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Disney animation might never have recovered from its late-1980s slump without Alan Menken’s scores for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and Pocahontas. The New York-born Menken, who gets his star on the Walk of Fame on Wednesday, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter.
The Hollywood Reporter: You grew up in a house with lots of music — your dentist dad would play show tunes — but you initially studied pre-med at New York University. How did you escape that?
Alan Menken: I was kind of an ADD kid; it was hard for me to concentrate in school. Being a composer has been a godsend for me on a personal level. But all the men in my family were dentists, so —
THR: So of course you wrote about a sadistic dentist who dies from ingesting nitrous oxide in Little Shop of Horrors.
Menken: I sent the cassette tape of the score to my parents. Mom called and said, “Honey, we heard the tape. OK.” Click! I called back and they were upset: My father was the president of a New York chapter of analgesists, and they promoted nitrous oxide. You can imagine how they felt.
THR: What would your musical career have been like if Disney had never called?
Menken: There’s an alternate universe where I could have been a successful singer-songwriter, along the lines of Billy Joel, Elton John or James Taylor. But after [marrying his wife] Janis, our life together was important to me, and touring was not something I embraced.
THR: Do you think the kids who first listened to your Disney films are the ones behind the resurgence of musicals now on TV and in the movies?
Menken: It’s amazing. It’s not easy to do musicals well. But there’s a generation now that can understand them, and Howard’s [lyricist Howard Ashman] and my work had something to do with that.
THR: Should Glee do a whole Menken/Ashman-themed show?
Menken: I’m not a big TV watcher, to be honest. I watch the news or a Yankee game. A lot of musical theater writers — musicals may not be their favorite things. There might be nitpicking, or jealousy. It’s not an escape if you work in the field.
THR: Does that mean writing a musical isn’t fun?
Menken: I don’t write songs for myself anymore. I only write songs on assignment. It’s purely a business, but it is still so important to me emotionally. The best parts about writing a show are [its] first, second and 10th anniversaries. Everything else is relative levels of hell.
Alan Menken Timeline
1949 — July 22: Born in New Rochelle, N.Y.
1972 — Marries wife Janis, a ballet dancer. “She created the stability for me to have a career,” he says.
1979 — God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, the first collaboration between Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, is adapted as a musical from the book by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
1982 — Little Shop of Horrors, based on a 1960 Roger Corman film, becomes Menken’s first big hit off-Broadway. It’s made into a film in 1986 and lands on Broadway in 2003.
1987 — Menken and Ashman begin collaborating with Disney on what will become The Little Mermaid in 1989. The film earns more than $222 million in worldwide box office.
1990 — With Ashman, Menken earns his first of eight Oscars — for Mermaid song Under the Sea. (The song also wins a Grammy in 1991.) He wins a second that night (this time, solo) for the film’s score.
1994 — An adaptation of the Disney film Beauty and the Beast, on which he and Ashman collaborated, marks Menken’s first time on Broadway. It runs for more than 5,400 performances.
1998 — He’s inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
September: Menken’s adaptation of the 1992 film Leap of Faith premieres at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre.
Wednesday: Receives a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Nov. 24 — Tangled, his latest Disney collaboration (this one with lyricist Glenn Slater) opens.
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