A Mermaid for Mr. Menken

Special Features   A Mermaid for Mr. Menken As Disney's beloved The Little Mermaid arrives on Broadway, composer Alan Menken reflects on a career of collaborations.

Alan Menken
Alan Menken

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Alan Menken, in an uncharacteristically demonstrative mood, entered my consciousness one December night in 1989 — a short but sure-footed silhouette charging up the aisle of a screening room right into the projection booth, shouting "Stop!" every step of the way.

That turned out to be a good thing: He was reeling in a skipped reel from "The Little Mermaid," a Disney-animated feature he and his lyricist, Howard Ashman, had just musicalized, and the retrieved footage contained the song that won them their first Oscar, "Under the Sea."

"I heard about that," Ashman said when the three of us converged at the Russian Tea Room for an interview a few days later. "I'm very proud of you," he said, throwing a smile to Menken. Then, shaking his head, he assured me, "Alan's really not like that."

There has been a lot of water under the bridge in the past 18 years. Some things changed for Menken (in the screaming extreme), and some other things have stayed the same. Thomas Schumacher, whose Disney Theatrical Productions has installed the Broadway musical version of The Little Mermaid at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, recently pointed up the sameness when he introduced Menken to the press.

"I get to work with a lot of flashy people," Schumacher said. "When we go out, people say, 'Omigod! It's Elton John!' or 'It's Sting!,' but I have never worked with anyone whose catalog is as profound, and whose music is as deeply embedded in the soul of multiple generations because of its emotional contact with audience, than Alan Menken.

"Startlingly, you'll be in the same room with him and not realize you're in the room with Alan Menken. Then, you find out there are eight Oscars behind him at any one time."

Life-size, accessible, inconspicuous and melodically blessed, the meek Menken has won more Oscars than any other living person, and one suspects eight won't be nearly enough.

Half his haul came for writing original scores for "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" and "Pocahontas" — a quartet that spawned Best Song winners. Ashman did lyrics for the first two and was replaced on "Aladdin" by Tim Rice, who won for "A Whole New World"; Stephen Schwartz shared Oscars for "Pocahontas"'s score and song ("Colors of the Wind"). (By the way, the front-runner for most Oscars, fittingly, is Menken's late boss, Walt Disney, who, counting himself as his studio, amassed 32 little gold men.)

All in all, the 58-year-old composer estimates that he has run through a good dozen lyricists in his professional life — among them Lynn Ahrens (A Christmas Carol), David Zippel ("Hercules"), David Spencer (Weird Romance) and Jack Feldman ("Newsies").

His current partnership with Glenn Slater started with the 2004 animated feature "Home on the Range," produced ten new songs for Broadway's Mermaid and completed all the songs for two more Broadway-bound entries: Leap of Faith, which director Taylor Hackford will deliver to Broadway next season (probably with — now that Hugh Jackman is out of the picture — Raúl Esparza), and Sister Act, which lifts off in London next fall.

But for now — for the record — the only lyricist who got Menken to Broadway was the one he started with via the 1979 Off-Broadway musical God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. The fast fold of that show sent them into the big-budgeted world of animated musicals. This maneuver of going West to go East ironically got them the stage success they craved — first with the 13-year run of Beauty and the Beast, then with the Broadway revival of their Little Shop of Horrors, which ran five years Off-Broadway, and now The Little Mermaid.

Howard Ashman would have loved it, but he barely made it to the Oscar podium the first time. "Literally, we were at the Academy Awards," recalls Menken, "and Howard said, 'When we get back to New York, we have to talk.' We got the Oscar on Sunday and met on Tuesday. I was on pins and needles, and for some reason — it was a mental block — I didn't anticipate what he'd say. Then, I came into his living room and he said he had AIDS."

Ashman died between Oscars, at 40, on March 14, nine days before "Beauty and the Beast" returned him to the winner's circle. His Oscar was received by his partner, Bill Lauch.

What the past 16 years would have been like with Ashman is a thought that nags at Menken. Ashman was usually the one in the driver's seat, picking the material and even the medium — ("Howard was the one who said that animation is one of the last bastions of musical theatre") — but even he wouldn't have guessed their movie work would double up on them and boomerang them back to Broadway. In the interim, they made lazy circles in the sky, writing an eclectic scorecard of scores that rubbed shoulders with the works of Kurt Vonnegut, Roger Corman, Hans Christian Andersen, Jean Cocteau, Maria Montez . . .

Can Damon Runyon be far away? Actually, no: They wanted to musicalize "The Big Street," a 1942 "dramedy" that starred Henry Fonda as a milquetoast Mindy's busboy named, like the Runyon short story, "Little Pinks," and Lucille Ball, in what was her favorite film performance, as his wheelchair-ridden doll. "I spent years after he died, working on it because he'd wanted to start that before he died. He really wanted to do it."

Of course, there's no assurance they'd have remained a team. "After Little Shop, we were both in demand by other people — and we, by chance, worked with them: He did Smile with Marvin Hamlisch on Broadway, I did that 'great, unheard' Kicks: The Showgirl Musical with Tom Eyen. We rebelled at being an exclusive collaboration, but I think we'd have written incredible work and gone places I've never imagined. I'm happy with the way my career went, but there's a loss in where it might have gone with Howard."