Alan Menken - Secrets To Scoring

Submitted by John Millar on Fri, 11/26/2004 - 16:00

Composer Alan Menken has won more Oscars than Jack Nicholson and Tom Hanks combined: he won two for Best Score and Best Song in 1990 for The Little Mermaid, two more in 1992 for Beauty and The Beast, another couple in 1993 for Aladdin and topped up with two more in 1996 for Pocahontas. He has also been nominated for Oscars for Little Shop of Horrors, Hercules and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame.

Here Menken talks about some of the creative decisions he and lyricist Glenn Slater made on the Western-themed, Disney animation Home On The Range, which is now out on DVD.

John Millar: What makes a classic Disney song?
Alan Menken: An uplifting message. Of course, you can have classic Disney villain songs too, which don't necessarily have an uplifting message. Something that is fun and clever and appeals on more than one level.

J. M: What was the appeal for you in doing Home On The Range?
A. M: It is different from the other animation movies that I've done. It's kind of a hybrid musical, not the kind of story that would support full break-into-song. I love the fact that it allowed me to work in a new genre with Western music and work with artistes that I have never worked with before.

J. M: How did you go about deciding the bits of classical music that would be featured when the yodelling begins?
A. M: That was fun. In there, we have the William Tell Overture and Beethoven's 9th and at one time there was The Ride Of The Valkyries. But the best was seeing the animators going hog wild.

J. M: Was it tempting to have a bit of Ennio Morricone, who is famous for Western music, in the soundtrack?
A. M: There is a wink at The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. It was fun to lampoon a convention. It's also fun to be lampooned - South Park has lampooned my songs and I was very flattered.

J. M: How does it feel when people say they've been moved by music you have written for an animated feature?
A. M: It can be overwhelming. At one point, The Make A Wish Foundation had a girl whose wish was to have me in a room with her, playing my songs and talking about them. That was overwhelming.

J. M: What are your tips for writing songs?
A.M: Regardless of anything else, write one song every day. When you write the song, think about a specific singer, or situation, that it would be written for. Don't ever write a song if you don't feel passionately about it. Don't be afraid to write an entirely new song for the same assignment, because every time you write a song it is always better. Listen to critics and be grateful for them - don't ignore them, but don't take them personally.

J. M: Why have you not issued a Best Of Alan Menken?
A. M: I have thought about doing a one-man show on Broadway and then to record an album off that. But it's a lot of work. I'd rather write three new projects.

J. M: Which song of yours would you take to a desert island?
A. M: Under The Sea would work well for a desert island. But I guess it would have to be a song that I would never get sick of and I wouldn't wish that on my songs, so I respectfully reject the entire assignment.

J. M: Did going on a cattle drive help writing the music for Home On The Range?
A. M: No, it didn't help anything, except that I loved doing it. (laughs) We were on an authentic 19th century cattle drive. So there were no motorised vehicles and no electricity. It was a great getaway. I would do it again if I had the time. One of the wranglers who came with us had a guitar and he loved singing old cowboy songs. He would sit by the campfire singing. I loved hearing those songs. That was a little bit of an influence.

J. M: What's the strangest place that you've had inspiration?
A.M: On Aladdin, when Tim Rice came on board the project, we were under pressure to write a new ballad for the magic carpet ride, a new market place song and a song for Jafar. It was a lot to do. I knew I was going over to England in a couple of days to work on the stuff and I thought that I didn't want to go empty-handed. I remember I went to bed and woke up in the middle of the night and I thought that I had to do it right then. So at 2am, I went to my studio and - bing, bing, bing - A Whole New World, One Jump Ahead and the song that was the music for Why Me? Sometimes things just sort of tumble out of you, but it's usually when the pressure builds up.

J. M: You must be running out of space to store your Oscars?
A. M: I have an awards cabinet. It is very packed.

J. M: Is the thrill still the same as the day you got your first Oscar?
A. M: It is disbelief. Every time I get up to win an Oscar in front of the world I think to myself, "They don't want to hear me talk. They want Nicole Kidman, or Tom Cruise, up here. So talk fast and get off the stage." I'm so grateful to be associated with these projects. I still do not think that I have absorbed the fact that I have more Oscars than anyone else who is alive. It's kind of bizarre.