This week will see the release of Disney’s newest animated feature, Tangled, a quirky retelling of the Rapunzel tale. As has been custom for the best of Disney’s animated features, the film will feature songs and score from Alan Menken, the musical genius who gave Disney some of its greatest music of the past 20-plus years.
Menken came to Disney in the late 1980s after his musical with lyricist Howard Ashman, a peppy, Wall of Sound-inspired take on Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors, was adapted into a successful film in 1986. The duo’s knowledge of writing pop-inspired Broadway showstoppers made them perfect choices for The Little Mermaid, the Disney studio’s first serious foray into full animation in some time.
The rest, as they say, is history. Over time, Menken – with lyricists Ashman, Tim Rice, Stephen Schwartz, David Zippel and Glenn Slater – has crafted some of the most unforgettable animated feature songs that have been sung for generations now and to come. Along the way, Menken has become one of the most prolific Oscar winners in history (he has taken home eight statues – tied with costume designer Edith Head, one behind composer Alfred Newman and behind 26 won by Walt Disney himself) and was named a Disney Legend in 2001.
In honor of the songs that Menken has inspired us all to sing on behalf of Walt Disney’s pictures, here’s a look at Menken’s most successful works with the studio, and some of the reissues they’ve inspired, in a new installment of Back Tracks.
The Little Mermaid (Walt Disney, 1989 – reissued 2006)
With those glistening opening scales that kick off the soundtrack of The Little Mermaid, you know you’re in for a treat. Disney had, a year before, worked hard to prove that there was still art to be had from animation in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Mermaid – the simple yet enchanting tale of a young mermaid who dreams of being human – proved Disney even more right. After a long spell of less-than-inspired Disney animated features (perhaps culminating in the violent, disjointed The Black Cauldron in 1985), Disney ironed out a formula that worked time and time again: a strong but attractive heroine, a bevy of colorful supporting characters, exotic locales and larger-than-life villains, with a happy ending tying up the proceedings.
And while musical numbers were part and parcel of Disney films since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938), Menken and Ashman took the formula to Broadway-level heights. “Under the Sea” was the big hit for families of all ages, but tracks like “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” the romantic “Kiss the Girl” and the anthemic “Part of Your World” helped reaffirm Disney’s reputation as a maker of commercial art just like Walt did decades before.
Strangely, while many of the Menken/Ashman collaborations have enjoyed reissues through Disney, they are rarely if ever constructed with a catalogue enthusiast in mind. The reissue of The Little Mermaid, tied to the film’s DVD release in 2006, added a bonus disc of contemporary family friendly acts (Jessica Simpson, The Jonas Brothers, Ashley Tisdale of High School Musical and others) singing new versions of the classic songs. Considering that much of Menken’s orchestral score – which he was only tasked to write after producers realized how prolific his songs were going to be – is unreleased, it marked one of unfortunately many missed opportunities in terms of catalogue titles at Disney.
Beauty and the Beast (Walt Disney, 1991 – reissued 2001 and 2010)
If The Little Mermaid was a strong reboot to the animation genre in the way Star Wars changed science fiction, then Beauty and the Beast was Mickey’s The Empire Strikes Back. The romantic tale of a simple French village girl and a vain prince tormented by a spell altering his appearance to that of a hulking animal could have been seen as just another delightful romp through princess and magic territory. But thanks to an even more appealing visual and musical palate, Beauty and the Beast became something more. To date, it is the only hand-drawn animated feature to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (the Disney-Pixar computer-animated film Up was nominated in 2009), and were it not for the strength of The Silence of the Lambs, Beauty may well have taken it all the way. (It did win two Oscars for the entire score and the title song, one of three numbers from the film to be nominated.)
Part of the strength of the film and the music stemmed from Menken and Ashman’s personal involvement in the script; at the behest of studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, the musicians helped revise what was originally a thinly-characterized tale, giving it more gravitas in the form of the enchanted servants of the Beast’s castle and the goofy, charming and evil presence of antagonist Gaston. But part of it was that old Disney magic, that can’t be explained away by any critic. Menken, who was losing his songwriting partner to AIDS, worked together to compose what may be the best Disney score in history. Though Howard Ashman died before Beauty and the Beast could be finished, his legacy lives on throughout the music.
Beauty and the Beast has arguably been given the best catalogue treatment on CD. In 2001, a Special Edition soundtrack was released in tandem with an IMAX reissue of the film, adding one song originally cut from the film but included in the 1993 Broadway adaptation (“Human Again”) and several demo and worktape selections of songs and score. Those tracks were removed from the 2010 reissue of the soundtrack (timed with the film’s Blu-Ray debut); instead, Disney added a cover of the title theme by American Idol winner Jordin Sparks.
Aladdin (Walt Disney, 1992 – reissued 2004)
Menken didn’t have much time to reel from Disney’s 1992 failed musical Newsies (for which he only composed the score – song duty was carried out by Jack Feldman, writer of Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana (At the Copa)”). Production on the tale of Aladdin had begun concurrently with Beauty and the Beast, and Ashman had written 11 sets of lyrics before he passed away. Ultimately, three of them were used (“Arabian Nights,” “Prince Ali” and the show-stopping “Friend Like Me”), while Tim Rice completed the lyrics for the other songs in the film, including hit single “A Whole New World.”
While Aladdin is still a success on film (it was in fact pitched by Ashman), it lacks the gravity of its predecessor. But who needs such seriousness when you’ve got one of the most endearing performances by Robin Williams as the mile-a-minute Genie? Aladdin remains a popular chestnut for Disney fans, and was revived on CD in 2004 (again, alongside a DVD release) with two demo tracks co-written and performed by Ashman himself, “Proud of Your Boy” (also performed by Idol finalist Clay Aiken for the DVD release) and “High Adventure.” As nice as these bonus tracks are, fans will want to hang on to their original copy of the soundtrack: opening track “Arabian Nights” had its lyrics altered early on after Arab-American groups protested what was perceived as stereotypical descriptions of the mythical land of Agrabah. Only early pressings have the song with its original verse intact.
Beauty and the Beast: The Broadway Musical (Walt Disney, 1994)
Menken did not contribute to Disney’s smash The Lion King (with lyrics by Tim Rice and, in the first of many mainstream pop contributions in Disney flicks, music by Elton John). Instead, he came back to Broadway to adapt Beauty and the Beast for the Great White Way. Working with an expanded score featuring all of Menken and Ashman’s original songs and both newly-written and archival material with lyrics by Ashman and Rice. While critical acclaim wasn’t nearly as universal as it was for the film (the musical won nowhere near the amount of awards the film earned), it was a hit with Disney fans and tourists from all over the world, becoming the sixth-longest-running Broadway music (running from 1994 to 2007) and inspiring international adaptations all over the world.
There isn’t much to speak of concerning catalogue material for the Beauty musical, but trivia buffs might want to check out the various international releases from the production. The Australian adaptation, released in 1995, features Hugh Jackman as Gaston!
The Music Behind the Magic: The Musical Artistry of Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice (Walt Disney, 1994)
Easily the most essential purchase for fans yearning to know more about the Menken-Ashman masterpieces, this four-disc box set includes rare score and demo tracks from The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, including several songs left on the cutting room floors from each film.
Pocahontas (Walt Disney, 1995)
By now, the Silver Age formula of princesses and magical sidekicks was looking a little foolish on Disney’s part. (It was one of many factor’s that would nearly destroy the hand-drawn animation division – and, by definition, The Walt Disney Company’s reputation – in the early 2000s.) But Menken puts on his best face for this project, with strong lyrics from Stephen Schwartz of Godspell and Pippin fame. While the movie was a little rote, the score was a rousing success, topping the Billboard charts and earning another Oscar for the song “Colors of the Wind.” Another hit song, “If I Never Knew You,” performed by Jon Secada and Shanice for the end credits, was so popular it was added back into the film for a 2005 DVD release.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Walt Disney, 1996)
The Menken-Schwartz team was a stellar one; this may be the most underrated film and score of Disney’s in the 1990s. It was a bit darker in places, especially musically. Even the most fun-loving tracks like “Topsy Turvy” have their off-kilter moments, and opener “The Bells of Notre Dame,” ballad “God Help the Outcasts” and villain tune “Hellfire” are sometimes more mature than you’d expect for a Disney film.
For collectors and fans, the most interesting bit of Hunchback‘s legacy is the music Menken and Schwartz adapted for the musical, which was never released in America. By contrast, Der Glöckner von Notre Dame, as its known in Germany (where it ran for three successful years), is a deeper, darker version of the story, which plumbed the depths the film only hinted at.
Hercules (Walt Disney, 1997)
The last big Menken score for Disney in the 1990s, Hercules featured lyrics by David Zippel and more of a pop bent harkening back to the ’60s homages of Little Shop of Horrors. It also featured what may be the most tolerable song ever sung by Michael Bolton, the inspiring, Oscar-nominated “Go the Distance.” (Fun fact: Spanish versions of the film featured a pop version by emerging star Ricky Martin.)
Enchanted (Walt Disney, 2007)
One of the most loving tributes to Menken’s own work and Disney’s early-’90s musical film legacy, Enchanted has a princess thrown out of her animated storybook kingdom by an evil sorceress. But is she sent to some scary haunted woods? Nope – the plucky Giselle (Amy Adams) gets stuck in Manhattan, and has no choice but to try to fit into a world that is nothing like Disney cartoons.
For the film, Menken again teamed with Schwartz (his first Disney score since Home on the Range in 2004) to pen a set of loving, tongue-in-cheek tributes to the whole Disney canon, sending up Snow White, Bambi, Mary Poppins, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast in the process. (Sharp-eyed listeners can even spot small quotes from those scores and others in the final film!) “Happy Working Song,” “That’s How You Know” and the pretty “So Close” were all nominated for Oscars. Even if Enchanted lacks the emotional grip of Beauty and the Beast, it’s still an enduring tribute to the magic of Disney.
The Little Mermaid: The Broadway Musical (Walt Disney, 2008)
With Beauty and the Beast having departed from The Great White Way, Mickey and company stepped in to make room for The Little Mermaid. Again working with an expanded version of the original score (including new songs from lyricist Glenn Slater), Menken shines by adding songs based on melodic ideas from the original film, including “Fathoms Below” and “One Step Closer.” (The Lion King did this to tremendous effect on Broadway, likely because Elton John and Tim Rice were adapting their own work in the first place, including bits of score by Hans Zimmer.) While The Little Mermaid only ran for about a year, it was another nice reminder of the musical power of Menken and Ashman.
Howard Sings Ashman (PS Classics, 2008)
This intriguing two-disc set of demos wasn’t a Disney production, nor is it centered exclusively on Menken and Ashman’s tenure with the Mouse. But it does feature demos (sung ably by Ashman, who often acted out the characters on tape!) of tunes from the movies discussed above, as well as some gems from Menken-Ashman projects Little Shop of Horrors and God Bless You Mr. Rosewater. The biggest non-Disney bonus is a disc of demos from the musical Smile, written by Ashman with composer Marvin Hamlisch.