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

By Harry Haun
April 22, 2012

Sister Act composer Alan Menken completes the rare Broadway hat trick with the spring arrival of Leap of Faith and Newsies. Now if only he could nab a Tony.



*

It's a miracle Alan Menken hasn't composed a musical about the Pony Express. He could, having spent the past several years mounting, dismounting, remounting and sometimes straddling three horses at once in a mad dash to the Broadway finish line.

The last filly to leave the post and the first to arrive was Sister Act, based on a 1992 Whoopi Goldberg antic about a targeted gun-moll who gets herself to a nunnery. It opened at the Broadway Theatre last season and is still standing.

Then, Menken applied himself to improving a Disney movie musical he and lyricist Jack Feldman wrote, also in 1992, called Newsies, about the New York newsboys' strike of 1899. The idea was to make the property ready for regional licensing, but it premiered last year at the Paper Mill Playhouse to such enthusiasm that it was immediately fast-tracked to Broadway, where it opened March 29 at the Nederlander.

And finally (although it came first) is Leap of Faith, which is playing St. James, opening April 26, the last day of Tony eligibility this season. It, too, comes from a 1992 movie of the same name — this one starring Steve Martin as a charlatan in evangelical wolf's-clothing.

Put them all together, and whaddaya got? Alan Menken, "King of New York," to appropriate a song title of his — if not that, then certainly King of Broadway, American Division. Rare indeed is The Music Man who has three shows running simultaneously on Broadway. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Menken's sometime collaborator, Tim Rice, both Brits, currently share the same distinction, but two of their three shows are revivals and Menken's are new. "It's incredible, a fluke of timing," he says, "and, in some ways, not something I'd have chosen. So much has to do with, frankly, producers. Once we write the shows, it's kinda out of our hands."

Not that Menken has so many Tonys he can afford to compete with himself. "I have zero, and I could come out of this year with zero, too."

Learn more about composer Alan Menken in the Playbill Vault.

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.)