Weaving magic from reality

Aladdin, which flies into Singapore as a stage musical later this month, promises to be a shining, shimmering spectacle.

While the hit Broadway show – based on the 1992 animated Disney musical of the same name – may be full of upbeat, tongue-in-cheek songs, several of these belie the grim reality in which they were originally written.

Speaking to The Straits Times over the telephone from his office in New York, composer Alan Menken says he wrote Prince Ali – a jubilant, flamboyant number – at the hospital bed of lyricist Howard Ashman, his long-time collaborator who was then suffering from Aids.

“He was at the St Vincent’s hospital in West Village receiving treatment and I hauled in a portable keyboard, plonked it on the bed and we sat there talking about the song,” says the musical maestro, who turns 70 this month.

He is behind the music of some of the most beloved animated musicals in the Disney pantheon, including The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty And The Beast (1991) and Pocahontas (1995). He has a whopping eight Oscars to his name.

Ashman died in 1991, a year before the movie Aladdin was released. His death was “an emotional low point (in my life)… a time of emotional upheaval”, says Menken.

After Ashman’s death, British lyricist Tim Rice was roped in to help with the lyrics. He and Menken worked on a few more songs – including the Academy Award-winning duet A Whole New World, where Princess Jasmine joins street rat Aladdin on a magic carpet ride. The song’s dummy title was The World At My Feet.


WHERE: Sands Theatre, Marina Bay Sands, 10 Bayfront Avenue

WHEN: July 21 to Aug 11, 7.30pm (Tuesdays to Saturdays), 2pm (Saturdays), 1 and 6.30pm (Sundays)

ADMISSION: $68 to $228 (excluding a $4 booking fee) via www.MarinaBaySands.com/ticketing or www.sistic.com.sg. Or call 6688-8826 or go to the box offices at Marina Bay Sands

INFO: www.sistic.com.sg/events/aladdin0919

He was at the St Vincent’s hospital in West Village receiving treatment and I hauled in a portable keyboard, plonked it on the bed and we sat there talking about the song.

ALAN MENKEN, on writing the upbeat number Prince Ali for the 1992 animated Disney musical Aladdin at the hospital bed of lyricist Howard Ashman, his long-time collaborator who was then suffering from Aids

“When I started working with Tim, I sent him dummy lyrics. I had (Menken starts to sing), ‘Duh da da da daa…the world at my feet’. And very wisely, Tim said maybe it would be better not to have the word feet in the title of our love song. I am sure it disappointed foot fetishists everywhere.”

The English version of the Aladdin stage musical, which opened at the New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway in 2014, makes its Asian premiere at Marina Bay Sands from July 21 to Aug 11. The show coming to Singapore is produced by Disney Theatrical Productions, Australia, and will feature music from the original animated movie as well as others which had previously been cut. The music is by Menken, of course, with lyrics by Ashman, Rice and Chad Beguelin.

Aladdin might seem like a family-friendly story, but when the original animated movie premiered in the 1990s, some of the lyrics sparked controversy.

The opening song, Arabian Nights, introduced the fictional land of Agrabah as a place “where they cut off your ear/If they don’t like your face/It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home”.

Some Arab-Americans complained that it was racist and the lines were altered for the home video format: “Where it’s flat and immense/And the heat is intense/ It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home”. The live-action movie remake, now in cinemas, has replaced “barbaric” with “chaotic”.

Menken says: “It’s a funny line… Every culture has its own barbaric or violent characteristics. We could be talking about the French, where they butchered (aristocrats at) the guillotine.”

There was one song, Humiliate The Boy, which never made it to the movies or stage musical.

“It was written when Jafar (the story’s evil vizier) is taking away all the things the genie gave to Aladdin. He’s losing his clothes, his dignity, everything,” he says. “At that time, Howard was suffering from neuropathies. Physically, he was having all his abilities ripped away from him. Whether deliberate or not, there was a connection between the song and what was going on in real life.”

Menken’s tunes are often eminently hummable – be it the Calypso-style rhythms of Under The Sea in The Little Mermaid or the gospel-infused backup vocals in Hercules’ I Won’t Say (I’m In Love).

Do these ideas come to him easily? Yes, Menken says, once he has a clear sense of what the job is about. “You need to set up the plumbing before you turn on the faucet and it flows. What is the concept for the storytelling? What’s the tone, the vocabulary, the character? I’ll try different ideas until I just go, ‘That’s it.'”

He adds: “There’s a lot of structural work that needs to be done to set up a song moment – what emotions do we want to evoke, what world do we want to evoke, how do we want to push the story forward through this song?”

He still enjoys being associated with Disney. Just do not call him a “children’s composer”.

“There’s a sense that when you write for Disney, you are somehow writing for children. I love children and, in a sense, I write for the child in all of us,” says Menken, who has two grown-up children with his wife Janis Roswick, a former ballet dancer.

“But when I go to a record store or online and I see my music listed in the genre of ‘Kids’, I bristle a bit because it’s a lot more than that. The projects I’ve done have a lot of edge to them.”

He has also written music for stage productions such as Little Shop Of Horrors (1982), A Christmas Carol (1994), Sister Act (2006) and Newsies The Musical (2011). Two decades ago, he worked with Rice on King David, a modern oratorio that premiered as a concert on Broadway.

His life might well have taken a very different turn.

His 1981 stage musical Real Life Funnies “crash-landed” off-Broadway and was torn apart by critics.

“I was actually thinking, do I want to go on and do this?” says Menken, who has a degree in musicology from New York University and spent the years after graduation taking on a variety of jobs – a ballet and modern dance accompanist, a musical director for club acts, a songwriter for Sesame Street and a vocal coach.

He also wrote jingles and had, at the time, been offered a job doing that. “I said, I have one more project to do and let’s see how it goes. If it goes the way of the others, I’ll take the new office and I’ll write my jingles.”

That project was Little Shop Of Horrors, a musical by Menken and Ashman about a hapless florist who grows a plant that feeds on human flesh. It was a hit.

“One good thing about fame,” he says, “is you feel more protected from the critics or from a bad box office. You know you’ll go on because you have that history. But early on, any of that could feel like a death blow.”

He has also drawn on real life for his work. The arch-villain in Little Shop Of Horrors is a dentist – a motorcycle-riding sadist – who was an incidental character in the original 1960 film, but looms larger in the musical and the subsequent film adaptation.

Menken comes from a family of dentists and even considered becoming one.

“At that time, my father was president of the New York chapter of the American Analgesia Society, a society of dentists that promotes the use of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) as safe. I told Howard, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny to make the dentist take nitrous oxide to enhance his own pleasure in causing his patients pain?’ Howard thought that was hilarious.

“I don’t think my father thought it was hilarious, but once the show was a hit, dad got on board and thought it was pretty funny.”

Menken says there is still much that he wants to explore – “Bollywood, Japanese, all kinds of cultural and musical traditions”.

But for now, it seems he has plenty on his plate: The Little Mermaid movie, with Lin-Manuel Miranda; a Warner Bros remake of Little Shop Of Horrors; a live-action musical film version of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame; Larry Poppins, an original film musical with Universal about the son of Mary Poppins; a stage musical version of Hercules, which will open in Central Park later this year “and a bunch of other ideas I can’t talk about”.

He is not above parodying his own work – and did just that in the 2007 fantasy romance Enchanted, starring Amy Adams and Patrick Dempsey. Disenchanted, the long-awaited sequel, is in the works and Menken will write the music after the story is ready.

“I thought Enchanted was one of the best concepts for any children’s musical I had ever been involved in when animated (characters are) transported into a modern world.”

Asked about the recent wave of remakes he has been involved in, he says the concept has “obviously worked for the marketplace”.

“They are my babies, so I’ll go back and do them again,” he says.

One of the challenges he faces is finding new ways to stay fresh. “Fame can be a danger,” he adds, “because people become overly reverential about anything you do and are afraid to tell you, ‘Maybe you could do something better.'”

And with all the major productions he has been busy with, some smaller projects have spent decades on the back-burner.

“There’s a musical I’ve been working on for years based on a Damon Runyon short story. I love that genre of New York in the 1940s. Howard and I wanted to do this as our follow-up to Little Shop Of Horrors.”

He is worried, however, about the impact of music streaming on the industry. “Streaming is badly affecting the income of young writers. They can’t make a living. You could have something that’s streamed a million times and makes pocket change. That’s very sad and has to be mended.”

After decades in Hollywood, he does not think fame has really changed him, although he may be less preoccupied with end-results than he used to be.

What advice would he give his younger self?

“Just keep doing the work because you love it and don’t get attached to the results that much.

“Whatever you do with your life, it should be the thing you want to do every day. Don’t create a goal in your mind that doesn’t relate to what you want to do every day of your life.”

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