The world is lucky this year’s Songwriters Hall of Fame Johnny Mercer Award honoree didn’t follow in the footsteps of most men in his family and become a dentist. We wouldn’t have a calypso crab named Sebastian, a jazzy Genie or the homage to Sinatra, Chuck Berry and other “neighborhood” crooners in Broadway’s A Bronx Tale.
Multiple Grammy-, Tony- and Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken pauses from his work on the Guy Ritchie-directed live-action Aladdin treatment — a live-action Little Mermaid, as well as a sequel to Enchanted and new theatrical take on his Little Shop of Horrors are also on his short list — to share how he creates the distinct worlds his projects live in.
Menken will be honored along with Pitbull, Ed Sheeran and others at the 48th SHOF induction gala on Thursday, June 15 in New York.
Your work with Disney animated musicals has defined much of your career. Did you have any initial reservations taking the job?
I don’t remember reservations particularly. I remember nervousness about the underscore aspect of it because that was a new skill for me. There’s the songwriting aspect and then there’s the film composer aspect, and film composer aspect was new to me but I was determined to tackle that because I’d already created shows. With Little Shop of Horrors I’d created all the songs, plus all the music in between, and yet none of that music was actually eligible for any of the awards and it felt strange to have someone else’s name — a very talented man named [composer] Miles Goodman — there but not me.
Talk us through writing “Under the Sea,” one of your most celebrated songs, co-written with Howard Ashman, from your very first Disney musical film 1989’s The Little Mermaid.
It was incredibly unusual to have that kind of a song be an Oscar-winning song at that time. They tended to be more pop tunes attached to a big movie, so that was obviously transformative. We had seen some artwork, but in general we come in not only as songwriters but as musical theater dramatists. Whatever progress the writers and animators have made, we’re going to take that story and reshape it so it supports [song selection] in the most effective way possible. Our job is to get in there before they go any further, and to restructure. For instance, the decision to have Sebastian be a Caribbean crab as opposed to a stuffy English crab was in service of a song concept. And the decision to have Ursula be inspired by Divine came from the songwriters.
Where do you even begin with the process of structuring a musical?
Music is a gestalt. Songs are a life force and they have specific vocabulary to them. You hear a few notes, and they take you into a world of association. And it’s our job to figure out what world we want to bring people into. When we decided to have the vocabulary of the Genie in Aladdin be Harlem jazz, and Fats Waller, that obviously defined Aladdin. It would have been an entirely different project. In the description there were two genies originally — the Genie of the Lamp and the Genie of the Ring. The Genie of the Ring was described as being black, and having actually an earring in his ear and sort of looking like a hipster, and that brought us to a feeling of Harlem. You brainstorm with various ideas, but when one clicks, it totally defines the project.
When we came up with the vocabulary for “Carrying the Banner” in Newsies, it was somewhere between ragtime and R&B. Then you go, “There’s the DNA that’s going to tell the story,” and it puts it into a world that somehow makes sense to us. It may not make sense on a totally logical level, but it makes sense on a gut level. When we defined Sister Act and did it for Broadway with disco and psychedelic funk and 70s-style pop music, that took it out of the Motown of the original movie and gave it another world to live in. When we decided to do A Bronx Tale with the music of the neighborhood — there was Dion and the Belmonts and Frank Sinatra and Otis Redding — that defined the score.
Is your writing technique the same across genres?
It’s writing songs within the structure of telling a story, so it becomes a platform for diverse songwriting, for a writing process that’s broader than just figuring out a song. You’re also dealing with always pushing the story forward, with casting the voices, with the orchestration, with the arrangements. If it’s a film with the underscore in between, if it’s a musical, what’s happening on stage, if it’s a TV series like Galavant — there’s a richness to the experience. But in each case I want my collaborator in the room and in each case we discuss what is the song we need to write to go in this spot that’s going to be the most effective for storytelling and the project. There are times I will write a song independent of a theatrical or a musical with a capital M context but even then its all about the assignment. It’s not about sitting down and what’s in my heart today. I have lots of personal feelings of my own, but at this stage in my life and career I’m very much driven by assignment.
What was your experience writing the three new songs for the live-action theatrical version of Beauty and the Beast? Did you slip back into that world easily?
In that case, it was redefining the palette. The director, Bill Condon, had a pretty strong idea, and I felt the same way, that he wanted to ground it a little more in 18th century France and also open up backstory, so we knew where Belle and Maurice had been before they came to this little town, and we got a sense of who that young prince was before he became the Beast. And that informed all the new songwriting. If we had decided we wanted to emphasize comedy let’s say, it would’ve been an entirely different process. But the comedy and lightness was already there. So once the language was there, the process became easier for me to slip into. With every project you’re walking into a different house. Each one is a different locale, a different structure, a different feeling. I never take a song out of the trunk from one project and throw it into another, because each project to me is its own separate stream.
And up next is a live-action Little Mermaid?
But first is a live-action Aladdin, most people don’t know that. First there was a live-action Little Mermaid, but both the producer and my collaborator on that, Lin-Manuel Miranda, are working on Mary Poppins in London, so Aladdin has now jumped ahead of it and that’s what I’m in the thick of now.
Can you give us any teasers of what to expect with Aladdin?
It’s a very fluid process. Guy Ritchie is directing and he’s never directed a musical before so it’s going to be a lot of attempts to reinvent the wheel. Where it’s re-inventable, we will do it and where it’s not, we will discover that together. But it has to be a very fast discovery process because at this point shooting is supposed to start in August.
What advice do you give young songwriters?
One thing I’ve learned, if there’s any question about a song, just push it aside and start working on another. Don’t ever try to hang on to a song just because it’s a “good song.” It’s irrelevant. Songs are only really good if they’re good within the context of the project. It takes maturity and experience, but once you learn that lesson, it takes a lot of burden off you. There are so many shades and possibilities of songs and the job is not to try to shoehorn in the song you love. I also tell young artists, what’s precious is not your songs, what’s precious is your talent and your love of the process, so just go back and write another and another and another. Sometimes people have the mistaken value of, “You’ve got to stick to it.” But stick to it doesn’t mean you have to stick to one song, one artist. Stick to it means stick to your talent.
What does receiving the Johnny Mercer Award mean to you?
When you look at the list of people who’ve been honored with the Mercer Award, it’s amazing. My dad is now 96, and he would sit at the piano and play all the old classics, and those are the first people who are honored on this list. So, it’s like “Oh my God, amazing.” Are you happy I didn’t become a dentist? [laughs]. All the men in my family have been dentists.