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The music of Alan Menken: How the legendary Disney composer brought your favorite movies and more to the stage

May 23, 2022 by Marianka Swain
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From The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast to Newsies, Little Shop of Horrors and Sister Act, Alan Menken has made an indelible mark as one of the great composers of musicals – both on stage and on screen. The American genius is also the second most prolific winner of music Academy Awards ever, with eight Oscars to his name, plus seven Golden Globes, a Tony Award, an Emmy and 11 Grammys, making him an EGOT winner.

With several Menken shows playing in London this year – Newsies at Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre, Beauty and the Beast at the London Palladium, and Sister Act at the Eventim Apollo – as well as several Broadway shows, it’s a great time to take a look back at his incredible musical journey.

1979 — God Bless You, Mr Rosewater

The theatrical adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel was a breakthrough moment for Menken. Before this, Menken mainly contributed material to revues. Playwright Howard Ashman asked Menken and his mentor Lehman Engel to write music for God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, which was well received on its premiere at the WPA Theater and had a subsequent Off-Broadway run at Entermedia Theater.

Little Shop of Horrors
Skylar Astin in Little Shop of Horrors (Photo courtesy of production)

1982 Little Shop of Horrors

Menken and Ashman collaborated again on their satirical rock musical, based on the 1960 comedy horror film about a lovelorn florist and his carnivorous plant. Menken’s glorious doo-wop and Motown-inspired score reflected the Sixties setting.

Little Shop of Horrors began at the WPA Theater and swiftly moved to the Orpheum Theatre, setting a box office record for highest-grossing Off-Broadway show of all time during its five-year run. Since then, the show has played around the world, including in London’s West End and the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, and it was turned into a movie in 1986. A film remake is reportedly in the works, with Billy Porter set to voice Audrey II. Little Shop of Horrors currently plays Off-Broadway at the Westside Theatre.

Get Little Shop of Horrors tickets in New York on TodayTix.

Sierra Boggess

1989 — The Little Mermaid

Following their triumph with Little Shop of Horrors, Disney hired Menken and Ashman to write the songs and score for The Little Mermaid, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale. The hugely acclaimed and box office-conquering film heralded the Disney Renaissance, thanks in large part to this import of Broadway talent to film animation.

The score won numerous awards, including Grammys, Academy Awards and a Golden Globe, and the songs have become a cherished part of Disney history: “Part of Your World,” “Under the Sea,” “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” and “Kiss the Girl.” A live-action film version is slated for 2023, and Menken has collaborated with Lin-Manuel Miranda on several new songs for the movie.

Beauty and the Beast

1991 — Beauty and the Beast

This fruitful partnership between Disney and Broadway continued with Beauty and the Beast. Ashman and Menken once again teamed up to supply the music for this adaptation of an 18th-century French fairy tale, and it is simply teeming with character-based gems and show-stopping wonders – from the operetta-esque “Belle” to the hilarious “Gaston,” spectacular “Be Our Guest,” and exquisite “Beauty and the Beast.” Ashman and Menken persuaded Angela Lansbury – who had doubts about it suiting her voice – to perform that title number. The result? An Oscar for Best Original Song. 

Beauty and the Beast became a live-action movie, starring Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Emma Thompson and Josh Gad, and a spin-off, Little Town, is planned for Disney+. It’s also a popular stage musical, opening on Broadway in 1994. Now, that musical is coming to the London Palladium as part of a UK tour, giving you a chance to catch this “tale as old as time” in the capital. Don’t believe me? Ask the dishes!

Aladdin

1991 Aladdin

Tragically, Howard Ashman died before he could complete work on another Disney film with Menken, so Tim Rice came in to collaborate on the remaining songs. This adaptation of the Arabic folk tale from the One Thousand and One Nights was yet another smash hit, acclaimed for its jaunty score and, of course, for the incredible comic performance of Robin Williams as the Genie.

More Oscars followed, quite rightly, for a soundtrack packed with winners: “A Whole New World,” “Friend Like Me,” and “Prince Ali.” One song that didn’t make the original cut, “Proud of Your Boy,” was resurrected for the subsequent stage musical, which had its Broadway premiere in 2014. The show played in the West End for three years from 2016, starring Dean John-Wilson, Trevor Dion Nicholas and Jade Ewen. Aladdin also got the live-action film treatment in 2019, with Will Smith as the Genie; a sequel is reportedly in development.

Get Aladdin tickets in New York on TodayTix.

Newsies
Newsies (Photo by Deen Van Meer)

1992 — Newsies

Menken supplied 12 original songs for the musical film Newsies, a story based on the New York newsboys’ strike of 1899. Kenny Ortega’s cast included Christian Bale, Bill Pullman, Ann-Margret and Robert Duvall, but critics weren’t sold and the movie bombed at the box office. Happily, it still developed a cult following, and in 2011, a stage version began performances at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey.

This time Newsies hit the headlines for the right reasons. The show transferred to Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre in 2012, starring Jeremy Jordan and John Dossett, and played for two years. It has since toured the US, and we’re finally getting to see it in London in 2022 when it comes to the Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre. Casting is yet to be announced – as soon as we know, you can read all about it!

Christmas Carol

1994 — A Christmas Carol

Menken’s musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novella, A Christmas Carol, is another of his enduring successes. Lynn Ahrens supplied the lyrics for the show and Mike Ockrent wrote the book. Walter Charles played Ebenezer Scrooge in the debut production at Madison Square Garden’s Paramount Theatre in December 1994, and the show was immediately so beloved that it became an annual New York holiday tradition.

Subsequent Scrooge actors include Frank Langella, Tim Curry, F Murray Abraham, Terrence Mann, Roger Daltrey and Jim Dale. The musical became a TV film in 2004, with an all-star cast featuring Kelsey Grammer, Jason Alexander, Jane Krakowski and Jennifer Love Hewitt, and has also been staged as a concert in London on several occasions, starring luminaries such as Robert Lindsay, Carrie Hope Fletcher, Madalena Alberto, Griff Rhys Jones, Brian Conley, Matt Willis and Lucie Jones.

1995 — Pocahontas

Menken was back in the Disney fold for this animated movie about the real-life Powhatan woman, Pocahontas, and her encounter with the English colonial settler John Smith. For this project, Menken wrote the score and joined forces with Stephen Schwartz (of Wicked fame) on the songs. Though critics were divided on the film itself, his work earned Menken two more Oscars, for his score and for the standout song “Colors of the Wind.”

1996 — The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Victor Hugo’s novel about the ostracised bell-ringer Quasimodo became an animated movie in 1996, with Menken and Schwartz once more collaborating on the music. The darker themes are unusual for a Disney film, but it was well received and saw Menken nominated for another Oscar. A more overtly gothic stage musical production premiered in Germany in 1999, and, though it didn’t quite reach Broadway, has played in California and New Jersey.

Sister Act

2006 Sister Act

The 1992 Whoopi Goldberg-starring film about a nightclub singer-turned-murder witness hiding out in a convent and transforming its ailing choir cried out to become a stage musical. In 2006, Menken, Glenn Slater, and Bill and Cheri Steinkellner obliged with their adaptation, which opened at California’s Pasadena Playhouse.

Sister Act had its West End premiere at the London Palladium in 2009, led by Patina Miller and Sheila Hancock. Miller then reprised the role of Deloris for the Broadway opening in 2011. The show then toured the UK, starring the likes of Cynthia Erivo and Alexandra Burke, and is now back in the London habit. The heavenly cast for the 2022 production at the Eventim Apollo features Beverley Knight, Jennifer Saunders, Keala Settle, Lesley Joseph, Lizzie Bea and Clive Rowe.

Book Sister Act tickets in London on TodayTix.

2007 — Enchanted

Who better to lovingly send up Disney film musicals than the man who created some of the best? Menken, again working with Schwartz, dreamed up the witty songs (like “That’s How You Know” and “Happy Working Song”) for this live-action comedy, starring Amy Adams as a fantastical princess who tumbles into modern-day New York. The game cast also includes Patrick Dempsey, James Marsden, Idina Menzel and Susan Sarandon.

Enchanted was a big critical and commercial hit, and a highly anticipated sequel, Disenchanted, is coming later this year on Disney+. Menken and Schwartz are back too, supplying both score and songs – including at least one number for Menzel, righting a great wrong of the first, otherwise glorious, movie, which cut her big song.

Enchanted’s Amy Adams now stars in The Glass Menagerie. Book The Glass Menagerie tickets in London on TodayTix.

2010 — Tangled

Menken was back working with Glenn Slater on this adaptation of the Brothers Grimm folk tale, Rapunzel. He was also part of animation history: Tangled was the 50th Disney animated feature film. The pair were Oscar nominated for Best Song for “I See the Light”, a duet sung by Mandy Moore as Rapunzel and Zachary Levi as her love interest Flynn Rider. The film also benefitted from the fabulous performance of Broadway leading lady Donna Murphy as Rapunzel’s devious mother.

Leap of Faith

2010 — Leap of Faith

Menken and Slater teamed up again for this stage version of the Steve Martin-starring movie about a con-man posing as a reverend. The show had a workshop in 2008 starring Raul Esparza and Elizabeth Stanley, and another in 2010 with Sutton Foster. It finally opened later that year in Los Angeles, starring Esparza and Brooke Shields, and then transferred to Broadway in 2012. Unfortunately, Leap of Faith closed after just 24 previews and 20 performances.

A Bronx Tale

2016 — A Bronx Tale

It took 10 years for this musical version of Chazz Palminteri’s autobiographical one-man show to come to fruition. Another Menken-Slater collaboration, this one was far more successful. A Bronx Tale premiered at the Paper Mill Playhouse in 2016 before opening on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre, where it ran for almost two years.

The story follows Calogero Anello, a working-class kid who gets seduced by the Mafia – despite the warnings of his bus driver father. The musical was co-directed by Jerry Zaks, who helmed the original play, and Robert De Niro, who had directed and starred in the 1993 film version. Nick Cordero starred as mob boss Sonny, and Ariana DeBose played Jane. The show hasn’t yet crossed the pond, but given the popularity of Menken’s work here, it might well make the trip soon!