Dancing kitchenware, a charming candelabra, an adorable barking ottoman - none of these characters from Disney's beloved animated film Beauty And The Beast (1991) would have come to life without the magical score of American composer Alan Menken.
The Oscar winner, 65, collaborated with the late lyricist Howard Ashman to create hits including the film's soaring theme song and the rambunctious Be Our Guest. He also worked with British lyricist Tim Rice to create additional songs for the musical adaptation, now on at Marina Bay Sands' Grand Theatre.
Rice, 70, described Menken as "quick and efficient" and who "writes really good tunes!" in an e-mail interview.
Menken has written music for many other Disney films, including The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995) and Tangled (2010), based on the Rapunzel fairy tale.
The live-action musical of Beauty And The Beast premiered on Broadway in 1994 and tells the story of a beautiful and intelligent woman, Belle, who meets a prince trapped in the form of a horrendous beast. It has played to more than 35 million people in 13 countries.
In an e-mail interview with Life!, Menken shed some light on the musical landscape of one of Disney's most beloved creations.
What were your first impressions of Disney's Beauty And The Beast and its characters? What moved you about this production?
When Beauty and the Beast first came to my attention in 1990 as a possible project to work on as an animated musical, I was aware that it was essentially a two- person story - Belle and the Beast. Obviously, if we wrote the musical of these two characters having dinner every night and slowly developing their relationship, it would be a small musical; not appropriate for Disney animation. We understood that we would need to invent the household objects, the conflict involving Gaston and the storyline involving Belle's father. What most moves me about any production of Beauty is the thought that, although Howard Ashman was the genius most responsible for inventing the characters and the musical, he never lived to see it completed.
Howard Ashman was reportedly very ill when working on Beauty And The Beast. How did that translate into the songs you were writing together?
Howard's illness created much of the depth and emotion that runs through Beauty. We were hiding his ailments because Aids had such a terrible stigma attached to it. Sometimes, his illness added to his natural impatience and made things difficult. But mostly that was before there was mutual acknowledgement about the nature of his condition. Generally, he had a plan for a particular song moments before he and I got together to work. Then we'd develop the music and structure of a song together. He'd then spend a day or two writing a lyric. Then we would re-convene to complete the song.
What were some of your musical influences when creating the songs for Beauty And The Beast?
Our influences were French impressionism (Prologue), Classical (Belle and Something There), Broadway (Beauty And The Beast) , Operetta (Gaston) and French music hall (Be Our Guest).
Did the directors specify the types of songs needed?
The songs were pretty much entirely our conception. We would modify, as needed, in consultation with the directors.
Do you write with the singer or actor in mind?
I generally write only with the character and story in mind. There are cases, however, where I will adjust music to fit a particular actor's style or limitations.
What were some of the most challenging emotions to communicate through the music?
The death and re-generation of the Beast was quite challenging to express emotionally because people's expectations were so high. Tears were expected and uplifting music was needed, not anything with sadness or tragedy within it. For me, every part of the score is a "high point". In order to make an entire score deliver what's needed, it is like a puzzle with interlocking pieces. The whole is the only important thing.
Do you ever encounter "composer's block"? When you do, how do you deal with it?
I never have a creative block. The only times things get hung up is if there is a miscommunication with collaborators or some kind of misconception in how we should develop a particular moment, musically.
Do you give feedback on lyrics if you feel something is not quite right with the song?
Collaboration is all about a composer and lyricist influencing each other's work. I often express my views about lyrics. But, I must say, in the case of Howard, it was particularly rare. He was so hyper-critical about his own work as well as mine that it wasn't necessary.
When composing for the stage musical version of Beauty And The Beast, was there a challenge to live up to the popularity of the film's songs and music?
The main challenge in creating the Broadway show was blending the lyrics of Tim Rice with those of Howard. In the end, the finished score has a quality all its own; a hybrid between their two styles.
How would you describe the difference between writing songs for the stage and for film?
There is no difference. The only difference is in song assignments. Since there is no close-up in theatre, there will need to be more sung material to provide the same kind of illumination that intimate facial expression provides. Generally, the use of montage in film allows for more material to be heard without seeing a character performing.
How do you think Disney films have evolved in musical style? Will today's musical films reach the same heights as what is known as the Disney Renaissance, such as The Lion King, Aladdin and Beauty And The Beast?
I think we set a pretty high bar and established a very successful tradition in the work we have created between The Little Mermaid and Enchanted. My sense is that the new animated musicals are continuing that quite successfully by hiring new songwriters drawn from the same theatrical tradition that Howard and I came from.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
Where: Grand Theatre, Marina Bay Sands
When: Till April 19; Tuesday to Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and 8pm, Sunday at 1 and 6pm
Admission: $65 to $190 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)
This article was first published on March 24, 2015.
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