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'Glee' Star Darren Criss Surprise Serenades Oscar-Winning Composer Alan Menken at Conference

Alan Menken Lea Salonga Darren Criss
Arnold Turner
From left: Alan Menken, Lea Salonga and Darren Criss

After performing a medley of Menken's songs at Monday's Billboard/Hollywood Reporter TV & Film Music Conference, Criss revealed that he once received a $100 tip from the maestro of movie musicals.

Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken, who wrote the music for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and many more, once handed a hundred dollar tip to a college kid doing an acoustic medley of his songs at a coffee shop.

These days that "kid" is better known as Darren Criss from Glee, and at the Billboard / Hollywood Reporter Film & TV Music Conference on Monday, he made a surprise appearance before participants -- with his acoustic guitar in hand -- and serenaded Menken once again.

"Just look at your songs / aren't they neat? Wouldn't you think your collection's complete?" Criss sang, reworking the lyrics to Menken's "Part of Your World" from The Little Mermaid. "Wouldn't you think you're the guy, the guy who has everything?"

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The medley concluded with an appearance from the voice of Jasmine herself, Lea Salonga.

"I used to play for pennies at a cafe at the University of Michigan," Criss explained from stage. "I was just ruining 'Part of Your World' when Alan comes in. I was just mortified!" 

"He was playing all of these songs really, really beautifully," Menken countered, still recovering from his genuine surprise. "I was really impressed with his talent. Next thing I know, Darren's on Glee! He's just doing incredible work."

Criss later revealed that he spent the $100 "on alcohol." 

Billboard Editorial Director Bill Werde presented Menken with this year's Billboard / Hollywood Reporter Maestro Award after introducing him as "the Babe Ruth of composers." Indeed, to call Menken's own resume "incredible" would be a mammoth understatement.

"My favorite part about [his] career is that at some point in the '80s, BMI gave [him] a lifetime achievement award for his work on Broadway -- and then he went on to win eight Academy Awards," Werde marveled from the stage.

In a lengthy chat that was heavy on wisecracks, the pair discussed Menken's early interest in songwriting (which eventually included inspiration from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan), his transition from Broadway to Disney, his non-Disney work (his song in this summer's Captain America: The First Avenger, said Menken, was "deliberately an homage to Irving Berlin") and his multiple Oscar wins.

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Menken spoke fondly about his parents, both of whom are dentists, and their reaction to Little Shop of Horrors in particular. One of the film's villains, of course, is a murderous dentist who delights in inflicting pain. "As I always did in those days, I actually gave my parents a cassette tape of the score." His recounting of the answering-machine message left by how mother elicited some big laughs. "'Hi honey, it's mom. We heard the tape. OK.'" They eventually got behind it and even loaned some pictures of abscesses to the production.

During the wide-ranging conversation, Menken advised composers in the audience against getting too attached to their songs when working on musicals. "It's not about the song. It's about the song in context of the musical. Does it fit the character? Does it support the rest of the story? Does it work for an audience?" He said he's even exchanged better songs for lesser songs when it served the story.

He tends to write on a piano or keyboard, and said that when writing alone, he's much faster. "I've literally had times where I've written the structure of a song in the time it took my fingers to play it."

By contrast, "the song 'Beauty and the Beast' was hours of work, which is unusual for a simple ballad. We had a tape running the entire time of [cowriter] Howard [Ashman] and me working on it. Somehow I saved that tape and I still have it."

Menken received multiple standing ovations from the audience, but perhaps Criss put it best: "How many Oscars can one bastard hold?” Criss sang to an eruption of laughter around the room. "He's got verses and bridges aplenty / Want an original song for your movie? He'll write 20."

Watch the surprise medley below: