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Overview for Alan Menken
Alan Menken

Alan Menken


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Also Known As: Died:
Born: July 22, 1949 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: New Rochelle, New York, USA Profession: Music ... composer song arranger lyricist music producer singer accompanist


One of the most prolific and talented musicians in film and theater, composer Alan Menken co-wrote the captivating songs for a string of blockbuster Disney animated films, including "The Little Mermaid" (1989), "Beauty and the Beast" (1991) and "Aladdin" (1992), among many others. Menken had a hand in restoring life to two entertainment institutions that had long fallen out of favor with contemporary audiences, simply by merging Broadway show tune sensibilities with the magic of animation. Starting in theater with their surprise 1982 musical smash "Little Shop of Horrors," Menken and early collaborator Howard Ashman were called upon by Walt Disney Studios to help turn their ailing animation department around. Heavily influencing story and tone as well as music, Menken and Ashman were an unstoppable force, with musical numbers like "Under the Sea," "Be Our Guest" and "Beauty and The Beast," winning Academy Awards as well as the hearts of a generation of young movieg rs, enchanted with tales of undersea love, misunderstood beasts and flying carpets. After Ashman's tragic death, Menken worked with lyricist Tim Rice for Disney's "Pocahontas" (1995) and "Hercules" (1997), among others, and mounted several stage productions based on animated hits as well. Along the way, he set Oscar records with eight wins, taking the stage more than any composer since Alfred Newman. With "Enchanted," (2007) a modern-day fairy tale combining animation and live action, it was a return to form for Menken and songwriter Steven Schwartz, earning nominations for three original songs which evoked the magic and wonder of his now classic Disney musical numbers from nearly two decades before.

Menken was born July 22, 1949, in New Rochelle, NY. While most kids played baseball and spent evenings watching television, Menken grew up in a household all but devoted to music and theater, with the family gathering around the elder Menken at the piano, singing along to the standards of George Gershwin, the Broadway songs of Rodgers & Hammerstein, and shows such as "My Fair Lady" and "The Sound of Music." All the exposure rubbed off on young Alan, who showed an ear for Beethoven and an aptitude for playing music at a young age. While he enjoyed the piano and violin, the restless young musician despised practicing, and did his first composing by making up his own songs the moment his instructor left the room. During his teenage years in the 1960s, his classical leanings had to make room for rock 'n' roll, with Menken picking up a guitar and playing in several bands, drawing influence from his favorite, The Beatles.

Upon graduation from high school, Menken still entertained thoughts of becoming a composer, but was unsure of the practicality of the choices, feeling pressure to become a dentist like his father and several family members. Even so, in college, he would drop his pre-med courses in favor of music, going on to earn a liberal arts degree. After school, he plunged into the music field, writing musical jingles and providing piano accompaniment to ballets. Still a lover of pop music, Menken dreamed of a music career along the lines of Billy Joel, Elton John or Jackson Browne, and wrote and performed his own material in clubs at night in pursuit of that goal. But it was upon joining BMI, the prestigious songwriting academy in New York City, NY, that he recognized his own talent for musical storytelling. Under the tutelage of Lehman Engel, who took the young composer under his wing, Menken flourished in the program, eventually meeting songwriter and playwright, Howard Ashman, who was looking for a composer on a theater project of his own. The meeting would change both men's lives forever.

Menken began working with Ashman on a musical version of the Kurt Vonnegut story, "God Bless You, Mrs. Rosewater." While the show was not a huge hit, their partnership was fruitful enough that they soon reteamed on what would become the off-Broadway cult classic, "Little Shop of Horrors." A tongue-in-cheek take on B-movie director Roger Corman's horror film of the same name, the dark musical comedy told the story of a bespectacled florist who cares for a plant with an appetite for human flesh and blood. Produced by then music and theater mogul David Geffen, the show debuted in 1982 and was such a hit, it spawned a feature film adaptation in 1986 directed by Frank Oz and starring Rock Moranis. One of the film's more memorable musical numbers featured a sadistic, leather jacket-wearing dentist, played by Steve Martin, drilling the teeth of an equally masochistic patient, played by Bill Murray. The film and play put Menken and Ashman on the map; enough to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Song. Menken would later reflect that only his parents were dismayed over some of the edgier content of the musical.

Soon Menken and Ashman were recommended by Geffen to Walt Disney Studios, which was attempting to revitalize their moribund animation division. Ashman - having already contributed a song for the animated film, "Oliver & Company" (1988) - was brought in with Ashman to provide music for the first animated film entirely under the new regime of Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, "The Little Mermaid." The original Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale was a dark story about a young mermaid forced to make terrible and painful choices to become part of the human world, where she is ultimately rejected. Menken and Ashman quickly sparked to the idea of turning the story into a romantic fable, where the good-hearted perseverance of red-headed Ariel the Mermaid would allow true love to be triumphant in the end. Perfectly in sync with the studio and the animation team, they started work right away, commuting back and forth each week between their studio in New York City and the Disney offices Burbank. Dashing ideas back and forth with the artists, Menken and Ashman turned out one memorable musical sequence after another. Among their hits was "Under the Sea," a catchy calypso number sung by Sebastian the Jamaican-accented crab, and "Kiss the Girl," a gentle lullaby that was nearly axed from the movie when children squirmed during a black and white test screening. It was not until matched with full color renderings, that the magic of the scene was complete, further proving that both music and art were essential to the success of the other. Only the opening musical montage "Fathoms Below" was cut, when executives were adamant that audiences would not sit through a long opening number. With future projects, those executives would learn how wrong they were. Even so, the finished film was a breakout hit, surpassing all expectations. Unlike the animated films of Disney's golden era which struggled to break even, "The Little Mermaid" not only made its $40 million budget back, but it went on to gross over $100 million in the U.S. Even elitist critic circles praised the film for its open embrace of Broadway musical tradition with a pop sensibility. Thanks largely to Ashman and Menken - who both took to the stage to accept an Academy Award for Best Song for "Under the Sea" - a new genre was born.

Eager to capitalize on its newfound success, Disney raced to get more animated projects into the pipeline, and the first follow-up, "Beauty and the Beast," proved that lightning could strike twice. Again filmmakers hit upon the idea of taking a dark children's story and giving it a happy ending, all the while retaining a slightly sophisticated veneer. And so with the story of a pretty young girl doomed to spend time with an ugly beast, filmmakers wisely made the beast misunderstood, with a heart and soul of his own and a chance at redemption. Skillfully avoiding what could have been a saccharine retelling, the film made good use of Menken and Ashman's talents at crafting engaging songs with slyly intelligent lyrics. An early number entitled "Gaston" smartly sends up a potential Prince Charming-type, painting him as a doltish, old-fashioned oaf unworthy of the subtly progressive heroine Belle. And a rich, dazzling show-stopper, "Be Our Guest," sung by the inanimate dishes, utensils and furniture of the beast's castle, would prove so popular that it would go on to be a showcase theme for Disney's theme park and hotel divisions. And given freer reign this second time around, Menken and Ashman turned out a moving opening ballad, "Belle," a big Broadway style opening number that stayed in the movie this time. But perhaps their biggest and longest-lasting contribution was the challenging title song, "Beauty and the Beast," sung by Angela Lansbury in the film and Celine Dion on the single. From its first line, "Tale as old as time " the song, sung over a ballroom dance sequence that was a tour de force of sweep and style, aided by newly developed computer animation, won over audiences young and old, earning an Academy Award for Best Song. The film itself - a blockbuster at the box office - also won the Oscar for Best Score and was nominated for Best Picture, another first for animated films. But sadly, the film would mark the end of Menken's partnership with the openly gay Ashman, who succumbed to AIDS just before the film was completed.

Plowing into his work, Menken next worked on a film that would turn out to be an even bigger commercial hit than his past successes, "Aladdin." Paired now with lyricist Tim Rice, Menken filled the soundtrack with beautiful, emotionally resonant songs - one of which, "The World at Your Feet," originally co-written with Ashman - was transformed into the popular "A Whole New World." The film continued the new Disney storytelling model, a tale of redemption and heroism, and Aladdin himself was shifted from a no-good thief as portrayed in the original Arabic Book One: Thousand and One Nights, to a more innocent street urchin, seeking self respect and the love of a young girl named Jasmine. The film also started a new tradition by seeking out big-name talent for voiceover work, in this case Robin Williams, as a whirlwind madcap Genie. The potent blend of star power, continued advancements in computer animation, and the remarkably fresh music from Menken and Rice catapulted the film to stellar box office success of more than $500 million worldwide.

Menken continued to collaborate with Rice, followed by songwriter Stephen Schwartz, as Disney turned out what seemed to be a never-ending run of successive animated musical features throughout the next decade. Among them was "Pocahontas," which told the story of the Native American title character and her historical meeting with British pioneer, John Smith, voiced by Mel Gibson. Foregoing talking animals and whimsical musical numbers, the movie was an attempt at more serious subject matter, with Menken and Rice's songs reflecting a more somber, moodier tone, most notably with "Colors of the Wind," which went on to win an Academy Award for Best Song and was released as single by Vanessa Williams. But despite the music and lush animation, the prestigious film did not match the popularity of previous animated efforts. Subsequent movies such as "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1996) and "Hercules" (1997), while still filling theaters and featuring still more award-winning music and songs by Menken and Schwartz did not capture the public's imagination as previous efforts had. By that time, tastes were shifting, and computer-animated films had become the norm, with fewer musical numbers, more pop culture references, and a greater reliance on stars and existing radio hits for their soundtracks.

Menken continued to compose music for Disney television specials, straight-to-video sequels, and theme park attractions, as well as songs for a Broadway version of "A Christmas Carol." Perhaps the only blights on his Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe dominated career, were songs for Disney's musical flop "Newsies" (1992) and a track for the mostly overlooked "Rocky V" (1990) entitled "Measure of a Man," both of which earned "Razzie" awards for worst songs. One of Menken's last movies under the traditional Disney animation banner was "Home on the Range" (2004), a barnyard comedy that did only modest business and took a drubbing from critics. Menken next worked on "Enchanted" (2007), the story of an animated Princess Giselle (Amy Adams) who is accidentally transported to live-action Manhattan and followed by the arrogant Prince Edward (James Marsden), only to fall in love with an unsuspecting New Yorker (Patrick Dempsey). Collaborating once again with lyricist Stephen Schwartz, Menken earned Academy Award nominations for "Happy Working Song," "So Close" and the intoxicating "That's How You Know," which was featured in a show-stopping sequence in Central Park. In the meantime, Menken wrote the music for the Broadway musical adaptation of "The Little Mermaid" (2008), which earned him a Tony Award nomination for Best Original Score. Back on the big screen, he worked with lyricist Glenn Slater to create a cross between medieval music and 1960s folk rock on "Tangled" (2010), an animated, contemporary take on the German fairy tale Rapunzel. For the film, Menken earned yet another Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, "I See the Light."

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