Interview with Alan MenkenYou've done so many films. Where does Tangled stand as far as being close to your heart?
Alan Menken: "All the projects are at the same place in my heart and they are all different; they're just all different situations, different collaborators and different partners. Sometimes you work on a project that means an incredible amount to you and it just doesn’t pan out well. Sometimes you work on a project that seems very casual, and at the end of the day it takes off and becomes the most important things in your life. It’s an ever-changing venture. I never would have anticipated that Tangled would have be as successful as it has been."
Why didn’t you think it would be this successful?
Alan Menken: "Because we were on the downward curve of how people were responding and musicals were not filling theaters up. And I think even within Disney there was a lot of ambivalence about it until very recently, until fairly close to when it was released is when the studio really began to say, ‘Oh, we have something good here.' I think if you asked them six months before, there would have been a lot of shrugging and questions. So, a lot just fell into place in the last six months. Similarly for me this was a project in which, it happens a lot with me as I get older maybe - or maybe it's natural in one's career - but you're always proving yourself over and over again. I had to prove myself on Enchanted to Kevin Lima and I had to prove myself to these guys also. Because it's hard to keep coming back to a writer that has done a lot in a form and want him to do something new each time."
You’ve proven you can do it, so you would think your track record would speak for itself.
Alan Menken: "I think people have a tendency to think, 'He’s done it so much, I want to do something new and different. Why use the same person?' For me, there’s always the challenge of reinventing myself with each of these projects in a way that will support the director. That’s what happened with Tangled. I knew they wanted a more contemporary sound, and I did too, and yet they also wanted a classic fairytale. So I had to accommodate both possibilities and create a musical style that could weather the back and forth of the two years of production. So folk rock proved to be a pretty durable choice, and everyone stayed with that and felt really good about that as the central musical style of Tangled."
"Beyond that there was a lot of give and take as to what the project was and what the project would be, and that was very collaborative. At the end of the day it worked out to be really successful, and I have to really credit Byron [Howard], Nathan [Greno] and Dan Fogelman, none of whom have done musicals before but they’ve had a really profound impact on the work that Glenn [Slater] and I did. It worked out. It's one of those things that just worked out. I’m pleased about that."
How do you handle it when your vision is different than the direction the director wants to go?
Alan Menken: "It's a collaboration, and I’m not new to that. Where it's different is only that I’ll be thinking about something that is song-driven and musical, and they’ll be thinking about something that’s more story-driven where there are songs, and we meet somewhere in the middle. This is not a musical like Beauty and the Beast or Hunchback of Notre Dame which are very much conceived almost to exist as a stage musical. This is a hybrid but yet it fits into the form of the Disney animated musical, and it works within that in a fresh way. So there's always that sense of reinvention. If you get too stuck in what you think are the rules, chances are you are going to make yourself obsolete."
And when they changed the title from Rapunzel to Tangled, they were trying to go for more of a young male audience to not leave them out.
Alan Menken: "That was hugely important. The very first meeting we had they introduced us to this character of Flynn who was kind of like a young Han Solo, and I thought was a really smart and really cool idea. And that character is a character out of action adventure films more than out of musical theater. Accommodating that character created a different tone for this."
"Again, it worked out. It worked out to be very good. Along the way there was a lot of debate about do we give him his own song? And we had various songs at various points. If so, how do we do that and if we give him his own songs, what does that do to the other aspects of his character? Similarly for Mother Gothel who is a really complicated character. In some ways she’s comedic and in some ways she’s scary - genuinely scary. Not just because she’s a villainous, but because this very sophisticated elements of mothering."
She’s very disturbed...
Alan Menken: "Yes, and I think we all see elements of our own mothers in her to a degree. I mean, we love our own mothers, believe me, and yet there’s a lot of everyone’s mother in that character. So it suggested that it’s a kind of song you wouldn't necessarily write for another 'villain', but she’s a new kind of creation. In many respects that’s what I think allowed Tangled to be as fresh as it was."
Getting back to what you said a minute ago, I was pleasantly surprised by Zachary Levi’s singing voice and I actually wanted him to have another song. You did actually write something for him that didn’t make the cut?
Alan Menken: "Yes, we tried over and over. We tried to turn the song in town called ‘Kingdom Dance’ into a song where he’s sort of showing her through the town. We wrote a number of different versions of that to try to land something. Again, here’s where you trust your collaborators as a barometer. Their barometer said, 'You know what? We don’t need a song here.' In a musical, especially in a film musical, if you don’t need a song, you're better off not putting it in. Even if you can have it, especially when an audience coming to something like a Disney animated musical really needs to feel a comfortable level about why the songs are there and really get what genre they are in and why they are singing as opposed to speaking. So we couldn’t make that land. We were able to give him a little bit of ‘I’ve Got a Dream’ and we were able to give him half the duet."
"And, talk about Zachary singing... Zach actually, as it turns out, is a big fan of musical theatre and in fact had been cast in a major leading role on Broadway but couldn't get out of Chuck. I don't think I'm at liberty to say what the role was, but it was a major role. That was years ago - and I didn’t know this. He’s definitely someone with vocal chops."
What do you think about the current state of movie musicals?
Alan Menken: "I think music is being embraced. Look at Glee. It's being embraced in a very big way. [...]But the success of Glee, and ABC just picked up a series that I’m working on now which is a break into song series. If you look at a lot of the use of songs and music in films, it's there. It's just the genre of break into song musical is, number one, it's not a genre that a lot of people know how to work in, and especially directors. If you look at Nine, which I enjoyed, and I go all the way back with Maury Yeston and Nine. I knew Maury when we were both kids together just out of college writing our shows. I thought that Rob Marshall really captured Nine beautifully, and they just tore it apart. It's very hard to land a musical and it's certainly hard to do it more than once. I have been really fortunate, because of my involvement in Disney, to have a number of successes. But if you look at Tangled, I think maybe there was a logic to them not really advertising it as a musical. People have embraced it for what it is. We can sort of whisper it’s a musical between us, but not tell the rest of the world."
Can you say anything else about the series you're working on?
Alan Menken: "Well, there’s not much to say. For me, it’s a real learning process working with networks because I’ve never done that before. Their notes are very, very specific. For the most part, a lot of the challenge is getting the story to be a story that people would want to continue with every week and then figuring out how the songs function. I think everybody's pretty happy about how the songs function, but it’s a matter of the story really being the right story. So, we’ll see. Maybe it will go, maybe it won’t go, but it’s a fun process to be trying."
Was it a difficult choice for you to make a commitment to work on a TV program? That's a major time commitment.
Alan Menken: "Yeah, I kind of blocked that out when I started this I think. I have some very good collaborators in David Zippel and Marco Pennette. Marco is the head writer of Desperate Housewives and David is a lyricist I worked on Hercules with. David won the Tony for City of Angels. They are both very smart, and they're both actually most of the time on the West Coast. To me I’m still figuring out what this process is, and yes I'm doing a lot of things at the same time. But, it's fun. I just figure I’ll find a way to do it, assuming we move forward and do it. Right now the job is to just sell the pilot. But the point is there is a continued interest with break into song form in television, in film, on stage, and there’s always an ambivalence at the same time. I remember the year that Beauty and the Beast came to stage - there was one other musical on Broadway, and now there’s a flood of musicals. That really comes and goes."
Looking into the future toward other possible projects, is there any movement on Snow Queen?
Alan Menken: "No, it seems to have just hit the shelf."
Have you heard anything about Enchanted 2?
Alan Menken: "I’ve heard things but there's nothing yet. I don’t know much about what’s happening with that. Honestly, I don’t know what the studio wants to do next. I presume there will be some future projects for me to work on. I love doing that, I really do. But I’m not frustrated that this isn’t one of them. At the moment I have a lot of stage things happening and I’m busy enough with that, so I really don’t need more on my plate."
You can only split yourself in so many different directions at once.
Alan Menken: "Yes. I have a music team that's working. I have Leap of Faith out at the Ahmanson. We have Sister Act opening on Broadway; it just opened in Hamburg. Aladdin is opening at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in Seattle this summer. Newsies is opening at the Papermill Playhouse this fall, and there's many other projects that are all sort of moving forward. There’s a lot of juggling going on and now this TV thing I'm working on."
I'm just curious, when you sit down to watch a film you didn't work on, do you analyze the work the composer has done? Are you always more in tune with the score than the rest of us are?
Alan Menken: "I don’t know. I mean, I listen to it. I don’t think so. No, I don’t think so. I think I basically watch the film and really enjoy it, then afterwards I'll say, 'That’s really great,’ and then somewhere down the line it might influence me. I noticed there’s an extraordinary number of projects involving this man named T-Bone Burnett where I walk away saying, ‘That was really well done. That sounded really great!’ He’s a very talented guy. Of course the latest one for me was Crazy Heart. Those songs were wonderful. It's not a musical but it was certainly music-driven, and I noticed that and really enjoyed it. I will more often than not analyze story and say, 'Is this something that could be told through song?' There’s always those antennas out there looking for interesting, fresh stories that people are familiar with that could be musicalized."