Alan Menken tells stories behind 7 classic Disney songs | EW.com
X

News | PopWatch

Alan Menken tells the stories behind songs from 'Little Mermaid,' 'Aladdin,' and more Disney classics

Alan Menken

(Disney)

If you’ve ever loved a Disney song, chances are 65-year-old Alan Menken wrote it. With Oscars, Grammys, and Tonys to his name, he’s now set his sights on TV with ABC’s medieval musical comedy Galavant (which concludes Sunday at 8 p.m. on ABC). EW asked the legend to recount the stories behind some of his most iconic songs. (Note: Little Shop of Horrors is the only project on this list unrelated to Disney.)

“Little Shop of Horrors,” Little Shop of Horrors (1982)
“The title song might have actually been the first number we wrote, which is odd because you never write the opening number first. [My partner, lyricist] Howard Ashman and I had first done a version of the show true to the Roger Corman movie, but it really wasn’t working at all. When we came up with the idea of making it about the dark side of greed, that vocabulary just nailed it into place and suddenly we got it. There were those movies with the beach-blanket horror, monsters coming out of the sea with bubblegum rock and roll playing, and that really touched a nerve, in a good way. So the title song may not have been the most ambitious number in the score, but it really captures the tone and establishes the DNA of Little Shop with a girl group singing about sturm and drang and horror and death. It sets up the idea that we’re going to do a merry little musical romp about how greed will end the world.”

“Part of Your World,” The Little Mermaid (1989)
“There had never really been an ‘I want’ number before in a Disney film. Subsequently everybody at Disney would ask, ‘Where’s our “I want” moment?!’ But it’s that important moment where you engage the audience in the quest of the central character so you know what you’re rooting for. We jokingly used to call this one ‘Somewhere That’s Wet,’ like ‘Somewhere That’s Green’ [from Little Shop] but underwater. My favorite part is that motif [that sounds like] water flowing, which beautifully set up the tone and became the central theme. We knew the whole score was going to a Caribbean place, so we toyed with the idea of reggae [for the rest], but we landed on calypso because it’s poppier and more interesting. Sebastian is more of a Trinidadian crab than Jamaican, certainly more of a Harry Belafonte type.”

“Belle,” Beauty and the Beast (1991)
“The story behind this is that Howard Ashman was HIV-positive and wasn’t telling anybody—he had been very quiet. And here we had written this crazy seven-minute opening number that was much more ambitious than anybody had asked for, and I remember his fear [about everything] in that moment. I remember Howard was very, very reluctant to send it out, thinking that we were going to be laughed at. He delayed sending it for two days. Finally, of course, we sent it, and Disney loved it. You didn’t open an animated movie with a seven-minute number, but it redefined the form. We wanted to keep it very classical Mozart, very She Loves Me, with a quiet opening—’Little town, it’s a quiet village…’ And then it explodes. ‘Bonjour!’” [Beauty and the Beast was dedicated to Ashman, who died eight months before the film’s release.]

“Friend Like Me,” Aladdin (1992)
“We didn’t know who was going to play the genie when we wrote the song. We were looking at the character as black, a hipster, and I suggested a Fats Waller, Harlem stride-piano style from the ’40s. When Robin Williams was suggested, my first thought was ‘Can he sing like Fats Waller?’ Robin learned every note. He was working on Hook at the time, and he would come in after being stuck in a harness all day and sit at the piano and learn. When we went into the studio, we got exactly the Fats Waller performance we wanted, and then everyone said, ‘Okay, but now can we let Robin do his thing?’ He was amazing. That trumpet wah-wah-wah was supposed to be from an instrument, and he made it vocal. He took ahold of the creative process, both on that and ‘Prince Ali’ especially. My God, he went crazy on ‘Prince Ali.’ He was doing the Thanksgiving Day Parade, Arab-style.”

“Colors of the Wind,” Pocahontas (1995)
“It really is one of the most important songs I’ve ever written. That was the first song I wrote with Stephen Schwartz—the Broadway prodigy who wrote Godspell and Pippin. He did a lot of research about American Indian folklore, and we listened to a lot of tribal music. It was born out of the modality of Native American music, but it quickly moved to its own place, which is hard to define. The grand, slow elegance. It’s a very serious song, but there was no getting humor into Pocahontas. God knows we tried. We wrote a song for Grandmother Willow to try to add some comedy, but we just couldn’t. The only other option would have been to give a song to the pug and the raccoon, and they don’t even speak!”

“Out There,” The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
“I had written this before Hunchback, but I didn’t know what it was for, and then Stephen Schwartz was over for dinner and we talked about Hunchback a little bit. I said I have this piece of music I’m working on, and I played it for him, and he’s like, “That’s it. That’s ‘Out There.’” We literally used that piece of music. The music is really all in the bells—it’s French music borne out of that grand percussion. From the very top of the movie, we establish where this score is going to come from.”

“Zero to Hero,” Hercules (1997)
“The directors, Ron Clements and John Musker, really wanted gospel because that’s what you sing when you’re singing about God—or in this case, the gods. I was reluctant because I wanted to do something very classic and Greek—a Candide approach. But it turned out to be so much fun. David Zippel did the lyrics, and we were such an interesting combination because he’s like Cole Porter with his wit. ‘He can tell you what’s a Grecian urn.’ Putting smart lyrics with gospel music really created a very unique blend, and the best example of that was on ‘Zero to Hero,’ which was just this roller coaster of lyrical cleverness.”

“True Love’s Kiss,” Enchanted (2007)
“Giselle is very much a Walt-era Disney heroine, more of a Cinderella than a Belle. We needed a ‘classic Walt’ sound, but no one could agree on what that was because we weren’t around for it! Everyone had an opinion. Our director, Kevin Lima—I love this guy and he’s a great director, but he could not make up his mind on the music. We had to fly him to my studio in New York and sit him down and not let him leave until he had agreed on a piece of music because otherwise it was just going to go on forever. With ‘That’s How You Know,’ I started with salsa and it just poured itself out once I started writing it.”

“Galavant,” Galavant (2015)
“[With the opening number] I was going for something swashbuckling that captured the fact that he’s on horseback. At the same time, I wanted to give it a rock feel. It has some Eagles and other folk-rock influence in it. The whole score is extremely eclectic, and I think that’s the strength of it, going through all these different styles. Everything had to be comedically oriented, so we thought we could never get a ballad in, but I’m excited for one called ‘Worst Thing Ever’ [in the second episode]. It’s exactly what you would find in a Disney movie, except it’s a tender love song sung by people who loathe each other.”

A version of this article appears in Entertainment Weekly’s Jan. 23 issue.