Alan Menken

Alan Menken: “Always be in love with the process”

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Short Profile

Name: Alan Irwin Menken
DOB: 22 July 1949
Place of birth: New York City, New York, United States
Occupation: Composer, pianist

Mr. Menken, before you became an Oscar winning composer, you used to say that you’d rather starve than compromise your destiny to work in music. What made you so sure of yourself?

We're all born, I think, with a dharma, with a journey ahead of us. This is my journey, and I feel it strongly. It’s just something I knew… You know, I just did. There are certain things in my life where I just know it. My wife Janis and I have been together for over 50 years, and I dreamed of her before I met her, I knew who she was, I don't know how it happened. But I saw her, and it was like, “Oh, that's the one.” I felt that deeply, and it's the same way with with my work. I think before we’re born, someone goes: “Ding! This is what you're gonna do!” And people who have an awareness of that, and respect for that, I think are very fortunate people.

Were there times you really did have to starve to pursue your journey?

Starve? No. Economize? Yes. When Janis and I first got together, I remember we ate a lot of chicken hearts sauteed with onions because they're very cheap in the supermarket. We watched our budget! Right out of college, the first job I had was playing piano for ballet classes. At some point, I was in workshops working on musicals, I was also a jingle writer for a long time. Writing jingles was a great offshoot and a great way to make some extra bucks and get your health insurance paid for. I did even think at one point, “Okay, maybe I’ll just have to become a jingle writer…”

“Always be in love with the process, and know that you’re going to keep doing it because this is what you love doing.”

Would you have liked that?

I wouldn’t have been thrilled! But at the same time, writing jingles in those days, you know, the best people were in those studios. All the people I was working with became major people in the music industry.

And you did as well — you’ve now won eight Oscars for iconic Disney films like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin; along with 11 Grammys, and a Tony.

I'm very fortunate! I’m doing something that I love, and I consider that to be success. But if you think it’s gonna come fast or easy, then you probably are in for some rough times. You need to always be ready to throw things out and do it over again, and know that you love the process enough to be doing it repeatedly. Always be in love with the process and in love with your talent. And know that you’re going to keep doing it because it’s what you love doing.

I really admire your devotion to and pride in the music. Where do you think that comes from?

It’s just in my personality. I mean, if something of mine doesn't work and it has to go back into the trunk; okay, I can live with that. But if I've created something that I'm very proud of, and then it's repurposed in some way that hurts it or affects the perception of it, that really bothers me. I have an ego like everybody else.

Is that why you’ve chosen to work on all the live action remakes of the Disney films you originally scored? To protect your work?

A little bit of that, yeah. These are my babies, and I really want to keep them within my creative universe since I created it. And what's unique in my career is because so much of my work has been done with the Disney company, and with the control that they have, at some point they are going to take my work and blend it with other people's work. It's inevitable. But as long as I can be involved and they want me involved, I want to be involved. It's also certainly it's a good pay day. It’s a lot of work, you know, there were times where things might get adapted and I wish they hadn't done that, because it's just going to eat years of my life. But in general, my experiences have been great, I've loved the people I've worked with in the live action films.

Alan Menken performs a medley of some of his most iconic Disney songs

Still, I can imagine there’s nothing quite like working on the score for an animated film and seeing the lyrics, the music, and the images all come together.

It’s an art form, and then within that, Disney is its own art form. Working on those films, and finally seeing it all come together, it’s amazing. When you create a musical that works, it's like the best toy in the world. It’s wonderful. Animated films, they’re for the child in all of us, and Disney films especially are really a safe place for me. I remember I had finished Little Shop of Horrors, the AIDS crisis hit and I was terrified. It was a plague that was wiping out the artistic community, and we didn't know how it could be stopped or who it would affect? I had my young daughter and she would sit on my lap, and the only thing I could watch that didn't make me feel this kind of terror, the only thing that would help me get away from that was the VHS tapes of Disney classics. And it was this amazing safe space to be in, this safe space in the storytelling. I think that is a hallmark of Disney, it brought me back to my childhood and to my primal self.

Apparently your favorite Disney film growing up was Fantasia because it was the first time you’d heard classical music mixed with animation.

Oh, I remember being absolutely enchanted by Fantasia! First of all, by the music and then with the combination of the music and the visuals. Something about it just clicked with my particular mindset. I grew up one of those kids that these days would have been called ADHD, I had a hell of a time concentrating at school. I just went with the flow of what was going on inside of me, which was very musical... I just remember loving it. And after seeing it, I wanted to hear the music over and over and over. And from that point forward, listening to music always conjured images in my mind.

I love Fantasia as well, and when I think about it, I can see very clearly the dancing mushrooms and hear the exact Tchaikovsky waltz they dance to. Why do you think we feel that connection between music and images so strongly?

I think it's sort of intrinsic to us as organisms! Music is something that can be directed like a laser, to sharpen an emotion, to underscore a concept, it’s a very powerful tool. I'd like to think that if I do my job well, I can have the lyrics completely removed from a song, and still, the listener would get a sense of what is going on in the story and what we're supposed to be feeling. It's as good as it would be with no lyrics at all. It’s another layer of magic along with the images and lyrics. It is a great catalyst. But one of the things I love about it is that it is not really a rational form. Music just grabs you.