Alan Menken can make anyone sing; a mermaid, a hunchback, Rapunzel, a street rat – even a candlestick. As the Oscar-winning composer behind such classics as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Pochahontas, and Aladdin, Menken has mastered the intangible art of writing a great song. His always-catchy, heartfelt, magical tunes have accompanied our finest moments, from childhood, to college, and beyond. Today, Menken brings his music from the screen to Broadway, with the debut of three movie-musical adaptations: Sister Act, Newsies, and Leap of Faith. In doing so, audiences get a glimpse of nuns rockin’ the wafters, newsboys rebelling against the establishment, and rednecks becoming revived. Here, Menken discusses his Broadway shows, the process of writing a musical, and the secret to always moving forward.
With three shows on Broadway and eight Oscars at home, how do you prioritize your projects, all while staying sane?
I just let go of what I do once its down. I’ve been doing this for my entire life, so it’s just one of those things that comes naturally to me. My function in each show is pretty much the same; I create a model of what I think something should be, and then gradually, as it develops, I let go of it. By the time a show gets on, ideally, I’m just kind of visiting it. At the end, it’s not really mine. It sort of belongs to the world, and I’m very comfortable with that.
Where is the greatest joy in the process: creating the show or visiting it?
Creating it. That very first moment where I create it, when I’m in my studio space from the very beginning, wondering what this is going to be and dreaming it up. Once I’ve made all the basic decisions, it just comes through me.
You’ve been dreaming up Leap of Faith for a good 10 years.
Yeah, it’s a hard one. Leap is a hard one. One of the most challenging projects I’ve ever had.
You’ve said that it’s a “thinking person’s musical.”
Yeah, Leap is very adult. It’s very different from what I do, what people know from me as far as the Disney projects or Little Shop of Horrors. It deals with the subject of faith and is about an imposter, a “reverend” who has this revival that he takes around the country. He makes a living off of faking miracles – making people “walk”, etc. In this particular town, there’s this disabled boy who really believes in him, and the reverend makes a real miracle happen. At the end, these miracles just tumble out, but you’re left questioning, “Did any miracles happen or are we still being conned by this guy?” It questions the idea of miracles, if they come from the individual or they come from God, and takes you on a mental ride that’s fueled by a gospel and musical theatre score. On the surface, it’s fun and entertaining, but beneath it’s really thought and emotion-provoking.
And is it that complexity that has kept you persevering with the show?
Once I start something, I don’t let go. One of the things about musical theatre is collaboration – it’s all about who you’re working with. I’m a very loyal person; once I’m working with somebody, if I think that it’s a good collaboration, no matter how difficult it gets, I don’t walk away. There were some really tough times with Leap of Faith where I felt like walking away. However, I’ve got to say, the producers have been incredibly devoted to this piece. Also, I’m such a sucker for form. I loved the way the story could be told through the medium of gospel revivals.
Newsies is another film that debuted in 1992 and is now on Broadway.
Newsies has built a life of its own. It’s like Newsies itself forced itself upon us. I’d walk into a mall and there would be pirated performances of it. Kids all over grew up with this as their secret, “Oh, I love that. You like that too?”