Composer Alan Menken Talks Creating New Music for 'Beauty And The Beast' and Coaching Stars Emma Watson and Dan Stevens

Emma Watson in Beauty and the Beast.
Laurie Sparham/© Walt Disney Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

Emma Watson in Beauty and the Beast. 

When composer Alan Menken watched a final cut of the live action version of Beauty and the Beast, his first emotion was relief. “Hey, we didn’t screw it up!,” he says with a laugh.

Though there was little chance of that happening, reinventing the much beloved 1991 Disney animated classic -- for which Menken and the late Howard Ashman contributed the songs -- did have its risks. “There are so many variables when you do something like this: the script or casting or new songs. It’s a very sensitive and delicate thing to put together a successful musical,” Menken says. “I really credit [director] Bill Condon with being an amazing captain of the ship.”

From the start, the plan was to flesh out the story of some of the characters, but always to “follow the road map of the original,” says Walt Disney Studios president of music and soundtracks, Mitchell Leib. “This didn’t require reinvention, it was a live action re-adaptation. Reinvention is Snow White and the Huntsman. The animated version of Beast is the perfect movie. We knew we would just enhance the gravity of the situation and juxtapose it with the lightheartedness.” 

As the script expanded to provide backstory for Belle’s father, Maurice, as well as for the Prince/Beast, Condon asked Menken to come up with more songs. “We knew we wanted to get more of a sense of time and place for 18th century France, and more texture to Belle and Maurice’s relationship, as well as for the Beast and how the Prince turned so mean,” Menken says.

He and Tim Rice, with whom he shares a best original song Oscar for Aladdin’s “A Whole New World,” wrote three new songs for the $155 million film, which opens today and is predicted to earn as much as $120 million this weekend. Menken -- whose 8 Oscars are the most of anyone alive -- and Rice had also worked together on the 1994 Broadway version of Beauty, following Ashman’s 1991 death. “How Does a Moment Last Forever” expands on Belle’s relationship with her father and what happened to her mother, while “Evermore” tenderly highlights the Beast’s sacrificial love for Belle and “Days in the Sun” serves almost as a lullaby for the objects in the castle.  

“‘Evermore’ happened late in the game,” Leib says. “There was a conversation about how the movie is called Beauty and the Beast and the Beast should have a song. Alan came back quite quickly with a phenomenal musical bed, and then Tim turned around a magnificent lyric about letting Belle go. It’s like a Phantom of the Opera moment.”

Despite the decades since Menken had written for the original, he says “It wasn’t hard to get back into the mindset because I never really got a chance to miss [the characters]. There’s a five-year anniversary, a 10-year anniversary. Disney doesn’t let you venture very far. But to write new songs was really gratifying.”

Menken, who also updated his score for the new version, and Rice penned the new tunes in Spring 2015 in London; two of the songs they started from scratch, while Menken had begun “Days in the Sun” nearly 10 years ago when Disney first floated, then abandoned, the idea of a live action version of Beast. “I prefer to write face to face in the room,” Menken says. “I want the feedback, where’s the title, the exposition, the architecture of the song.” 

Even some of the beloved favorites, such as “Gaston” and “Beauty and the Beast,” got a little updating, allowing Menken to use lyrics from outtakes that he and Ashman had written for the original animated movie. 

Menken, who produced their vocals, has nothing but praise for Emma Watson (Belle) and Dan Stevens (Prince/Beast), especially since neither actor had done a movie musical before and had to overcome some jitters. “Emma was quite nervous about singing, and insecure about it and very vulnerable. We wanted to give her all the space she needed to find her comfort level. I think for her having the composer there was a bit intimidating, so I hung back,” Menken says. “Dan was also quite insecure, but I was able to be more involved.” 

In addition to the versions in the film, Ariana Grande and John Legend cut a new Ron Fair-produced rendition of “Beauty and the Beast,” Celine Dion -- who performed “Beauty and the Beast” for the 1991 film with Peabo Bryson-- recorded  “How Does A Moment Last Forever,” and Josh Groban tackled “Evermore.” All play over the end credits and are on the soundtrack. 

“The Ariana and John duet began as a marketing conversation between me and marketing executives,” Leib says. “What I do with every picture is sit down with the marketing teams and say, ‘I know it’s a long way off [but] does it make sense to do some additional recordings with contemporary recording artists?’ I want to know what we need.”  The marketing team felt it was important to have a new version of the title track. Leib says Grande and Legend were their first choices, and both quickly agreed.  

Leib took a cut of the movie to Las Vegas to show to Dion. “We had this great philosophical conversation until 2:00 in the morning,” he says. “Celine has such a tie to the original, she was working out in her head right then and there, as to if she should do it or leave well enough alone.” Working with producer Humberto Gatica, Dion performed the song to an already existing music track, featuring a 100-piece orchestra that Menken had cut when the rest of the score was recorded.

Just as “Evermore” was a late addition to the movie, so was Groban’s contemporary take, after Condon asked if there was a way to get some of the new songs out in advance of the film. Ensemble piece “Days in the Sun” didn’t lend itself to the process and Leib already knew that Dion would not be available to promote her track. The grandeur of “Evermore” required someone with the vocal prowess of Groban or Andrea Bocelli.

“Alan was like, ‘I know Josh.’ He text him, Josh got right back to him,” Leib says. The deal was finalized with Groban’s manager on a Thursday, and he was in the studio recording it the following Monday. He performed the song on Good Morning America earlier this week, making it the only live performance of any song from the project.

The soundtrack, which came out March 10, was released in 17 languages by Walt Disney Records. In the U.S., in additional to traditional retailers. the CD will be stocked in 40 theaters as well as at Disney stores within the theme parks. Additionally, 600 theaters are showing the “Beauty and the Beast” video during movie previews, says Ken Bunt, president, Disney Music Group. 

While official first-week numbers aren’t out yet -- Billboard has projected that the set may earn between 50,000 and 55,000 equivalent album units -- Bunt was pleased that the deluxe version, which sells for $15.99 on iTunes, was outpacing the standard version. “When there’s an emotional connection, there’s a willingness to want everything. We saw that for Moana too,” he says. “Our deluxe version is pretty robust, [including] Alan Menken’s demos. It’s a good value.” 

In a first, Disney switched up the streaming order for the album on Spotify, front-loading the new tracks from Grande/Legend, Dion and Groban at the top of the playlist. Their tracks come at the end of the physical and downloaded versions. “We wanted to make sure people realized they were there,” Bunt says. “Streaming is a different behavior. It’s a little bit of an experiment.” 

Along with his other projects, Disney’s slate of live action versions of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin will keep Menken busy, as will a sequel to Enchanted. The Little Mermaid will pair him with Lin-Manuel Miranda, who will write the lyrics for the new songs written by Menken. The pair go away back: “I remember when he was a kid, literally signing posters for him. He went to school with my niece and my sister said, ‘There's this kid… he’s such a big fan.’ I remember going backstage during In the Heights. I look forward to working with him.”