When they first met in 1978 Menken was working mainly as a writer and performer of commercial jingles. On stage the most successful result of their partnership was a musical version of Roger Corman's B-movie classic Little Shop of Horrors (it was later made into a movie). Then Ashman was offered a contract at Disney and chose Menken as his partner. It looked like a surprising move: both men were noted for slightly wacky, off-Broadway projects (Menken's latest, Weird Romance, is about a man who falls in love with a hologram) and you can't get more mainstream, more MOR, than a Disney cartoon.
But it has been their work at the studio - Mermaid, Beauty and some of the songs on the forthcoming Aladdin - which established them in many commentators' eyes as the most promising new songwriting team of their generation. Sadly, that collaboration has ended: Ashman died of Aids in March - Beauty and the Beast, which he also executive- produced, is dedicated to him.
Menken's only live-action project for Disney, Newsies (briefly released in Britain this summer as The News Boys), was less auspicious; in fact it could be fairly called a total flop. 'Newsies was far from a perfect film, although I'm proud of the score and I think it will have a stronger life on video,' he recalls. 'It was simply too rushed and corners were cut . . . I'm not poking at the studio or the director; I just think lessons have to be learned about creating a new tradition for the live-action film musical.'
At the moment, however, it looks as though the mantle of the film musical is being carried mainly by the animated feature. But the art-form doesn't always work - recent casualties have been Don Bluth's Rock-A-Doodle and the British picture Freddie as F R 0 7. Below, Alan Menken introduces each of the six songs from Beauty and the Beast and comments on working with Disney and the craft of composing songs for cartoon teapots.
'Beauty and the Beast' opens across the UK on 9 October.
Beauty and the Beast
The climactic love song 'Beauty and the Beast' (characters pictured above) was the song that won Menken and Ashman the Best Song Oscar (two other songs were also nominated and the picture also took the Oscar for Best Original Score). The team previously won the same two Oscars for their work on The Little Mermaid (the winning song was the calypso 'Under the Sea').
'Simplicity is the key to 'Beauty and the Beast'. We wanted it to be gentler and smaller as opposed to ballads that are large and heroic in scope. In all our projects Howard and I had never written a liftable song. Here we considered it our assignment to write something that could function within the film and also hopefully could have a life outside it. It has been our first chart hit - our first song that could be recorded and enjoyed as a single.'
In the story, 'Beauty and the Beast' is sung by Angela Lansbury as a cockney-accented tea-pot: 'We chose places for her to open up and places where it's more intimate or almost spoken.' The cover version, however, is heavily pop-flavoured and comes from Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson. One might imagine that the difficulty of turning a cartoon number into a chart-topper might have something to do with the fact that, often as not, the song has been written for, say, a monkey or a candlestick. 'I don't think its being an animated project really impinges upon that. In fact I think that people feel a great sympathy towards a song because they've seen it in a film that they love. Writing hits is a problem intrinsic to musicals as a whole. It's difficult to serve two masters and your first obligation is to do something that works for the characters and that forwards the plot. If you're lucky it also has a secondary life, but that's not your primary purpose.'
The Mob Song
' 'The Mob Song' is another operetta-style number - a very macho song sung by stout-hearted men, in which Gaston (above) leads the townspeople in to confront the Beast.' It's sung by 12 male vocalists and the baritone Richard White as Gaston - casting the voice talent, Menken says, 'is an area where we have the prime say'.
It is the most serious, sombre piece in the film: 'Perhaps what's most poignant about it is that Howard wrote lyrics saying that we don't like what we don't understand, that scares us. And some people felt that, because he was dying from Aids at that point, there was a double-meaning to those lines. The number really carries the meaning of the movie, which is that people fear the Beast and feel they have to kill it because they don't understand it.'
That subtext might seem strong meat for a Disney children's cartoon, but Menken maintains that it's not out of place: 'Good musicals don't condescend, and Disney animated features have always borrowed from the musical theatre of the day, they didn't condescend either. That's very important: you write a score the way you would write for an adult, for character and for story.
'The key to a successful musical is a story that can impart both entertainment and lasting enjoyment, and at the same time has an important message. We have always tried to write songs that are tongue-in-cheek in places, and that will always comment on the form to make another statement, that will wink at the audience and say: we're doing this for a reason. Howard Ashman was really the most adept musical theatre writer of our generation and he was not a maverick or a renegade, he was a very traditional writer. But our attempt has always been to use tradition and to go beyond it in a way that includes a wider audience.'
'There had been a huge production number in the film, but in the end it was replaced by 'Something There'. It's a very gentle song that underscores the coming together of Belle and the Beast (above).' It is the only point at which the Beast bursts into song - a device praised by one American music reviewer as helping to preserve the character's essential mystique. 'We had considered certain moments for him to start singing, but they came late in the game - to give him his own song that late in the story seemed out of place in this score. Luckily, in 'Something There' we found a verse where it felt natural and story-driven for him to sing.'
Menken plans to resurrect the missing number, 'Human Again', in a stage version of Beauty and the Beast. 'We will expand the score for it - Tim Rice and I will write about five new songs. I hope people will accept it as a stage musical because it has already been established through animation. Normally, I think, Broadway audiences look to things that are more cutting-edge, or else only accept musicals in revival.'
This, probably, was the reason why when Howard Ashman was offered a contract with Disney, he chose a cartoon for his first project: according to Kirk Wise, the co-director of Beauty and the Beast, Ashman felt that 'the animated feature had become the last refuge of the musical theatre'. Menken agrees: 'When Howard and I first went to Hollywood, we had both come off a frustrating couple of years trying to mount large-scale musicals on Broadway. We found Disney animation a form that circumvented a lot of the cynicism that faces a musical opening on Broadway these days. It invites characters to be innocent and idealistic and to believe in a dream. So you can really write an old-fashioned musical - you don't have to coat it in the wit that would make it acceptable to a Broadway audience. You can be very direct, emotional and simple.'
Be My Guest
All the Beast's servants have been transformed into household objects: the suave French maitre d' is now a candlestick (above) who, with thousands of all-singing, all-dancing plates and cutlery, welcomes Belle to the castle. 'It's an opportunity to meet these characters and give them a life and spirit. This is the big production number, it's very much in the spirit of Hello Dolly] - every musical has this kind of song. In The Little Mermaid it was 'Under the Sea', and one of the pressures on 'Be My Guest' was that everyone was looking for it to be another 'Under the Sea'. But Beauty is a different kind of project, it's a more ballad-driven story.'
The number is also notable for its staging, an affectionate pastiche of Busby Berkeley. 'We were sure that that was exactly the kind of number the animators would do and that by the end it would get huge and wild. From our experience with 'Under the Sea' we knew they would pull out all the stops. In terms of the choreography and the special effects, more can be done in animation than live on stage, no question. You're already in a form that has freed your imagination at least 50 per cent of the way.
'I think that in the early story meetings Howard probably suggested the Busby Berkeley idea to them. As much as he could, until he passed away, he had a very strong role in directing the musical numbers. He knew more than anyone on these projects how the numbers should be staged.' The planning of the film, and decisions about how to animate a sequence, begin with the musical team. 'We write the songs and decide where they go, so we're the first element to come in on the project. There's a story idea, but you don't evolve the storyline independently of the musical-theatre writers. We're very much a part of the structure.'
' 'Gaston' is a 3/4 time drinking song that would normally be sung in praise of a character or a lofty ideal. Here the twist is that it's in praise of this basically mean-spirited bully (the vain, aggressive Gaston (above), who has determined to marry Belle although she shows no interest). It's where the brilliant Howard Ashman sense of humour gets a chance to shine.' Some sample lines: There's no one as burly and brawny / As you see I've got biceps to spare / Not a bit of him's scraggly or scrawny / And every last inch of me's covered with hair. 'The song's contemporary quality is in the lyric. There are lots of examples with Howard where I would deliberately write very simple music because we wanted to get the humour across. The more you want to thrust the lyric upfront, the more you keep the musical style high-profile, recognisable and rhythmic.'
There might be another, more practical reason for making the music traditional and timeless. Roy Disney, Walt's nephew and vice-chairman of the studio's board of directors, has cautioned against too modern a score: after all Disney counts on recycling these animated musicals over decades and can't afford to have them dated by passing fashion. And, say, a New York rap score would very likely not go down well with the studio's core, middle-American family audience. 'I don't feel constrained by that,' Menken says. 'Generally on a Disney project you don't use very trendy forms, but Howard and I never did. We were always very mainstream as writers. Even on Little Shop of Horrors, where we were using Fifties rock, it was music that, over a certain time, had become part of our culture. It was a very mainstream musical theatre score even though it's couched as an idea that's hip.'
'These days when you're writing a live action musical, you're dealing with a form that is basically up for grabs. There are about 1,000 ways to do it and 999 ways to do it wrong. On an animated picture for Walt Disney, there's a tremendous amount of organisation and preparation, and a long, cherished tradition. So it's a much more circumscribed, formal process. The six-song score seems to be the ideal form for an animated musical - with reprises, that becomes in Beauty, I think, nine song moments. You need a song in which the central character sings about what he or she dreams of, so that you know what you're rooting for. You want a big entertaining production number. And you're looking at a song to open with - it's very important that this be sung early on to establish that the film is a musical and to start the storyline rolling.
' 'Belle' is this curtain-raiser - it shows a new day beginning, and when Belle (above) reaches town and the motor of the number begins with the townspeople commenting as she passes, it establishes that she's different from the others, she dreams of something more. It's a traditional French operetta kind of opening, but with a modern twist.'
Beauty and the Beast started life as a straight period piece. 'Once it became a musical and Howard and I came on board, it was simply a matter of deciding whether we would take a contemporary approach to the musical or a very traditional one. We did a little bit of both here, but essentially the score is traditional: we went for textures influenced by operetta, drinking songs and big Jerry Herman-style production numbers. We knew that it was to be set in 18th-century France and we wanted to keep a classical tone to the project.'