Alan Menken attends the “Aladdin” Paris Gala Screening at Le Grand Rex Cinema on May 08, 2019 in Paris, France.
Photo: Photo by Stéphane Cardinale – Corbis / Corbis via Getty Images, Contributor / Corbis via Getty Images
Once upon a time, Alan Menken’s songs – “Under the Sea”, “Beauty and the Beast”, “A Whole New World” and many more – gave the Walt Disney Company a real boost. . But songs that everyone knows barely scratch the surface of Menken’s oeuvre, so the Houston Symphony will open its Bank of America Pops season this weekend with “Once Upon a Time: Alan Menken’s Broadway”.
“There is only one hit after another,” explains Pops’ principal conductor, Steven Reineke. “I mean, if you go to Disney World or Disneyland, about 90 percent of the soundtrack you hear throughout the park is Alan Menken. It is the sound of modern Disney.
Prior to the release of “The Little Mermaid” in 1989, Disney’s last truly successful animated musical was probably “The Jungle Book” in 1967. It had been three decades since “Sleeping Beauty”. Menken and his songwriting partner, lyricist Howard Ashman, captured Disney’s attention with “Little Shop of Horrors,” their campy adaptation of the 1960 Roger Corman film that set a new record for the off-Broadway show. the most lucrative.
“Alan brought a whole new touch of contemporary pop to it – pop music, contemporary Broadway music – because it came from a Broadway musical tradition,” says Reineke. “So he has a lot more of that aesthetic than [was] incredibly nice and hit at the right time.
When8 p.m. Sept 3-4; 2:30 p.m. Sept.
Or: Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana St.
Details: $ 29-$ 134; 713-224-7575; houstonsymphony.org
“Mermaid” was enough box office success to prove that audiences would embrace the way Disney had refreshed its classic formula. Menken’s attentive ear was rewarded when “Under the Sea” won the Oscar for Best Original Song; “Kiss the Girl” was also nominated. (The songs “Mermaid” on this weekend’s program, “Part of Your World” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” didn’t quite hit the mark.)
“This is why Alan Menken and Ashman have been so credited with the Disney rebirth,” Reineke said. “Their music and the sensitivity it had; the intelligence and contemporary nature of Ashman’s lyrics, and the same contemporary style of writing in Alan’s music; and also the comfort factor of sounding like Broadway show tunes.
“Beauty and the Beast” turned out to be Menken’s last film starring Ashman, who died in early 1991. The duo completed three songs for “Aladdin”; Tim Rice, frequent collaborator of Andrew Lloyd Webber, finished the rest. Both films were even more successful than “Mermaid,” also winning for the original song in their respective years.
Menken dropped “The Lion King” in favor of Sir Elton John, but returned with “Pocahontas”, which earned him (along with “Wicked” lyricist Stephen Schwartz) another Oscar for “Colors of the Wind”. “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” and “Hercule” also hit hard.
“The songs were so popular and so good,” Reineke says. “They were so eye-catching that it helped propel these films forward. It wasn’t just the music, but the music was an integral part of it.
The other part, he argues, has been Disney’s return to adapting well-known stories that were tailor-made for the context of Menken’s musical theater.
“It wasn’t just Mickey Mouse and company, it was storytelling,” says Reineke. “They took classics and turned them into modern entertainment that appealed to kids and adults. But music helped propel him forward due to his catchy nature. You would come out of there singing the songs.
Even today, “people know these songs,” he adds. “They are so well written that they became part of the American songbook, part of a person’s psyche as they grew older.”
Reineke notes that Menken’s talents extend far beyond songwriting: “He can also write epic, catchy music that sounds like soundtrack,” he says.
Still, the bulk of this weekend’s tribute will come from a songbook that also spans the musical “Newsies” and the 2011 Broadway production of “Sister Act,” performed by the Broadway-trained singers Katie Rose Clarke, Matt Doyle Jordan Donica and Montego Glover.
If there is one common denominator, suggests Reineke, it is that there is simply no mistaking an Alan Menken tune.
“The melodies are just instantly changeable,” he says. “There is nothing quirky or worrying about them; the song goes where it’s supposed to go. How he creates this out of thin air, out of thin air, is a bit of a mystery to me, and I write music myself.
Chris Gray is a writer based in Galveston.