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Alan Menken was born July 22nd, 1949 at French Hospital in New York City, to young aspiring actress/playwright, Judy Menken and boogie-woogie piano-playing dentist, Norman Menken, DDS. He grew up in a home, filled with music and theater (and comedy and drama) in New Rochelle, New York, along with his sisters, Faye and Leah. As of this writing, his parents still live happily in that house. All members of the Menken family continue to grow and prosper. Alan considers himself very blessed in this respect.
Alan’s ambition, from his earliest memories, was to become a composer. Much as he would have expected to become a dentist, like most of the other men in three generations of his family, he was a very ADHD child. Studying was like pulling teeth (no pun intended) and even practicing piano was a trial. Instead of learning pieces, Alan would get the basic idea of a Beethoven Sonata or a Bartok Mikrokosmos and spend the rest of his practice time “faking it”. When his piano teacher, Emily Harris, or his violin teacher, Editha Braham realized what he was doing they wisely suggested that this be encouraged, so Alan began composing, as well as pretending to practice.
The predominant music in the Menken household was Musical Theater. Norman would sit at the piano and play and sing from the catalogues of Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Frank Loesser, Bock and Harnick, Kander and Ebb, Lerner and Loewe and Stephen Sondheim and Alan would either join him or play his classical recordings; working his way through Beethoven and Brahms and Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. Then puberty hit, along with The Beatles, The Stones and Dylan and Alan bought a guitar. And the songs poured out of him.
Too bad he’d never be able to make a living doing that. What could he do? That stress became a peptic ulcer in Junior High School, which Alan didn’t fully cure until those magical, psychedelic, wonderful hippie years of 1967 thru 1971, which just happened to coincide with the period he attended New York University’s College of Arts and Sciences, where Alan drifted from Pre-Med to Anthropology major to Philosophy major to finally graduating with a degree in Musicology. Most importantly, he escaped to the piano practice room every chance he got and wrote songs and a Musical for the Hall of Fame Players; SEPARATE WAYS (featuring that musical theater classic – “Thank God for Marijuana”.)
Most importantly, to appease his parents, he auditioned for (and was admitted into) the BMI Musical Theater Workshop, taught by eminent conductor and composer, Lehman Engel. Even though his plan was to become a rock-star-recording-artist, he would dabble in writing more musicals through that workshop. Alan found his first and best network for learning and growing into the composer he now has become.
Upon graduating from NYU, he took a collection of his songs and wrote a rock-ballet for The Downtown Ballet Company, called CHILDREN OF THE WORLD. The work itself has mercifully faded into the distant past, but one aspect of that experience became the best moment in his life; meeting a beautiful ballet dancer named Janis Roswick. As of November 26th, 2013, they are together 42 years and married for 41.
In the years between graduation and actually earning a living as a composer, Alan worked as a ballet and modern dance accompanist, a musical director for club acts, a jingle writer, arranger, a songwriter for SESAME STREET and a vocal coach. He performed his material at clubs like The Ballroom, Reno Sweeny and Tramps. He showcased material from early musicals like MIDNIGHT, HARRY THE RAT and APARTMENT HOUSE. He contributed material to revues like NEW YORK’S BACK IN TOWN, BIG APPLE COUNTRY and THE PRESENT TENSE.
And then he met Howard Ashman.
Until working with Ashman, Alan Menken was almost exclusively a composer/lyricist. But starting in 1978, when they met to discuss a musical of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, GOD BLESS YOU MR ROSEWATER, Alan and Howard became a songwriting team and with only a few exceptions, Alan has seldom returned to lyric writing.
With ROSEWATER, Menken was introduced to the WPA Theater at which Ashman was the artistic director, and the world of Off-Broadway musical theater production. Located at 19th Street and Broadway, on the 2nd floor (just below the Chopsticks Massage Parlor), WPA was the brainchild of Ashman and Kyle Renick. It was there that the musical was developed, cast, rehearsed and opened in May of 1979 under an Equity Showcase contract. The salaries were nearly non-existent, but the actors had to be reviewed and receive exposure from the production. Poor reviews would pretty much end the life of their project.
The reviews were good! And ROSEWATER moved to the Entermedia Theater, on 2nd Avenue and 12th Street, where it only ran for a few months. With a cast of 14, the show was just too big for Off-Broadway so, for their next project together they wrote a musical with a cast of only 9, including a puppeteer who would manipulate a giant man-eating plant named Audrey 2. That show was LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. More about that later…
Simultaneously with embarking on collaboration with Howard Ashman, Alan Menken developed a review of his own material, in which he sang and played at the piano with 4 additional performers. That review, PATCH PATCH PATCH, opened in the summer of ’79 at the West Bank Café, in what is now The Laurie Beechman Theater. It garnered rave notices, but with Alan’s focus moving towards new partnerships, the show was never seen past that run. It did however lead to another musical with a revue format, with music and lyrics by Menken called REAL LIFE FUNNIES. It was based on the Village Voice cartoon strip by Stan Mack and it was produced at the Manhattan Theater Club early in 1981.
Alan began working with another lyricist-librettist named Steve Brown in 1980. They wrote 2 complete musicals together: ATINA: EVIL QUEEN OF THE GALAXY and THE THORN. ATINA was a send-up of FLASH GORDON, as told from the point of view of Ming the Merciless (aka Atina , the ugliest woman in the universe – modeled on the legendary drag-queen, Divine.) It was produced by Michael Bennett, and directed by Tom O’Horgan. (How could it miss?) THE THORN was also written as a vehicle for Divine; a send-up of THE ROSE, in which a rock performer clutches and claws her way to the top over the dead bodies of all those who loved and supported her.
Then came LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, the musical that put Ashman and Menken on the map as in-demand, up-and-coming musical theater writers. Based on the Roger Corman B-movie classic, it opened at the WPA Theater in the spring of ’82, to great reviews, lines around the block and countless offers from producers. It moved to the Orpheum Theater on 2nd Ave and St. Marks Place, where it ran for over 5 years and set the box-office record for highest grossing Off-Broadway show of all time. Productions followed in Los Angeles and London, along with national tours and all the rest. Most exciting was a movie deal, which opened doors to Hollywood.
Another musical Alan wrote, also in 1982, was THE DREAM ON ROYAL STREET. It was written to go straight into the stock and amateur market. Based on A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM,, it was developed and performed as part of the theater curriculum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, just after the LITTLE SHOP opening. Lehman Engel came down to critique and help, as part of his relationship with that program. It marked the last time Alan was to see Lehman, who he considers his most vital and important teacher.
Though ATINA: EVIL QUEEN OF THE GALAXY didn’t develop past its workshop, a number of relationships from that project bore fruit. Tom Eyen, who developed DREAMGIRLS with Michael Bennett, approached Menken with an original story about a group of dancers at the Roxy Theater and the way their lives develop and interweave; starting with the advent of World War 2 and going all the way to the 70’s, as their way of life disappeared. The project was titled KICKS: THE SHOWGIRL MUSICAL and it went through workshops and readings from ’84 thru ’86.
With the exception of LITTLE SHOP, all of these projects fell by the wayside, mostly due to one tragic factor; the AIDS crisis. By 1991, all of Alan Menken’s creative partnerships were severed with the passing of Brown, Ashman and Eyen. But, before Howard Ashman passed away in the spring of 1991, he and Menken were to create their most memorable and important works together at Walt Disney Animation.
The next theatrical collaboration for Alan was with David Spencer. Their first project was a musical for television, based on a NIGHT GALLERY episode, THE MESSIAH ON MOTT STREET. Following that, they collaborated on an adaptation of THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ, which was produced at The Zellerbach Theater in Philadelphia in 1987. After 25 years that project is still in development and awaiting its first, first-class production. Alan and David did finally achieve their produced musical with WEIRD ROMANCE in ’97; one of the last projects produced at the WPA Theater.
When Howard Ashman called Alan about coming to work at Disney, the headline for Alan was the fact that they were re-uniting. (Howard had been collaborating with Marvin Hamlisch on a stage musical of SMILE for years; wearing the book writer, lyricist and director hats). The project was THE LITTLE MERMAID and the opportunity was amazing; to create an animated musical that could sit on the shelf alongside SNOW WHITE and CINDERELLA. They began work in New York and then shifted to working in Los Angeles, as Ashman was also wearing the Executive Producer’s hat.
These were years of commuting back and forth between coasts for Alan, which was made especially hard because of the birth of his daughters, Anna and Nora. London was also a necessary trip, due to the LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS movie being shot there. For the movie, Menken and Ashman wrote a new song for the plant; “Mean Green Mother From Outer Space”, which earned them their first Oscar nomination.
With MERMAID, Menken began his career as a composer of film underscore. Although he had never attempted a film score before, Alan learned on the job and was rewarded with an Oscar for Best Score, as well as one for Best Song (“Under the Sea”). More importantly, the movie proved groundbreaking. Animated Musicals were back. People loved them and live-action films wouldn’t be far behind.
Within a year of the Oscars for THE LITTLE MERMAID Howard Ashman would be gone; but not before the completion of the song scores for BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and ALADDIN. The process of doing that work, under the shadow of AIDS was often harrowing and stressful, but the resulting films and the effect they had on the world are what now remain. BEAUTY won Best Picture at the Golden Globes. With 3 song nominations, it won Best Song and Best Score at both the Oscars and the Globes. “Beauty and the Beast” became a hit single, establishing a new artist, Celine Dion. ALADDIN also won Best Score and 2 Best Song nominations, with “A Whole New World”, a new song written in collaboration with Sir Tim Rice (following the passing of Howard Ashman), winning Best Song.
Ashman never lived to see either BEAUTY AND THE BEAST or ALADDIN completed. Tim Rice (JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, EVITA, THE LION KING) stepped in to collaborate with Alan in order to allow completion of ALADDIN, following story changes late in the production process and later, on the Broadway production of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. And Menken and Rice achieved a number one single and the Grammy Song of the Year.
Also, during this period of non-stop activity at Disney, Alan was approached about writing the songs for a period, live-action musical, based on the newsboys’ strike of 1899. It was called NEWSIES and for this project, he turned to an old friend, a fellow BMI Musical Theater Workshop writer, Jack Feldman. The movie flopped at the box office and actually earned a Razzie Award for Worst Song of the Year (“High Times, Hard Times”). But, years later, after being adopted by a generation of kids thru VHS tapes, cable broadcasts and DVDs, it has now become a huge success on Broadway, at a level that matches any of the animated musicals’ successes.
A flood of other opportunities opened up for Alan Menken, as the high profile successes of the Disney projects brought him attention and acclaim. He wrote music and lyrics for “The Measure of a Man”, the end-credits song for ROCKY V; sung by Elton John. He and Jack collaborated on “My Christmas Tree” from HOME ALONE 2. Madison Square Garden approached him about writing a musical of A CHRISTMAS CAROL to be performed annually at their 6000-seat theater. For that project he worked with Lynn Ahrens (RAGTIME, SEUSSICAL) as lyricist and co-book writer. Mike Ockrent (ME AND MY GIRL, CRAZY FOR YOU) and Susan Stroman (THE PRODUCERS, CONTACT) directed and choreographed.
The successes of the animated movies drew the attention of New York theater critics, whose acknowledgements weren’t lost on Disney. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST came to Broadway in ’94. With a young team, led by Rob Roth, the production went on to run for over 13 years and it continues to delight audiences all over the globe to this day.
Following the extraordinary success of ALADDIN, Alan began a new collaboration with Stephen Schwartz (GODSPELL, PIPPEN, WICKED) on POCAHONTAS, for which he received 2 more Academy Awards; Best Song (“Colors of the Wind”) and Best Score. Their collaboration continued with THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, for which Menken received another Oscar Best Score nomination.
For HERCULES, Alan teamed up with lyricist, David Zippel (CITY OF ANGELS, MULAN), on a gospel influenced score; which included another song, “Go the Distance”, nominated for Oscar’s Best Song.
During their work together on ALADDIN and the BEAUTY Broadway show, Alan and Tim Rice began discussing writing a project together. When approached by the Jerusalem 3000 Committee about writing a work about King David, the timing was perfect. Menken and Rice traveled to Israel to meet with liturgical scholars and high government officials. It was a time of peace and hopefulness among both Jews and Palestinians but before the work was completed, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated and the short-lived political calm in Israel was shattered. Instead of performing the work at the Sultan’s Pool, just outside the walled city of Jerusalem, it had its premiere at the New Amsterdam Theater on 42nd Street, on Broadway. Menken and Rice continue to rework KING DAVID and it continues to be performed.
In 1998, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME began its journey to having a successful stage adaptation in a very unusual fashion. It would be produced in German, at the Stella Theater in the heart of Berlin. So, in order to serve Menken’s and Schwartz’s and James Lapine’s (FALSETTOS, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, INTO THE WOODS) writing process, the musical was rehearsed in English and then translated and performed – by the very same actors – in German, as DER GLÖCKNER VON NOTRE DAME.
Alan’s work with Glenn Slater (SISTER ACT, LOVE NEVER DIES, TANGLED) began with an animated Western, titled HOME ON THE RANGE. Although the movie was seen by a select few, it contained songs that rank among Menken’s favorites performed by such talents as Bonnie Raitt, kd lang and Tim McGraw. The Menken/Slater collaboration has gone onto much more successful and significant works, like SISTER ACT, TANGLED and LEAP OF FAITH.
Among all the above projects, Alan Menken continued his film-scoring career with composing the scores to LIFE WITH MIKEY, LINCOLN (the ABC-TV documentary mini-series), NOEL, SHAGGY DOG and MIRROR MIRROR. For MIKEY Alan contributed 2 songs, with lyrics by Jack Feldman (“Life With Mikey”) and Stephen Schwartz (“Cold Enough to Snow”).
It was with ENCHANTED starring Amy Adams that Menken returned to the magical world of classic Walt Disney fantasy. This celebrated hit containing both live action and animation reteamed Alan with lyricist Stephen Schwartz creating so many acclaimed tunes that it received 3 Best Song Oscar nominations in the same year.
The stage adaptation of THE LITTLE MERMAID opened on Broadway in 2007, with added new songs written by Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater who were nominated for Tony Awards for Best Original Score. The show has subsequently had successful productions around the world including Europe, Russia and Japan.
Alan Menken broke a new milestone when he became the first songwriter in 13 years to have 3 new shows running concurrently on Broadway with SISTER ACT, LEAP OF FAITH and NEWSIES.
SISTER ACT opened to rave reviews in London’s West End in 2009 and arrived on Broadway in the spring of 2011. Based on the hit Whoopi Goldberg film, Alan Menken reteamed with lyricist Glenn Slater to create a show that went on to be nominated a Tony Award for Best Musical and Best Original Score.
Alan Menken’s musical adaptation of LEAP OF FAITH, starring Raul Esparza and directed by Christopher Ashley, opened on Broadway receiving a Tony nomination for Best Musical.
In one of show business’ great rags to riches stories, the flop Disney film musical NEWSIES was transformed into a Tony Award nominated smash on Broadway with a book written by Harvey Fierstein (TORCH SONG TRILOGY, LA CAGE AUX FOLLE, KINKY BOOTS) and lyrics by Jack Feldman. Through a groundswell of young and enthusiastic support over the years NEWSIES grew into a fan favorite. For Alan Menken it was also a personal triumph landing him his first Tony Award for Best Score.
Disney’s TANGLED ushered in a new era. It was their first CGI animated musical and it’s first in 3D. Audiences and critics embraced this hybrid of contemporary humor and classic musical fairy tale. Alan Menken received his 19th Oscar nomination for “I See The Light” with lyrics by Glenn Slater.
Alan Menken joined the universe of Marvel’s superheroes with CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER. Embracing the patriotic spirit of Irving Berlin, Menken and lyricist David Zippel created the song “Star Spangled Man” for the blockbuster’s flag waving production number.
Alan Menken received his first Emmy nomination for the song “More or Less The Kind of Thing You May or May Not Possibly See on Broadway” written with lyricist Glenn Slater for the ABC sitcom THE NEIGHBORS.
Opening to great reviews and audience demand ALADDIN arrived on Broadway in 2014. Alan Menken’s Tony nominated score contained songs both used and cut from the original film from lyricists Howard Ashman and Tim Rice as well as new songs with lyrics by Chad Beguelin (THE WEDDING SINGER, ELF). Under the direction of Casey Nicholaw (THE DROWSY CHAPERONE, BOOK OF MORMON) the show is poised to be a long running hit and has been nominated for Best Musical.
Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken are preparing a revised adaptation of the stage musical THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, which will be opening at years end at the La Jolla Playhouse.
As both songwriter and executive producer, Menken blazes a fresh frontier with the upcoming ABC musical TV series GALAVANT. This ambitious weekly musical fairy tale reunites the TANGLED team of writer Dan Fogelman, lyricist Glenn Slater and Alan Menken.
Now, in his 64th year, Alan Menken’s greatest joy is his over 40 years of marriage to Janis, his pride in watching both Anna and Nora embark on successful careers in the arts of their own, the blessing of having his parents and sisters still alive, well and flourishing with him reaping the benefits – both material and emotional – of nearly 55 years of writing music and being able to continue working and creating.