For years Alan Menken has been charming children and adults alike with songs and scores for some of cinema’s most beloved movies. His work, often synonymous with Disney animation, has led to three Tony award nominations and eighteen from the Academy, eight of which led to wins.
From the catchy tunes of Little Shop of Horrors to the cult numbers of Newsies, Menken continually eases himself into the lexicon of movie music. This season he was at it again. With the animation/live action hybrid Enchanted, Menken has earned three of the five original song nominations the Academy bestows each year. Along with the huge box office success of the film, it seems the odds are in his favor to bring home one more golden man for his collection. In the weeks following his latest nominations, the New York native answered some questions about how his movie music made it to Broadway, his special affinity for animated heroines and of course, his 2008 honors.
Mallory Potosky (MM): The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame have all been made into stage productions—two of them on Broadway, one in a Disney theme park—after their wild popularity on screen. Do you feel that music can translate from one genre to the next—from film to stage?
Alan Menken (AM): Absolutely. And back again. A musical is a musical, whether it’s on stage, on film or even on an album. The technique is the same. The goal is the same: To tell a story through songs.
MM: Aside from your first Oscar nod for 1986’s Little Shop of Horrors, all of your Academy Award-nominated work has been on Disney animated films. What is it about a Disney movie that inspires you most?
AM: The Disney films are part of a tradition and a legacy that is built on great songs. No other studio supports the needs of a song-driven musical score like they have and because there’s a long history of audiences loving these films, a writer has the opportunity to reach that audience through the common vocabulary of what might be called “Disney music.” Their films embrace emotion and fantasy and the magic of music and art. Probably most important is that Disney films always aim for the child in all of us. I know this is hopelessly corny, but that’s what inspires me about them.
MM: Enchanted was an unusual hybrid of live action and Disney animation, with a story only a typical Disney princess can account for. How did you approach the compositions for this film? Was it in a similar fashion than you would your previous work with Disney animated stories?
AM: Yes. Despite the parody aspect of the songs in Enchanted, they aim to tell the story, communicate a specific musical vocabulary and entertain the audience. However, with the exception of Newsies, this is the first project that involved me writing songs for live characters. Still, the same rules apply to the work we do.
MM: What is your typical process for developing original music for a film? Is it a collaborative process where the director and writer/s are involved or do you look to develop your own ideas about the story and characters to incorporate into the music?
AM: It is a totally collaborative art form—more so than most any other that I know of. The director looks to the songwriters to help structure the story to support breaking into song. The songwriters look to the writer for the specifics that will inform the content of the songs. Each department is constantly revising in response to the work of other departments.
MM: You’ve won eight Academy Awards and been nominated for ten more—three in this year alone. After experiencing the ceremony and the anticipation so many times before, is there one thing that still excites you about attending?
AM: The Academy Awards ceremony is different every year. The nominees, the presenters, the hosts, the locations and the programs are always changing. It never gets old. If there’s anything more exciting (or terrifying) than Oscar night, I don’t know what it might be.