Rodgers and Hammerstein. Lerner and Loewe. Comden and Green. Kander and Ebb.
The work of certain composer-lyricist teams is so successful that their names are inextricably linked. Tony winner Alan Menken and Tony nominee Glenn Slater, who join forces for the stage for the fourth time with this season’s A Bronx Tale, rack up points towards their membership to that small club.
Whether writing for the stage (The Little Mermaid, Sister Act, and Leap of Faith), film (Disney-animated Tangled) or television’s Galavant, what makes their collaboration a prosperous one are their complementary sensibilities.
“We come to songwriting from two directions,” says Slater. “Alan is all intuition. It’s just an instinct, whereas I’m all head.”
“Glenn is very smart,” says Menken of his partner. “He reminds me of Howard Ashman [Menken’s longtime writing partner who passed away due to complications from AIDS in 1991] in terms of his ability to get the essence of what a musical style of songs calls for in a lyric and also twist it and apply it to the effect of a new musical.”
Twisting and molding words is a laborious process for Slater. “I was an English major and I approach everything like an English major: what are the counter-archs; what are the themes; how do they intersect; how can I build a theme from the beginning to the end? It’s all up here,” he says, tapping his temple.
“When we come together, I do all this pre-prep and all this thinking and he just brings this gut-punch feel to it,” he says. “We get the best of both worlds, where everything is thought out, the whole score has a balance and a weight to it that I’m bringing in terms of the intellectual side, and you’ve got all the emotional heft that’s in everything that Alan does.”
The partnership has become so seamless, gone are the days of sitting for hours knocking out a tune together. (At least, mostly.) “Very often, he’ll sit and start playing and two minutes later he’ll stop playing, I’ll say, ‘Great. That’s the song. Your work here is done,’ and then I go off and fill in the rest of the lyrics.”
In terms of A Bronx Tale, Menken latched on to the sound of the era, pulling “musical slices of life from that time and that neighborhood.” Slater toyed with the father-son relationship, the way “it’s real and masculine and emotional without being sentimental.” Menken’s music sets the mood; Slater’s lyrics preserve the grit of the story.
Combined, audiences witness a musical that is at once cerebral and full of heart.