Suddenly, Three More: Songwriter Alan Menken Scores a Trio of Broadway Shows

By Harry Haun
22 Apr 2012

Menken (right) and Howard Ashman

Oscars? That's another story. Only two people have ever won more Academy Awards than Menken. They are his old boss, Walt Disney (32), and prolific composer Alfred Newman (nine). Menken racked up eight in an incredibly short period of time, scoring two each (Best Original Score and Best Song) for "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" and "Pocahontas."

"Animation is the last frontier of musical theatre," decreed Menken's first writing partner, Howard Ashman, after they made their marks Off-Broadway with 1979's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and 1986's Little Shop of Horrors. David Geffen, a producer of the latter, opened the doors to Disney for them, and eventually Peter Schneider, who stage-managed Little Shop, became the animation studio president.

The connection got them their first two Oscars for "The Little Mermaid." Two days later, Ashman informed Menken he had AIDS, and a year later, nine days before "Beauty and the Beast" returned them to Oscar glory, he died.

Ashman was five songs into "Aladdin." Tim Rice finished the film's lyrics (including the Oscar-winning "A Whole New World"), and Chad Beguelin will take it from there for the new stage musical that Casey Nicholaw is directing and choreographing.

Jessica Phillips and Raul Esparza in Leap of Faith.
photo by Joan Marcus

"We've put a lot of the original songs Howard and I wrote back into the show," says Menken. "The original 'Arabian Nights' and songs for Aladdin and his sidekicks and 'Proud of Your Boy,' which people know as an outtake song — they burned up the stage when we premiered the show in Seattle. They've found a life in the show. It's so thrilling. I have dreams Howard and I are starting new shows: 'Howard, you're here. We have to write a new show.' Then, I wake up. I still have those dreams."

His most recent work on Aladdin was for presentations at the Foxwoods Theatre — this while he was preparing Newsies and Leap of Faith for their Broadway debuts.

"The No. 1 'Yikes!' was that both shows were starting rehearsal, literally, on the same day. I said, 'Wait a second. Which show do I show up at?' They moved a day apart. My next concern was 'Can we please rehearse in the same building? My music team is going to be running back and forth, and I'll be running back and forth.' Eventually, they got in the same building, and I'd go from the seventh floor to the third floor."

All three shows began with books by the original screenwriters, but seasoned stagesmiths had to step in for the Broadway overhaul — Douglas Carter Beane for Sister Act, Harvey Fierstein for Newsies and Warren Leight for Leap of Faith. "The changing was torturous. Book writing is the most thankless job in musical theatre."

But it feels good to be the reigning King of New York. "It reminds me of how many good friends I have in this business, that I'm a member of a community of artists."

(This article appears in the May 2012 issue of Playbill.)