ALWAYS A HIT: Gareth Jacobs as the Genie in Aladdin the Musical.
ALWAYS A HIT: Gareth Jacobs as the Genie in Aladdin the Musical. Jeff Busby

Meet Aladdin's music man, Alan Menken

IF YOU GREW up with Aladdin like I did, then you'll remember getting swept up in the animated film's romance, exotic setting and the Genie's over-the-top antics.

But what you're most likely to recall, and perhaps be able to sing word-for-word decades later, are the songs.

You'd be surprised at how quickly some of them came together for composer Alan Menken, whose melodies brought the lyrics of Tim Rice and the late Howard Ashman to life.

 

Songwriter Alan Menken gives his acceptance speech after receiving the Johnny Mercer Award at the 48th Annual Songwriters Hall of Fame Induction and Awards Gala at the New York Marriott Marquis Hotel in 2017.
Songwriter Alan Menken gives his acceptance speech after receiving the Johnny Mercer Award at the 48th Annual Songwriters Hall of Fame Induction and Awards Gala at the New York Marriott Marquis Hotel in 2017. Evan Agostini/AP

"Some come fully formed: they just pour out," he tells me during a visit to his home studio in North Salem, New York.

"I've had lyricists and collaborators sit here. They'll get up to go to the bathroom and come back and I'll go 'Here it is'."

That's not to say Menken isn't thorough and meticulous.

"I don't touch the piano until I go 'What's the project? How are we structuring the story? Why should the story be a musical? How can it be uniquely a musical?' Picking a vocabulary is very important," he says.

"I'll even ask myself: 'If I was going to take a song from the outside and put it in this moment, what would it be?' I want to be able to taste that song in a sense before I go to the piano. Then I turn over my brain a bit and let it flow."

After composing the scores for more than half a dozen animated Disney films, Menken has learned not to get too attached to a song or melody.

"I often refer to what I do as architecture ... I'm designing a musical and dramatic structure that others are going to live in," he says.

"There will be times where the stuff pours out but the people around you, like the director, will say 'That's not quite it'. You have to learn how to cope with that, so I never get emotionally attached to what comes out. There are times where I've told directors: 'You have to come here, sit in the room and I'll let it pour out in front of you and you can say 'that one'.

"You want specificity ... you want context. People say 'Oh just write a love song. It's so easy' but it's all those nuances that make a song really unique."

Ainsley Melham (Aladdin) and Hiba Elchikhe (Jasmine) in Disney’s Aladdin, which plays QPAC until June 3. Picture: Liam Kidston
Ainsley Melham (Aladdin) and Hiba Elchikhe (Jasmine) in Disney’s Aladdin, which plays QPAC until June 3. Picture: Liam Kidston

Aladdin has a special place it Menken's heart. It earned him two of the eight Oscars which are on display in his studio. The film won gold for Best Original Score and Best Original Song for A Whole New World, as well as a further nomination for Friend Like Me.

It was also the final film he worked on with lyricist Howard Ashman, who was diagnosed as HIV positive while they were midway through the making of The Little Mermaid.

Like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, Aladdin has been adapted for the stage.

Reviving the story as a musical was a chance for Menken to resurrect three songs he wrote with Ashman which were cut from the movie.

There's the Aladdin solo Proud of Your Boy, and two songs written for Aladdin's mates: High Adventure and Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim.

"Once I knew we were bringing it back to Broadway, I said 'Okay we have this treasure trove of lost songs Howard and I wrote and we've got to get as many of those in as possible'. It was the agenda for me," Menken says.

"We still have other songs in the trunk that would fit right into the show. I'm hoping, maybe for the five-year anniversary, I can convince Thomas Schumacher to put in a song called How Quick They Forget. It's a barber shop quartet but only three of them are singing because Aladdin has dumped them."

The musical is heading into its fourth year on Broadway and is playing to Queensland theatre-goers at QPAC's Lyric Theatre in Brisbane.

Aladdin is also heading back to the big screen in Disney's latest live-action remake. Menken is again on board as composer of the film, which is helmed by actors Will Smith, Naomi Scott and Mena Massoud.

"I've been blessed with my projects coming back. It's like the kids who never leave home (laughs)," he says.

"I've had three times around with Beauty and the Beast, and now three times around with Aladdin. The bulk of it is going to be my score and people then take the work and make it their own. I get to write new songs, which is great."

Aladdin The Musical plays QPAC's Lyric Theatre until June 3. Go to qpac.com.au



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