Maestro Award Recipient Alan Menken on the Future of Movie Musicals (Q&A)

12:52 PM PST 10/24/2011 by Shirley Halperin
Buena Vista Pictures/Courtesy of Everett Collection

The "Aladdin" and "Tangled" composer will be feted at THR/Billboard's Film & TV Music Conference Monday.

Eight Oscars plus 10 Grammy Awards and seven Golden Globes equals one illustrious career for composer and lyricist Alan Menken, 62, whose musical canon includes such beloved animated fare as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Tangled, along with the classic Little Shop of Horrors and his latest screen-to-stage adaptation, Sister Act.

After 25 years in the business, he remains an in-demand music man with heart, soul and a very sturdy trophy cabinet, soon to add another to the collection: the Billboard/Hollywood Reporter Maestro Award, to be presented Oct. 24 at our 2011 Film & TV Music Conference.

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The Hollywood Reporter: What is the state of the movie musical today?

Alan Menken: Musicals are tough. There is no industry or pipeline through which new movie musicals come -- there aren't stars that we identify with musical theater, nor is there an established audience that's big enough just for a film musical. After we did Tangled, there was really no movement to do more. Essentially, you're reinventing the wheel each time you do a film musical, and I've been fortunate that I get to try.

THR: Although it paid off for all parties in the end, you voiced frustration over the way Tangled was marketed. What did you take issue with?

Menken: That it wasn't billed as a musical. In the trailers, the songs were hidden -- they used a Pink song instead -- because I think Disney felt the best way to market the movie was as a kind of boy-oriented action adventure. But I was hired to write a musical based on Rapunzel. So sometimes it's frustrating, but in the case of Tangled, you have to say maybe they knew something because they changed the name, made a serious effort to market it in a certain way and the movie did very well. It worked out just fine.

THR: Was there a time it didn't?

Menken: Home on the Range -- that was a bit of a creative train wreck where a lot of good work went into something that wasn't smartly conceived. People were not in the same place, and that happens a lot, especially with musicals, where you can get pulled in two or three directions. It can be harrowing and it can fail, and sometimes, much to your surprise, it can succeed.

THR: Are you surprised at the successful return of The Lion King?

Menken: Go figure! It's amazing after all this time. But The Lion King is a very beloved animated musical -- exceptionally so.

THR: Is there a movie executive who really gets music?

Menken: Chris Montan. He started as a music supervisor when I first came to Disney, and 26 years later he's still there as [president of Walt Disney Music]. There's never been anybody more influential on me as a composer than Chris, but in terms of Jeffrey Katzenberg or Michael Eisner, who I work with, their heads are not in the process. What they're looking at is the result, and it's my job to give them the result they want while hanging on to my integrity as a composer.

THR: You've lived in the New York area all your life and worked on Broadway on and off for decades. What was it like watching the Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark drama from the sidelines?

Menken: For those of us who know what it's like to open a Broadway show, there's great empathy for Julie Taymor and the people who stuck their necks out. And there's a certain degree of schadenfreude because we've all gotten our rear ends kicked by the critics and bloggers. … We're all acrobats. You're watching somebody try a particularly difficult dismount. What Julie did was really courageous. But it's also about bringing the music of U2 to the stage. One of the reasons we won a lot of best song Oscars was it didn't sound like somebody just put in a trunk song. In every case, they were completely honed to the project.

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