Broadway Spotlight: Interview with Alan Menken

Hit Hometown Composer Scores Powerful New Musical
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If you are merely breathing, then you probably know a host of timeless songs by Alan Menken. He’s the composer of Disney movie classics such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Enchanted, Tangled, and the music from a completely different animated hit from this past summer, Sausage Party. Menken is also the mastermind behind the beloved scores of Broadway musicals Little Shop of Horrors, Newsies, and Sister Act. His next act is adapting the autobiographical Chazz Palminteri 1993 film A Bronx Tale into a new musical. Other heavyweights involved in this venture include co-directors Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks (Guys and Dolls, Sister Act), lyricist Glenn Slater (School of Rock), choreographer Sergio Trujillo (On Your Feet!), and producer Tommy Mottola.

Let’s also not forget that Alan Menken himself is an eight-time Academy Award winner, an 11- time Grammy winner, and a Tony Award winner, making him one of the most decorated composers of all time, known for favorites “Under The Sea,” “Colors of the Wind,” and “A Whole New World.” The one constant in NYC Monthly’s chat with Menken is that stage shows need to be fluid, with a story and music and components that make the audience say “I get it.” We found out what the global appeal of Menken’s songs means to him, how New York energizes his creativity, and why A Bronx Tale is worth seeing.

Assuming you saw A Bronx Tale years ago, could you ever have imagined it as a musical, and how did you become attached to score?

Yeah, I could have imagined it. It had to have the emotional intensity; the challenge was just to write the musical vocabulary and with the right approach. I had worked with Chazz years ago and at that time he had talked to me about A Bronx Tale. How would it work? Fast-forward 10 years and Tommy Mottola said “you have to do this,” and it’s like going back to my Little Shop roots in terms of the era. All the songs are doo-wop and rock ‘n’ roll and it’s much broader stylistically than Little Shop, except this one is dead-serious in terms of the musical DNA. The Shirelles, Otis Redding, Sinatra, Bobby Darin, The Supremes, Motown. To me that’s the best sandbox in the world.

What was most important to book writer Chazz Palminteri and co-directors Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks in terms of how the music plays a role in the new show?

These are all men who are successful and smart and very cynical about Broadway. So they had to go through this incrementally. First I came aboard, then Glenn Slater, a very smart lyricist. I had to nurture the trust between Chazz and Tommy and Bob with Glenn.

There’s a lot of “what do we keep and how do we organize it and create a compelling end of act one and closing of the show?” The whole look of the show, whole sound of the show, and tone of the show are all integrated into the same thing — a memory piece of the time. An ethos, the Belmont Avenue Italian push and pull between the working man and the wise guys and two blocks over the black neighborhood and dealing with racial prejudice.

Little Shop and Hunchback have a world of darkness in them, but you know, it’s not about dark and light it’s about how you’re telling the story. If it’s a dark story and you overdo it or apologize for its darkness; the point is it all comes down to the audience saying “I get it.”

a-bronx-tale_2You are a New Yorker, born here in the city. What makes you most proud to be a New Yorker and do you attribute any of your talent or perspective to being from here?

Number one, New York is a melting pot of everything in the world. And New York is an aggressive, driven place. And I’m proud that I know how to be a New Yorker. I am also proud that I know how to get away from that. I actually now live upstate and I love it. I can balance being really aggressive and really workaholic and at a certain hour just stop it and take my dogs for a long walk in the woods and just chill out, and I’m just a lucky man that way.

Are there some bars or piano bars or places you visited frequently while studying at NYU?

I went to NYU in The Heights, which was up in the Bronx. The clubs I remember when I started out, I performed at The Ballroom on West Broadway, Reno Sweeney — Peter Allen, Ed Kaufman, and Bette Midler and cabaret acts, Barry Manilow. Tramps was another club. I remember I saw Cream down on MacDougal Street or Frank Zappa also on MacDougal Street. It was an incredible scene; that was back in the 60s.

What is a moment you can share about one of your films or shows that really sticks with you over the years from a fan?

There are so many moments and they blindside you. I have people that just cry saying “your music means so much to me.” Part of you thinks well, this music’s mine but really music belongs to the world. It’s those moments when a young person comes up to me and releases their emotions to that degree, it stuns me.

I’m very privileged, but I want to explain to them that it’s not about me, it’s that I’m part of something bigger; there are actors and singers and writers. The lesson is you’re a part of something bigger; don’t ever have it be just about you.

Are there other young composers or songwriters on your radar?

Both Lin-Manuel Miranda and Bobby Lopez have been on my radar since they were kids. They went through Hunter College Elementary and High Schools. Pasek and Paul are really talented, of Dear Evan Hansen (and La La Land). It’s a new generation of new writers but some of them are just so good.

Why do you think A Bronx Tale is the show to see?

It’s a memory play that allows you to see the genesis of how someone came from these roots to becoming a man.

 

It’s all about the choices you make and how they make you. The big line is “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.” It’s about growing up and family and father figures and learning to find your own path. I think it’s a wonderful show. There are a lot of great shows to see, but I think it’s one of my best scores; it’s rich, it’s fun, it’s just brilliant.