Alan Menken has eight Oscars to his name. After years of composing songs for Pocohontas, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty And The Beast, his songs are ingrained in our memory, whether we’ve heard them in Broadway musicals, animated features, soundtrack collections, or seeing Celine Dion perform the title track, Beauty and the Beast.
Menken is on the phone from Upstate New York a few days before Christmas to talk with me about revisiting the much-loved Disney classic Beauty and The Beast and creating three new songs. Two of them (Evermore and How Does A Moment Last Forever) are on the 90th Academy Awards Best Original Song shortlist. We discussed his songwriting process, his feelings about revisiting the much loved classic, and what’s in store for the live-action Aladdin.
Beauty and The Beast has been so much of a part of my growing up, then we had the Broadway version, and now we have the live-action version. What was it like for you to revisit Beauty and the Beast again for the third time?
It was different in that I knew the first time around Howard Ashman and I had the job of really conceiving how this would sing as a musical and how we would create an adaptation that would have the elements we would need for a musical, so we were intimately involved with every aspect.
We got to the Broadway show, it was a couple steps back because it was devised by Robert Roth and it was very much in the structure of what we did for the movie and the prime agenda was to add a song for the Beast. In the structure of the musical, the composer is very much up front. With the movie, it becomes much more the live-action director’s medium and the question was are we going back to the original concept for the animated movie and move to live-action from that, or are we going to take it from the animated to the Broadway show and then the live-action? In this case, the director was a book writer too, so I was really looking for Bill Condon to give his perspective about what he wanted in terms of his storytelling.
There were a few agendas. One was to make Maurice an inventor of music boxes and in those music boxes was the story of his past and Belle’s past. Therefore as he sings his first song, it’s a rumination of moments in time and a philosophical overview of his life and her life and that scene comes back with her.
Then there was the question of what do we do with the Beast? In the Broadway show, we had a song called If I Can’t Love Her which ends Act I and is a big stand-and-deliver ballad.
And it was beautiful and pained.
Thank you. It was structured for a moment where the Beast out of anger has lashed out at Belle and has driven her away and laments, “If I can’t love her then who can I ever love?”
Bill felt that a more promising moment would be where the Beast voluntarily lets her go because he loves her. It was a sacrifice and so we moved from If I Can’t Love Her to Evermore. A moment where Beast has let Belle go and he’s climbing up the turrets of the castle and he’s watching her leave. Again, that was very much a decision by the writer and director that I collaborated with, but wanted all the input I could get from him.
Coming back to it was in a sense serving the needs of another medium as well as being the keeper of the flame.
Was there pressure this time around because it’s a story that is held so near and dear?
I guess there was. I don’t think the pressure was on me, but more on everyone else coming aboard. I had already been validated twice before. [laughs]. For me, it was a matter of fitting into a new team. You walk a line, you’re the revered source of everything to people and I had to assume that role, and at the same time, I didn’t want to be that distant person. I wanted to make sure I was friendly and collaborative and non-threatening. The only pressure was establishing a good dynamic with the production and knowing when to step in and knowing when to step back which was hugely important.
In general, I was really well served by people on the movie so it was a very easy process.
You wrote three new songs. Days In The Sun, Evermore and How Does A Moment Last Forever.
Days In The Sun was the first one we wrote before Bill was ever involved. Tim Rice and I were dealing with a book that had been written early on by a different writer and we tried to figure out a good song moment and the song moment we landed on was this moment of lullaby where all the objects in the castle and all of the central characters in the story with the exception of Gaston are turning in for the night and reflecting on the days before the spell befell them and that was the song. We wrote it then and put it aside and when Bill came on board, he liked that and wanted to keep it, so that was a holdover.
What about How Does A Moment Last Forever and writing that, you mentioned earlier about Maurice and his song?
That’s his music box song and it comes back within Days In The Sun as a section for Belle when she’s reflecting on what home is and when she goes and visits her childhood home. To have Celine Dion come and sing that at the end of the movie. It’s the moment in our lives, our characters lives, how do we capture the first moment we had Beauty and the Beast come into our lives and here it is again? The song has a multiple level meaning in relation to the movie.
Who knew Emma Watson had a singing voice like that? She had never sung before so what advice did you give her?
Getting to where she ended up in the movie was a lot of hard work. She was very nervous and very green as a singer. It took a lot of process and handholding and giving her space. She is a perfectionist and a very smart girl. She’s very self-critical. Some of our lessons could be a little fraught because she was very sensitive about wanting to do justice to the songs and knowing she was an inexperienced singer. It took a really long process over the course of the year to get her vocals and she ended up doing them beautifully. It was very much her process.
What’s the secret to your songwriting process in you writing a song that I can love, my friend’s toddler can love, my grandmother adores — and how long does it take you to write a song?
The song is more devoted to figuring out what is the song to be? What is the moment? What is the character? Where is the character at the moment the character behind the song? Why does the character begin and where does it go to by the end? What world is the song a part of? What needs do we want to serve with the song? When I get a strong sense of what it needs to be and what world it’s a part of, only then do I turn off that part of my brain and go to the gut level and play with musical ideas. If possible, I like to have my collaborator in the room and get feedback. If not, I write it and send it on. I like being responsive to my collaborators. If they say it’s a beautiful piece of music or we need more syllables or they want me to go in another direction, I try to be as much of a catalyst to what the entire team wants and I give myself over to that. In that, I try to avoid there being any Alan Menken in the song because it’s not an Alan Menken song. It’s a Belle song, it’s an Ariel song, it’s a Quasimodo song and I think that’s part of the key to why people are able to invest in it because it’s not about any person, it’s about the story.
Was it easy to slip back into the writing process after all these years?
I guess so. It’s very different from writing a new project. How does it feel to visit someone you love as opposed to falling in love? They’re different experiences. I’m revisiting a story and adding depth to it. The third time around, the moments we’re dealing with are a bit more philosophical, although Evermore is total, visceral, in the moment heartbreak and my heart is full. That was hard to write. I rejected a lot of what I did. I had to figure out what I could do that was not overly show-offy and what was the sweet spot on that.
Next up, you have Aladdin with more new songs.
Those are in the can now and written already. I’ve written two new songs. We’ve re-written a lot of the older material to fit a live-action film as opposed to a stage or animated film and fit having Will Smith as the genie rather than Robin Williams. One of our agendas with Aladdin has been to give a big moment to Princess Jasmine. A moment where it’s a woman’s empowerment number. The title is called Speechless and I’ll leave it at that. I’m so looking forward to people hearing that.