Alan Menken Revisits ‘Beauty & The Beast’
In case you missed it, Walt Disney is finally releasing their wonderful Beauty and the Beast on Blu-ray this coming Tuesday. The movie, which earned an Academy Award nomination for best picture, is getting the full PR treatment and they provided us with this interview with composer Alan Mencken, whose work with the late Howard Ashman re-energized the films during the 1980s and 1990s.The combo pack will include the Blu-ray, a standard DVD and a digital copy for your personal use.
Alan Menken has composed huge hits such as THE LITTLE MERMAID, ALADDIN, HERCULES, POCAHONTAS and ENCHANTED and has won more Oscars than any other living person. He sat down for the following interview.
Question: You have been involved with so many wonderful Disney films, what does BEAUTY AND THE BEAST mean to you?
Alan Menken: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST has been a perennial favorite of people who love Disney animation. They have a continued appetite to know more about it and to see it enhanced. That is incredibly gratifying. I love the film too. I just watched it again and it is gorgeous. It is possible that it is even more beautiful than it was when it debuted. It is very gratifying to have this “Diamond Edition”.
Question: Can you explain what it was that you did musically with BEAUTY AND THE BEAST?
Alan Menken: All Howard and I did was to tell the story, which is very romantic. The setting is timeless and I just went to my gut, which is what I always do. With this one, Howard was in his last days, although at the beginning I didn’t know that, but by the end of working on it, I knew that this was a great artist’s last creation. I am sure that emotion informed what we did. We worked with a palette of French and classical and Broadway music and it was a culmination of a certain kind of emotion for us. Also all these projects we do – whether it is THE LITTLE MERMAID OR BEAUTY AND THE BEAST or ALADDIN – are homages. This one is an homage to the most romantic parts of the Disney canon. Maybe I was channeling something special I don’t know, but it was clearly romantic and timeless and I credit Howard with a lot of what we came up with.
Question: The music has everything: from poignancy, to humor and ultimately joy, how did you convey that spectrum of emotions?
Alan Menken: That is what we always aim to do. As an ideal, the Disney musical is always a combination of things that are joyful and things that are wistful and scary too and BEAUTY has all those elements. I can only be as good as the stories I am telling and the characters that I am bringing to life. And with this film we were bringing some powerful things to life.
Question: Can you specifically talk about the memorable musical high points of the film?
Alan Menken: Let’s take it chronologically. I had to come up
with my version of THE CARNIVAL OF THE ANIMALS by Camille Saint
Camille Saint-Saëns (French composer) at the top of the movie,
which is a very impressive and very timeless piece of music. We were
weaving a spell and that’s the prologue music. When we got to BELLE, I
was really going for operetta, something to portray this innocent
character in a world that is so protected and safe. And then
transitioning to the town where she is seen as odd, out of place, we
have BONJOUR , when she is walking to the town and everything is so
busy and bustling and she is oblivious to the fact that she is
different from everyone else. The song is telling the story of Belle
going to the town and everyone’s reaction to her and getting to see
Gaston and knowing he is infatuated with her – but more infatuated with
Question: The song GASTON is funny and highly evocative isn’t it?
Alan Menken: GASTON is really tongue in cheek, it is a
drinking song sung by basically a group of Neanderthal level guys in
praise of a complete lug-head. So it’s hilarious and when we were
writing that song I could not contain my laughter. It was very funny
material. Then we have BE OUR GUEST. I remember I said to Howard
‘I’m going to give you a song which will just be the dummy, I said
‘this is it without me even thinking about it, then I’ll write
something really good.’ So I sang the tune to him ‘ya da dum da da dum
…ba ba ba ba ba ba …’ and I said ‘now I will write the real music’. Of
course after struggling I couldn’t improve on that dumb piece of music
that I wrote initially, because it was just right and it got out of the
way to let Howard’s lyrics shine.
Question: You won the Oscar for BEAUTY AND THE BEAST of course.
A: “I don’t think I had ever spent more time writing a song than with
that particular one. It was the height of simplicity and we knew we
would have to write a song that could have a life outside the movie. So
there was an extra dimension to the work we were doing and that really
took a lot of time. SOMETHING THERE was a very quick replacement for a
much more ambitious song called HUMAN AGAIN, a nine minute song that
was in the end too ambitious for the film. A modified version of that
song of course made it into the movie when it was re released and also
into the Broadway show. Finally THE MOB SONG was almost like a macho
adventure underscore and again something that was in its own way
Question: Can you discuss the wonderful comic elements, provided by Mrs. Potts (voiced by Angela Lansbury)?
A: Mrs. Potts is actually modeled on Mrs. Bridges from UPSTAIRS
DOWNSTAIRS, the character from the BBC series. She was the maid but ran
the whole household. Howard was really channeling that when we wrote
BE OUR GUEST. She is the most joyful, motherly presence with little
Chip. They are so sweet and remind me of PETER PAN a little bit, which
was always Howard’s favorite. He grew up loving PETER PAN.”
Question: What will we see that is special in this Diamond Edition?
Alan Menken: You will see HUMAN AGAIN, you will see storyboard
versions of the songs we wrote, which means you will see some of the
original visuals that we were writing to. You will see a history of
Howard Ashman with pictures of him from his childhood, close to when he
passed away and you will get a real appreciation of what he
accomplished. You are going to see the connection between BEAUTY AND THE
BEAST on Broadway and the animated musical. You see how often
performers came from Broadway to animation and how much the animated
musicals are now going to back to Broadway and bringing employment and
opportunities to Broadway actors, producers and designers. You are also
going to see some history of how BEAUTY AND THE BEAST came about.
Question: Obviously it led to one of your eight Oscars – you have more than other living person. What does that feel like?
Alan Menken: I feel very fortunate to be honest. I feel so
privileged to have been involved with Disney and these musicals, because
they are great matches for my talents. That is why we have had the
success we have had, because of the chemistry between what I do and what
Question: What are the themes of this classic story and the film specifically?
Alan Menken: In essence BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is romantic in
the deepest sense. It’s about this girl who is bookish and lives
through the fantasies she has found in these books and she’s smart. She
wants to be a good girl. In today’s world she would be a very good
student. But she is put into a situation where she meets a beast who is
primitive and he is enhanced by her intelligence. And she is enhanced
by his tragic nature. It is about her compassion for him and that is
what brings him to life again as a human being. All that is very deep.
If you look at the magical nature of the castle and the world of BEAUTY
AND THE BEAST, it really takes all of us into our ‘child selves’ . You
can’t be in the movie and stay in modern day reality. You have to let go
and become a child again which is what all the best of the Disney
animated projects do.
Question: I assume your own inner child is very much alive?
Alan Menken: It is all about my inner child, entirely about my
inner child. There is not a whole lot of calculation going on. But
when I go back and watch SNOW WHITE, CINDERELLA, PINOCCHIO, if you
really stop and watch them, your child-self takes over. I write and
exist from my gut and not from my brain. My brain gets me up in the
morning and tells me where to go (laughs) but my gut tells me ‘this is
the music we need here. This is the emotion we’re feeling now’; and I
make more decisions from my gut than I do from my head.
Question: I know you have been very much inspired by the great
Disney classic FANTASIA, does that movie continue to be an inspiration?
Is it still close to your heart?
Alan Menken: Oh my goodness yes. To this day my favorite
Beethoven Symphony is the 6th Symphony: The Pastoral. Well why is that?
It is because of FANTASIA. In a way that film was my doorway into
classical music, but I think I would have discovered it anyway.
Question: Many of your films have also gone onto become
enduring classics, like the early Disney films you mention. Were you
born with this formidable talent? I know most of your family were
dentists not musicians.
Alan Menken: Well yes that is true. All the men in my family
were dentists (laughs). My father, his father and brother, my mother’s
sister’s husband and my father’s sister’s husband – all dentists. But
from my earliest time I was very responsive to music and to how music
reflected stories and drama. It is part of who I am. It is sort of an
accident that I ended up being involved with Disney, because it never
could have happened.
Question: How did it happen?
Alan Menken: Back in about 1987 at the time that THE LITTLE
MERMAID was being made, Howard Ashman was actually writing a show
with Marvin Hamlisch. I guess he could’ve gone to Marvin Hamlisch and
said ‘do you want to work on this Disney animated movie?’ So I look at
it as fate. How else can you look at your own life? I feel very
gratified and fortunate that I got to do those films and I would love to
do more. TANGLED is coming out and that is wonderful. And if I never
do another one I will be very, very satisfied with my life, I’ve done
eight animated musicals plus ENCHANTED and NEWSIES. That is a huge
amount of output so I feel very lucky.
Question: Finally can you sum up what is in store for lovers of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, with this new DVD?
Alan Menken: If you love BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and you love
Disney animation, this Blu Ray/DVD set opens up a whole different
dimension. You will see the directors and I and the producer talk about
each moment in the movie in detail, But it also has the story behind
the scenes and the sketches behind the scenes. It is really riveting
and moving to me as someone who was involved, and I think it will be
even more riveting for people who were not involved, to be drawn in by
seeing it in this medium. It is beautiful. If you make room for this
experience in your life – no matter what your age – it is really quite
special. We all have very busy lives, it is often hard to stop for a
second and put a movie like this on, but if we do: it is a Godsend.