PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Alan Menken

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Alan Menken The general public probably knows of composer Alan Menken from the many Oscar-winning Disney films he has scored, including "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" and "The Little Mermaid."
Alan Menken surrounded by his Sister Act stars Dawnn Lewis and Elizabeth Ward Land.
Alan Menken surrounded by his Sister Act stars Dawnn Lewis and Elizabeth Ward Land.

But stage fans know his roots are in the musical theatre, with shows like Little Shop of Horrors and Weird Romance. In the coming seasons, Menken returns to his erstwhile stomping grounds with three new stage musicals: the legitimate version of "The Little Mermaid," which will bow in June 2007 at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts' Ellie Caulkins Opera House before heading to Broadway; Leap of Faith, based on the Steve Martin film about an evangelist con man, which has workshopped with Hugh Jackman in the lead role; and Sister Act, also based on a movie. Sister Act, which shows what happens when disco club singer Deloris Van Cartier is placed in protective custody in a dying convent, had its debut last fall at the Pasadena Playhouse, where it broke box office records. It begins a run at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre Jan. 17. As you can imagine, Menken doesn't have a lot of time, but he found some for Playbill.com.

Playbill.com: Your musical opened in Pasadena and is now in Atlanta. Have any changes been made along the way?
Alan Menken: Lots of changes. We cut about 15 minutes from the show. We cut one major song; it was called "Sister Act." (Laughs) We still have previews to go. You never know, we may put it back in. We replaced one major song for our lead [Dawnn Lewis] and replaced it with another that was more character-specific. The new song is called "Too Much to Live For." We put in two reprises of that song, one in a spot where there wasn't a song before and one in the second act where we use it in a very interesting way. This song has a big presence. We made little cuts all over the place in lots of songs and in the book, and we're still making changes. We attempted to deal with some thematic issues having to do with the nuns in the convent. Revisions are complicated on any project, but on a project like Sister Act, where so many people feel an investment in the film, you're dealing with people's impressions of what it was. You have to balance between doing what you think is right for the basic thread of the storyline—for what is good for the musical—and, at the same time, somewhat serve the expectations of those who saw the original film. There's a whole learning curve on any project. You can't take one criteria for one musical and apply it to another musical.

Playbill.com: Would you say your score for Sister Act is in line with your past work?
AM: It's in line in that it's style-driven. I think of myself as a chameleon. By this time, I know there are certain things that people identify with as Alan Menken signatures. But I always look for a stylistic stance. With Little Shop of Horrors, I was looking at R&B girl groups. In this case, I'm looking at Disco and the '70s. That's another challenge, to make sure people get it—that they understand we're in the world of Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor and Lou Rawls and Marvin Gaye and all of that. That's always an important consideration for me in a musical—how can I give this musical a unique stylistic stance? As a writer, that's the fun.

Playbill.com: Looking at another project of yours, what will be the stylistic approach of the musical version of the film "Leap of Faith"?
AM: Well, that's pretty obvious. That's going to be gospel. Gospel and rock 'n' roll. In a way, it's another side of the '70s, the rock 'n' roll gospel side, with little hints of Leon Russell. Remember Leon Russell?

Playbill.com: Yes. Not many people mention Leon Russell anymore.
AM: I know, but in many ways his concerts were like revival meetings. Rave 'em up! I'm working with director Taylor Hackford on that. Taylor is so conversant in the world of rock 'n' roll. It's been a blast working with him on that project. Playbill.com: How do things stand with Leap of Faith?
AM: We're doing a reading in March in New York, just to see where the work is right now.

Playbill.com: Is Hugh Jackman still involved?
AM: His interest in the project remains. We're trying to navigate—he has the most insane schedule. I thought I said "yes" to a lot of things. (Laughs.)

Playbill.com: After Atlanta, what happens with Sister Act?
AM: I don't know. A lot of things are being discussed.

Playbill.com: What about the stage version of The Little Mermaid?
AM: Yeah, I have three theatre projects that are tugging at me right now, and they're quite big projects. I'm on my way today to a casting session for Little Mermaid. That's the one with an opening date on Broadway, and we're opening in Denver this summer! And it's a huge show!

Playbill.com: Everyone is wondering how it's going to be staged.
AM: I've seen pictures. Francesca Zambello has it in her very capable hands. I can't wait to see what it's going to look like when it's not a model that's a foot and a half high. The original scores remains and I've written 12 more songs with lyricist Glenn Slater. People don't know his talent, but this guy is…I don't think people are prepared. He's doing all three of my theatrical projects.

(Robert Simonson is Playbilll.com's senior correspondent. He can be reached at rsimonson@playbill.com.)

Today’s Most Popular News: