As the composer behind The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, Alan Menken has created some of Disney’s most recognizable scores and songs. His canon has paved the way for modern-day animated musicals like Frozen and Encanto, and influenced a generation of songwriters working in film, musical theater, and beyond. With lyricist Howard Ashman (Menken’s collaborator until Ashman’s death in 1991), Menken was a driving force behind Little Shop of Horrors, which premiered off-off Broadway in 1982, and more than 40 years later is still playing at New York’s Westside Theatre. Hercules, which Disney released in 1997 and Menken worked on with lyricist David Zippel, just wrapped up a regional run in New Jersey, and will move on to premiere in Germany, while Aladdin (which also featured lyrics by Tim Rice, who helped finish Aladdin’s songs following Ashman’s death) is currently celebrating its ninth anniversary on Broadway at the New Amsterdam Theatre.
Today, at 73 years old, Menken shows no signs of slowing down. Disenchanted, the sequel to Enchanted for which he cowrote the music along with Stephen Schwartz (Wicked), debuted on Disney+ last fall. The fully animated feature Spellbound is expected at the end of the year, and he tells Vanity Fair that there’s another musical project in the works. But first is the live-action version of The Little Mermaid, starring Halle Bailey as Ariel and premiering in theaters on May 26, a project that led him to work on some new songs with Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“My niece went to Hunter School and I would hear about this little boy named Lin-Manuel Miranda who loved The Little Mermaid,” he recalls to Vanity Fair. “He was asking questions about it, wanted me to sign posters, and was just fanatical about it. Then one day that little boy was a writer who had a new [movie] called In the Heights. I thought, Was he the same Lin-Manuel Miranda? And now we’re collaborating! I’ve been amazed watching what he’s become in the world.”
VF recently spoke with Menken about reworking the 1989 film’s music and the groundwork he laid to catapult the movie-musical-song catalog for new writers like Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, Bobby Lopez, Kristen-Anderson Lopez, and Miranda.
Vanity Fair: You had Little Shop of Horrors, Hercules, and Aladdin all playing at the same time in the New York City area. How does it feel to have these shows still so popular and so present?
Alan Menken: I’m used to it. I’ve been coming back to projects for a long time. It certainly beats the alternative by a lot. So much of what I’m doing is about my illustrious past. But you know, I still have a future and occasionally I’ll talk about that in therapy. I’m very happy with what I’ve done. But then, there’s also what’s next. The most exciting thing is the new projects, and I am working on new projects.
Spellbound, tell me everything!
I can’t tell you that much. Number one because it is an ever-evolving project. This is a very unusual story. It has a very ambitious, central theme. I am not going to talk about the central theme because it’s all hidden in a fairy tale which involves a spell. But it’s a theme that affects all of us in a contemporary way. I’m collaborating with [lyricist] Glenn Slater on the songs. Chris Montan, who was the head of music and animation at Disney from The Little Mermaid, to Tangled and Frozen is the musical supervisor. For me, it’s a great return to work again in animation. Some of the team have never written music before. So there’s been a lot of work in trying to make it more of a traditional musical and people pushing me to be more ambitious in a certain way. We are still working on it. We score in the fall. We are recording with the artists who are doing it: Rachel Zegler, Javier Bardem, and Nicole Kidman. I am going to stop there.
Can you believe Aladdin is celebrating nine years on Broadway?
Is it nine now? Wow. I feel old.
What do you think has kept it playing for so long?
It’s a good musical. Tom Schumacher is as good as it gets as a theatrical producer. Aladdin is a lot of fun. The infectiousness of numbers and explosion of imagination make it really fun for an audience. You want them to want to be in that room and just have a good time.