At the 1992 Academy Awards, composer Alan Menken was fielding questions in the press room after winning a couple of Oscars for his score for “Aladdin,” the animated Disney movie.
“How does it feel to win a Razzie for worst song of the year for ‘Newsies’?” someone piped up, referring to the Golden Raspberry Awards, the anti-Oscars, and a film musical that had been one of the year’s biggest flops.
“I had to admit that it felt kind of great to run the gamut that night,” Menken recalls more than two decades later. “It became emblematic of the fun people had with the apparent bomb that ‘Newsies’ was.”
A Razzie is obviously a lot easier to take when you’ve got eight Oscars and 11 Grammys on the mantel. Yet sitting in the Midtown Manhattan offices of Disney, whose fabled animation department Menken helped resuscitate with not just “Aladdin” but also “Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Pocahontas,” the composer shows as much affection for his rare misfires as for his numerous hits.
He says that was true even before “Newsies” enjoyed an unexpected redemption three years ago as a hit Broadway musical.
The show about an 1899 newsboys strike in New York City opens at the Hollywood Pantages on March 26 with the imprimatur of a two-year run in New York and two Tony Awards, one for the score by Menken and Jack Feldman and another for the choreography by Christopher Gattelli.
The turnaround came about because the panned film — which starred Christian Bale as Jack Kelly, a teenage runaway who leads a passel of ragamuffins against newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer — nonetheless developed a passionate cult following after its home video release.
“We never thought of the movie as something meant for the stage,” Menken says. “But there was such a hunger for that to happen for a generation of kids because they loved it so much. We felt the need to turn it into a worthwhile meal.”
Teaming with Gattelli, director Jeff Calhoun and veteran book writer Harvey Fierstein, Menken and Feldman supplemented half a dozen songs to the original score — dropping the Razzie-winning “High Times, Hard Times.”
“Harvey trusts simplicity, and that was a good stabilizing rudder for us,” says the composer. The team also added a star-crossed love interest for Jack in the character of Katherine Plumber, a comely reporter who just happens to be Pulitzer’s daughter.
Disney’s modest ambition for the show was to create a stock and amateur version, the rights for which would be released after a world premiere at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse in 2011.
Surprisingly strong notices from the New York critics led to a Broadway transfer. Praising the “spring-loaded” athleticism of the young, largely male cast, David Rooney in the New York Times wrote: “Sure, the score bulks up on galvanic anthems and slathers on the sentiment. But it does so in an honorable Disney tradition that connects with the embattled kid in all of us. “
Even at 65, Menken remains in touch with that kid. “The act of writing a song involves a degree of letting go of yourself, and that’s very much being a child,” he says. “It’s an essential part of what I do.”
He is also unapologetic about the heart-on-the-sleeve quality of much of his music. “There are times when that isn’t working, and people will try and smarten it up in some way,” he says. “But in general, I just let it rip. I always feel that being emotionally direct is the best way to go. I tend to turn the faucet on full.”
“Alan’s emotions live very close to the surface, and that’s why some of his songs are dark and complicated and some leap directly into the heart,” says Thomas Schumacher, president and producer, Disney Theatrical Productions. “He’s also his own worst critic and the first to say, ‘This isn’t good enough, let me re-work it.’ But that comes from confidence. That’s what makes him so prolific and productive. “
Menken’s range of current projects includes “Galavant,” the TV sendup of medieval chivalry; “Mrs. Doubtfire,” a musical adaptation of the 1993 Robin Williams film; “Happy Trails,” a Roy Rogers and Dale Evans bio-musical; “A Bronx Tale,” Chazz Palminteri’s coming-of-age tale in wise-guys terrain; the stage version of “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which had its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse last year; a live-action film of “Beauty and the Beast"; and “Sausage Party,” a Seth Rogen-Jonah Hill racy animated movie.
For the Record:
An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect name for the Seth Rogen-Jonah Hill movie Alan Menken is working on. It is “Sausage Party,” not “Sausage Factory.”
“Sausage Party”? Really?
“It’s sophomoric, filthy and disgusting,” says Menken, letting loose a torrent of obscenities that are in the opening number, which are not in an “honorable” Disney tradition. “No, it’s in the Seth Rogen tradition.” Then he brightens and adds with a laugh, “But my music? That’s G-rated.”
Menken’s piquant sense of humor was bred in New York City. When he was 13, his parents gave him the choice of either being bar mitzvahed or continuing piano lessons. He chose the latter, a decision that would send him on a path to New York University’s Steinhardt School, where by his own admission he was “a terrible academic.”
More satisfying was admittance to the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre workshop, where in 1979 he met Howard Ashman, a lyricist and book writer.
Ashman, as serious and intense as his writing partner was free-spirited at the time, would succumb to AIDS in 1991, but not before the duo would achieve lasting success with the long-running 1982 off-Broadway hit “Little Shop of Horrors” and the animated movies of “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Ashman would also contribute three songs to “Aladdin,” which Menken would finish with Tim Rice. The Tony-winning stage version, directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, is one of Broadway’s hottest tickets.
Yet when asked what show in his prolific career has his heart, Menken points to a play that has gone through several readings but has never been produced: a musical adaptation of “The Big Street,” based on a dark Damon Runyon story that was made into a 1942 film starring Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda. It is about a busboy with an unrequited passion for a chorus girl who becomes consigned to a wheelchair after her jealous boyfriend pushes her down the stairs.
Menken says his affinity for losers — including Aladdin, Seymour in “Little Shop,” Jack in “Newsies” and Quasimodo in “Hunchback” — is because they are perfect fodder for musicals. “They have somewhere to go,” he says. “It’s all about overcoming the odds.”
It was with Ashman that Menken established the template for his collaborations to come with Tim Rice (“King David”), Stephen Schwartz (“Hunchback”), Glenn Slater (“Sister Act”) and David Zippel (“Mrs. Doubtfire”).
“What I look for in a partner is a skill, a voice of their own so I have a strength to go up against,” he says. “They definitely have to be able to get out of their own way. I can’t take somebody being precious about their work.”
By way of an example, he points to a song that was just scuttled in “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” playing the Paper Mill. Peter Parnell, who wrote the book for the musical, indicated to Menken and Schwartz that one song lacked the necessary sensuality.
Menken dashed to the piano and Schwartz sketched out new lyrics. “The point I’m making is that each step is driven through filters, filters, filters of the people involved until everything is right,” says Menken. “I’m an architect. Before you start pouring the concrete, you build a foundation that is solid. So that when you take the scaffolding down, it holds — forever. So that when junior high schools are doing ‘Hunchback,” a 12-year-old as Frollo still works on some level.”
Menken pauses and then launches into “Hellfire,” a scalding anthem of lust and revenge for Frollo the cleric in Victor Hugo’s timeless classic.
He adds puckishly, “Can you imagine? A 12-year-old singing ‘Hellfire’? I can’t wait for that one!”