Menken was on hand for the Jan. 19-20 weekend that welcomed more than 4,000 young performers to share their love of theatre with each other. The acclaimed composer was honored with the 2013 Junior Theater Festival Award during the special weekend. Stopping by the Playbill Press Box at the festival, Menken talked with Playbill.com about the award, the power of young people in the arts and adapting his works — including the film musical "Aladdin" — for the Broadway stage.
You've had your work interpreted by some of the most talented artists working in film and theatre —and with some very lavish budgets. Can you describe what it's like seeing a new generation of young people inhabit these works and infusing them with their own imaginations?
Alan Menken: It's the best. This is what it's all about. I remember when I was a kid, we would put on Amahl and the Night Visitors in my sister's room with some of our best friends. I stood there today, watching The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, and I was wishing Howard Ashman could be here to see this. I remember seeing pictures of Howard doing a version of Aladdin when he was a kid and that's what led to us writing Disney's Aladdin when we were adults. This age is the genesis for anything — it's where you plant the seed.
Is it a difficult process to adapt your film work for the stage? Or is it energizing to return to these titles and find ways to expand them?
AM: The things we wrote for animation were still theatrical, so in a way, bringing it to stage is more fully realizing what our intentions were to begin with. We get to fill in those spots we didn't get to fill in in the movie. We also have the incredible magic of live performance, where you have a collaboration between the writers, but there's also the collaboration with an audience that only happens in live theatre.
|photo by T. Charles Erickson|
I think of what we do as building a house. Being an architect and building something that people can inhabit and make their own. The Junior Theater Festival is the ultimate test of that, because it's kids doing it. They're making it their own and breathing their own life into it. Newsies is such a hit, and brought you your first Tony Award in 2012. There's been steadily growing demand for the show in the amateur and stock realm since it premiered in 1992. It took a long time to finally get this to audiences. Was it a matter of the timing being right to put it on stage?
AM: As far as I was concerned, we were probably late in getting Newsies on stage. There were a good 10 to 15 years where I was noticing that something was going on. I'd walk into a mall and a group of kids would be doing a flash mob of "Seize the Day." My daughter's camps were asking, "Can we do Newsies?" In the end, it was the getting the right people involved at the right time. Disney Theatricals decided, "We should get out there with a stock and amateur version," and at first, there was no thought of me being involved with that. They said, "We want to do this, but we know you're busy with other things, so don't worry about it." And I said, "Oh, no, no, no! Please, this is my baby. If we're gonna do it, I want to be involved." Then Jack Feldman and I started working with the original film writers on a stage adaptation, and we kind of hit a wall.
Then Harvey Fierstein came in, and was a great collaborator, and I thought, "Great, we'll have a wonderful stock and amateur version for licensing." But I didn't think it was going to go to Broadway. Then it went to Paper Mill Playhouse and it just took on a life of its own. However, all the success came from something from that movie: the boys, the story of empowerment. We can take some credit for where it got to — but a lot of the credit goes to a generation of kids who are now grown and kids who are still kids, who embraced this story and made it their own. So I felt that [with] the Broadway version, I was just running after the train going, "Here's some new songs!" because this thing was flying along on steam of its own.
|photo by Marcus Woollen/MTI|
You are also working on a Broadway-aimed production of Aladdin, which will not only expand on the original 1992 animated film, but will also return to some of your initial inspirations with your late writing partner Howard Ashman.
AM: At the same time Howard Ashman and I were writing "The Little Mermaid," we were writing "Aladdin." So we had a whole score that involved Aladdin's mom, and his sidekicks, Babkak, Omar and Kassim, and it had a lot of plot elements that we don't have in the movie. And the movie was great, but I said, "If we are going to do this theatrical adaptation, for me, the perk would be to try to bring in the songs that Howard and I wrote for the movie that never made it in.
So we have "Proud of Your Boy," a number that Aladdin was originally to sing in the movie to his mother directly, but now it's to his mother in heaven. There's a number "Babkak, Omar, Aladdin and Kassim," which is kind of the friends' Vaudeville number that they do in the streets of Agrabah. There's a song called "High Adventure," where they perform a rescue at the end of Act Two, which is so much fun. It's one of those numbers I was dying to see on stage. There's "Call Me Princess" for Princess Jasmine, which was a real early throw-away, but we were able to make use of that thanks to my new collaboration with Chad Beguelin (Elf, The Wedding Singer), who wrote the book.
He was brilliant in finding ways to adapt songs we had originally written into the new book, and we also wrote three new songs together with him as my lyricist. We wrote one new song for the Genie, one new song for Jafar and a new duet for Aladdin and Jasmine — and we still have all the original songs from Howard Ashman and Tim Rice from the film. So much creative energy has gone into this new Aladdin, I love it. We had a production in Seattle that was one of the highlights of my life and we've even improved it since then.
Playbill just launched PlaybillVIP.com, which allows any school, amateur or community group to create an authentic Playbill for their production. Do you remember the first time you saw your name in Playbill?
AM: I started with Little Shop of Horrors Off-Broadway, and that was just a basic program, but the first official Playbill was Beauty and the Beast — it was amazing! I never thought of myself as a Broadway composer. I was an Off-Broadway composer, or a cabaret composer, or a film composer. And now, I realize when I walk around Broadway, I've been in seven different theatres there. It's incredible!