Exclusive: 'Aladdin' Composer Alan Menken Pens Tribute to the 'Brilliant' Robin Williams
Robin Williams appeared in our lives like a comet streaking across the sky; a brilliant, adorable, hilarious, compassionate, vulnerable manifestation of the human condition. It was as if he had learned to bare his soul with spontaneous humor as his only defense. He was performing an amazing high-wire act in front of us, and unbeknownst to us, the only net was our love. And, oh my God, how we all loved him!
In 1991 that brilliant comet's path intersected my life when Robin agreed to give voice to the Genie in Aladdin. Awed and thrilled as I was to have the opportunity to work with him, my first reaction was concern. Howard Ashman and I had conceived the Genie as a hip Harlem jazz singer, like Fats Waller or Cab Calloway. Would Robin Williams be able to sing like Fats Waller?
We met at the house Robin was renting in L.A. while he was working on Hook. He arrived at our work session freshly released from spending hours as Peter Pan, suspended in a flying harness. Standing by the piano, as my musical director David Friedman plunked out the melody lines for "Friend Like Me" and "Prince Ali," Robin gamely learned our songs, note by note and phrase by phrase. I wish I could say I remember zany antics or a touching connection or any kind of special anecdote, but what I remember was a quiet, unassuming, thoroughly professional actor, respectfully working hard to prepare for recording our songs.
Next came our recording date at Ocean Way Studio B. The room was packed. Bruce Botnick was mixing. Chris Montan, our music supervisor, was there by my side. Our directors, John Musker and Ron Clements, were there. Everyone and anyone who had an excuse to be in the control room waited in anticipation. We had a trio of musicians there to set down rhythm tracks for both songs, live with Robin. He dutifully sang every note and every word, making sure the phrasing, the intonation, the dramatic intention and the vocal style was all exactly as we wanted it. All the while, everyone was asking, "Okay? Alan, do you have what you need? Can we let Robin go beyond the written notes now?" The frustration was palpable.
And then, finally the time came to let Robin do his thing.
No one who was there can ever forget what it was like. The burst of imagination, the endless parade of character voices, the hilarity, the sheer energy was astounding. Take after take of brilliant material poured out of him and our minds reeled from all the possibilities. After a few hours we thanked Robin profusely. And that was it. Robin was gone.
The finished score won every award possible. The movie made box-office history. Robin and I crossed paths a few times during the awards season events. In one memorable encounter, I introduced Robin to my wife, Janis, as he passed our table at the Golden Globes ceremony. As he kneeled to say hello Janis rose to greet him. From there proceeded a comic routine in which he would repeatedly rise as she sat and kneel as she stood, until they finally arrived at the same level. His greeting was sweet, genuine, memorable and classic Robin Williams.
For some reason, I don't remember connecting with him in as playful or innocent way as that. Maybe I was just too guarded, too aware of his celebrity. Maybe I was blinded by his flame and didn't approach the person who was right there in front of me.
Fast-forward to 2004, when I scored a movie, directed by Chazz Palminteri, titled Noel. It was a very small, special film, with an amazing cast, including Chazz, Susan Sarandon, Penelope Cruz, Paul Walker, Alan Arkin and Robin Williams. As always, when I score a movie, I become very familiar with the nuances of the actors. The character Robin played was a soft-spoken, sadly philosophical character named Charlie Boyd, who, as it turned out, was the seemingly living embodiment of someone who had already died. A whole other musical texture poured out of me in support of this sweet, vulnerable, compassionate character.
Now, ten years later, Robin is gone. And along with everyone else, I find it so sad and inconceivable. Does he know how grateful we all are? It is as if his comet was a brilliant moment in time, fragile and precious and yet destined to become a permanent part of the fabric of our lives. I retain the blessing that he and I shared a very special creative space, in a way that we never really got to acknowledge with each other. Much as Robin Williams' Genie granted so many of my wishes, I hope that someday, in the world beyond this one, I will also have the opportunity to thank Robin for giving life, not only to the Genie, but to the Charlie Boyd in all of us.
Alan Menken is an award-winning composer.