 1989 “Best Score” win was not without controversy, however, as it beat out arguably better works by John Williams (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Born on the Fourth of July) and James Horner (Field of Dreams).
His next 3 films Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and Pocahontas, would continue in the tradition of The Little Mermaid, by garnering him two more Oscars each and elevating them to gross over $400, $500 & $300 million respectively. It cannot be overstated how much he completely redefined the animated musical for Disney and the rest of the industry. Many consider this period to be the pinnacle of Disney animation, rivaling even their classic period. But, this streak for Menken was not to last. Disney chose to diversify by bringing in other composers for their animated projects and after the flop of Hercules in 1997, he wouldn’t work with Disney again for almost a decade.
At this point Alan went back to his stage roots with various musicals until his return to Disney in 2007 with the release of Enchanted. The blending of animation and live-action allowed him explore a wide swath of historical Disney faire. This movie put him back on the map in film as well as launching the career of Amy Adams.
Next up was Disney’s 50th animated film — its first foray into CGI and 3D with the animated musical Tangled. Earning Alan his 19th Oscar nomination, it went on to delight audiences with its mix of classic fairytale musical and contemporary humor. He followed this with the Snow White based film Mirror Mirror and the short-lived musical TV series Galavant. Most recently he took his first R-rated turn when he was asked by Seth Rogan to pen the music for the multilevel offense known as Sausage Party. To its credit though, it did become the highest grossing R-rated animated film of all time – due in no small part to Alan’s Disney-esque songs.
On March 17th the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast hits theaters and will once again have Alan helm the score. The original 1991 version has been considered by critics to be perhaps the best animated film ever made, so those are some large and well-worn shoes to fill. Although the film will contain some of the original classic songs, it will also have new songs and an entirely new score. This also marks another string of live-action remakes for Disney with the announcement of The Little Mermaid set to go into production on the heels of this. It looks like the tide is turning his direction again as he continues to influence another generation while they grow up listening to his timeless melodies.