The Mind of Menken
By Dylan Miller
Ridgefield and Wilton are musical towns, there’s no doubt about it. From weekly Chirp concerts in Ballard Park, New York jazz in the Wilton
Library, and the astounding performances at Ridgefield Playhouse, this area seems to hum from all the notes in the air. Walking downtown on a weekend night, the sound of chatter and music can be heard spilling out from hidden restaurant courtyards. During the day, music fills local schools and homes as students strive to join the musical community. While music has almost a tangible presence here, it is not confined by any means. In fact, some of the music dreamt of and produced here has had a deep cultural influence across the globe for decades, and will continue to inspire for decades to come.
Alan Menken has lived in NYC and across the state border in New York for years and is very familiar with the local area. He is one of the most accomplished composers of our time, well known for his role in the Disney renaissance; composing and scoring influential films such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Pocahontas, for which he won two Academy Awards each. To illuminate his incredible career, Menken will perform a show this November at the Ridgefield Playhouse.
“I truly love what Ridgefield Playhouse does. They are a treasure,” said Menken. “They have great artists that come through there, and it’s been a great relationship. I have a show coming up on Nov. 6, which is an opportunity for me to bring together material I’ve written for Broadway theater, television, and different studios into one performance.”
A creation of Menken and his manager Richard Kraft, the performance will reflect on his career and share stories about some of his most influential songs. The production will utilize three screens to add a visual component as well. Although his musical journey has had many bends, his appreciation for the power of music has always been present. This is clear to all who are familiar with his music and those who have had the pleasure of speaking with him.
“Music is a language,” said Menken. “You hear a piece of music, and the amount of association that will be generated by the music alone is huge. When you add context to it, it’s extremely transporting and alluring. Then, when you marry music to lyrics, the power grows even more. I liken what I do to being an architect: I’m building a house, so to speak, that others will live in. That house is made of the music, lyrics, structure of the storytelling, genre, and total dramatic arc of the story. However, I then put it in other people’s hands to interpret, and live in.”
Menken considers all of his songs as his children with varying thoughts and emotions surrounding all of them. It’s therefore not surprising that he was reluctant to give up any that might be his favorites. However, he did give examples of why different pieces of his work are so special to him.
“The time we were working on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin was intense because Howard Ashman was sick and dying, unbeknownst to most of us,” Menken remembered. “There was a whole generation of collaborators, friends, and people I knew who passed from AIDS and it was very difficult. Yet, the art that resulted from that time is compensation; it’s very moving and powerful and it brought it through that period. In particular, there’s a song that very few people know about that I wrote with Howard Ashman about the AIDS crisis, so that one has emotional significance for me, for sure.”
If music is a reflection of the times, then selecting genres for a specific musical or story is an art in itself, let alone composing an original piece. When done well, the strings that the musician pulls are invisible and the soundtrack blends so well with the screen that few may notice. When one realizes it though, it uncovers a whole new world of meaning.
“Take Aladdin as an example,” said Menken. “There’s nothing intrinsic about Aladdin that calls for Harlem jazz, to say the least, but what we’re harkening back to is a time in our culture in the way we dealt with the ‘mysterious east,’ which was also reflected in the genie being this character that was portrayed as a hipster-looking guy with an earring. To give that perspective gives richness to the story and accessibility for a modern audience as well as a way to open things up a bit. This is one of the great treats of working in musicals; to be able to interpret work and adapt it for a new audience in a unique way.”
Given how demanding the task is, Menken is always quick to give credit to the collaborators who have worked with him in the past, and those that work with him to this day. He has adapted to many roles throughout his career, from his well-known work in the Disney renaissance to his work with Seth Rogan in the animated movie Sausage Party, Little Shop of Horrors, A Bronx Tale, and more.
At 72, he is still incredibly prolific and is creating music for several upcoming movies with Ridgefield residents Steven Schwartz and Harvey Fierstein, right here in our backyard.
“There will be versions of a musical that can be considered done, but then my work is constantly re-adapted; animation, theater, then film and television. Some I will control and be involved with, others I will let go and let other collaborators roll with it. Ridgefield resident Steven Schwartz and I are writing the songs for Disenchanted, which is currently being filmed and scored. The Little Mermaid live-action movie just wrapped up filming and I’m scoring that as well.”
Also in the works; an animated musical with John Lasseter, Spellbound, and a prequel to Beauty and the Beast that will be on Disney Plus, which will feature the story of Gaston the Fool played by Luke Evans. There is also a theater adaptation of Animal Farm, Hercules the live musical, and a play that Menken wrote in 1981 inspired by the rock and pop music of the time, Atina: Evil Queen of the Galaxy. He is writing a piece with Harvey Fierstein and lyricist Jack Feldman, currently entitled Greetings from Niagara Falls.
Happy to inspire and guide young musicians, Menken gave sound advice that has helped him throughout his career; have fun with music.