Alan Menken: A Glimpse At Brilliance

By April Anderson

During a private invitation-only event on March 6 attended by NYU President Andrew Hamilton and NYU Steinhardt Dean Dom Brewer, a Songwriters Hall of Fame Master Session at NYU with 2008 SHOF Inductee Alan Menken thrilled the audience at Steinway Hall. Composer of immensely celebrated musicals of stage and screen including Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Pocahontas, Newsies, and of course his first huge success; Little Shop of Horrors, Menken allowed generous insight into how his creations are born.

Led in conversation by NYU Faculty Songwriter-in-Residence and Director of Songwriting Phil Galdston, Menken began with his childhood in New Rochelle and his early influence by his piano-playing (and dentist) father. “I guess if I could be the one to write those songs that he plays, I’d feel like a success,” he said in an early video interview. Inspired by classical music, he said his parents had wanted him to practice piano and take lessons which he hated. He would play the first few measures of a Beethoven sonata, after which he would get bored and “I’d keep playing where I thought Beethoven might want to go.”

While Menken’s ambition was to become a composer, he temporarily bowed to the pressure to “make a living” and enrolled at NYU as a Pre-Med student. Not finding fulfillment in that realm and realizing himself to be a less than stellar student, he drifted through a few different majors until he finally graduated with a degree in Musicology. All of this time, he had been busy creating songs as both composer and lyricist and contributing material to revues like New York’s Back In Town, Big Apple Country and The Present Tense.

He joined BMI’s Musical Theater Workshop where he met fellow composer Maury Yeston (Nine, Titanic, Phantom of the Opera) who introduced him to his future collaborator Howard Ashman. Menken said they both “had a love of specific musical styles,” which they cultivated. Menken has seldom since returned to writing lyrics.

The team of Menken and Ashman began with the musical God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, after which they struck gold in 1982 with Little Shop of Horrors which literally put them on the map. It was also Ashman’s connection that brought them to Disney where they were to create The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, the latter two right before Ashman’s passing in 1991. Menken related a story of their collaborative process while writing “Be Our Guest,” and how he gave Ashman a “dumb, simple” piece of music with which to write the lyric, after which Menken planned to write the “real music.” He then explained, “but no, in order to support the lyric the music needed to be that simple and that clear. And that was not surrendering, that was both of us working toward an end together.”

Menken also delved into his first time writing the underscore for Mermaid, for which he won an Oscar for Best Score, and how he had to learn the job. “There were clicks based on the actual holes in the film and you had to write your music to the clicks.”

Menken had his first hit single after Ashman’s passing with their “Beauty and the Beast” sung by Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson. In a new collaboration with 1999 SHOF inductee Sir Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, The Lion King), “A Whole New World” from the musical Aladdin would garner a number one single and Grammy Song of the Year.

He has had a plethora of collaborative partnerships that have yielded some of the most recognizable and beloved musicals of all time, including with 2009 SHOF inductee Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippen, Wicked) with whom he wrote Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

 “I design the structure. After that, my job is done,” he said, referring to being the architect of a song.

On dealing with rejection through his career, he talked about how he has had to put it in perspective. “Through the years, I’ve tried to mitigate the highs and lows, because the lows can hurt. You’re a conduit and music comes through it. We all live on dreams. You put the dream out there and you have an image of where you want to get to….then go back to work and just let it sit there.”

Needless to say, the audience, made up of NYU students, teachers, songwriters, musicians and executives, was enthralled with this up close and truly personal look into the workings of the brilliant, yet humble and humorous mind of Alan Menken.

In attendance that night were SHOF Board Member/East Coast Education Committee Chair Karen Sherry, and SHOF Board and Committee members John Titta, Charlie Feldman, Robbin Ahrold and SHOF Board member/BMI President & CEO Mike O’Neill.

The Songwriters Hall of Fame Master Sessions program at NYU is a major component of the SHOF educational outreach. Stay tuned to for news of the next Master Sessions coming soon!