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Alan Menken’s magical music powers ‘Aladdin’

The Disney musical will take over The Fox Theatre Sept. 12-23

It is no exaggeration that Alan Menken is a Disney lion of a different sort.

All of those songs you can’t shake from your consciousness? You know, “Under the Sea” from “The Little Mermaid”… “Be Our Guest” from “Beauty and the Beast”… “A Whole New World” from “Aladdin.” They’re just a smidgen of a smattering of Menken’s compositions in both film and theater the past three-plus decades.

With a trove of trophies – eight Oscars, 11 Grammys and a 2012 Tony Award among them – status in the Songwriters Hall of Fame club and a rare familiarity in the public consciousness, Menken is a songwriting legend.

In the early ‘90s, he wrote the musical score for Disney’s film version of “Aladdin” with lyricists Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, and, with the help of a suitably manic Robin Williams as the Genie, turned “Friend Like Me” into one of cinema’s most memorable musical segments.

Those songs haven’t lost their zip or luster as they’ve transferred from the screen to the stage, where “Aladdin” began in 2011 in Seattle and opened on Broadway in 2014. 

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A North American tour launched last year, and the lavish production will settle at the Fox Theatre Wednesday through Sept. 23.

In a recent chat from his New York office, the affable Menken, 69, talked about his history with the show and its continued future. 

The great Alan Menken composed the songs for "Aladdin" as well as a trove of other Disney classics.

Q: From what I’ve heard and read, the stage show is a visually spectacular blur. How do you create music to go with that versus film?

A: The visuals are inspired by the music and by the time the music is getting into the place where it’s going to be playing tag with what’s happening visually, I’ve already shifted my responsibility to some talented dance arrangers. I sit back and enjoy it and certainly I have approval. But they’re the ones who are in the room doing specific arrangements. 

Q: The show includes four new songs from you that were not in the movie, correct?

A: There’s more than that if you count the ones that (playwright/lyricist) Howard (Ashman) also wrote. There’s new songs I wrote with (book writer) Chad (Beguelin), “Somebody’s Got Your Back,” “A Million Miles Away.” Then there’s the songs that Howard and I wrote for the movie that got cut or got cut down, such as a much fuller version of “Arabian Nights.” Each has its own considerations and it’s emotionally satisfying. There’s not going to be any more new work from Howard (Ashman died in 1991) so when it was discussed with me that Disney wanted to bring “Aladdin” to the stage, I wanted to get as many of those lost songs as possible into the stage version. 

Q: Does “Aladdin” hold a special place for you because Howard died during the creation of those songs? 

A: Incredibly special. Everything we’ve done, it’s a huge tribute to him. There’s still more lost songs. That’s the part of the agenda of my life, to get as much of that lost material out there. There was a musical we wrote based on the life of Babe Ruth - we only wrote five songs for it; there were outtakes from “Little Shop of Horrors.” All of that material is precious, and part of my wish list is to get them in the public consciousness.

Q: How involved are you in the casting for the national tour?

A: I get involved in the first production and that becomes the model and the prototype. After that, I’m invited if I want to come. Once we cast the first version of something and I know the director and the music team, I will step back and not be involved. There are rare instances where I’ll see a show of mine and say, “that’s strange casting,” and quietly say something to the director. I liken it to being an architect. Right now my life is a lot of doing new versions of these shows. Part of it is nice. It’s a nice little payday and more people will see it. But am I going to reinvent the wheel again. There’s going to be another film version of “Little Shop of Horrors.” The new stuff is obviously more challenging and exciting, whereas the older work, you’re trying to satisfy an audience who already loves it.

Trevor Dion Nicholas will play the Genie in the Atlanta stop of "Aladdin."

Q: “A Friend Like Me” is certainly the Genie’s centerpiece. Take me through the creation and execution of that song.

A: The original conception of the genie was based on the Genie of the Ring of the original tale, who was described as black with an earring, a real hipster look. I grew up loving Fats Waller, so I said how about a Fats Waller kind of hook? And we went to that place and it just worked. The idea of Robin (Williams, for the film) was brought up and the opportunity to have him was incredible. Robin really learned the song entirely and when he got into the studio it was, “let Robin have fun with it.” There’s nobody who could explode like Robin in any direction - the voices the energy, the great quality. When we got to the Broadway show, we were closer to the Fats look and sound. 

Q: Why do you think this story has such resonance? 

A: I think it’s the story and also the medium. The stylistic references throughout it, it’s a really rich brew of influences, from the Crosby-Hope road pictures to backstreet jazz into the (Max) Fleischer cartoons to action-adventure to Arab tropes. It’s got romance. And it’s Disney. It’s hard to pare it down to one thing. 

Q: You’re working on a live action version of “Aladdin” (due May 24, directed by Guy Ritchie) with (composers) Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (“La La Land,” “Dear Evan Hansen”). How is that writing technique different from the movie and then the stage show?

A: It’s still in flux of what’s going to be in the movie. One song in particular we’re very excited about, and I had a great time working with the boys. It’s my music, but influenced by having them in the room. I knew all of them –including Lin (Manuel Miranda) when they were younger. My sister was the yenta of Broadway and she talked about Lin; my daughter went to University of Michigan and I’d hear about Pasek and Paul. These are all my boys, which is, as you get older, a strange benefit!

Q: This is Guy Ritchie’s first musical, so what has that been like? 

A: It’s been exciting and, at times, challenging. There are aspects of musical theater where he goes, “I really don’t want to do that.” So the songs will really be taken to new place. 

Q: You’re so close to an EGOT –is that something that crosses your mind?

A: It doesn’t cross my mind very much. My manager, it crosses his more than mine! I DO have an honorary Emmy (laughs). It’s not a huge deal. At this point I’m a very happy guy.


THEATER PREVIEW

“Aladdin”

7:30 p.m. Sept. 12; 1 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sept. 13; 8 p.m. Sept. 14; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Sept. 15; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sept. 16; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 18-20; 8 p.m. Sept. 21; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Sept. 22; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sept. 23. $30.25-$115.25. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 1-855-285-8499, www.foxtheatre.org

 

About the Author

Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff writer Melissa Ruggieri covers the Atlanta Music Scene and entertainment news for print and online.

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