From Rugrats to The Simpsons, at some point in our lives we’ve devoted time to watching cartoons. Whether you have been depriving your inner child of animation for who-knows-how long or are an active Disney/Nickelodeon/comic strip-phile like I am, this is an inside look into something you may not know about animation. Enjoy this free issue of the Toon Times.
It manifests itself when we're in the shower humming “Go the Distance” or belting “Be Our Guest.” And even though we sometimes forget it's there, in those few moments of our lives that Disney songs get unavoidably stuck in our heads, we realize they've been with us all along. Nostalgia gives us an outlet for one of the greatest pleasures of animation: the music. And one of the masters of animated film music was and is Alan Menken.
Some of my first memories are of sitting in a car seat in my mom's Honda Civic singing along to a tape of The Little Mermaid. I crooned along with Sebastian and Ariel about life under the sea or the world above, already basking in the glory that was the first venture of the renewed Disney Renaissance and Menken's first project in association with the Mouse.
Though we may cite many directors, animators, voice actors and more as the people behind the greatest era in not only the collective ‘90s childhood, but also the Golden Age of Disney Animation, if we look back at what truly made those movies amazing it’s clear that music deserves its own high rank, and Menken was an outstanding founding father of this Golden Age.
Menken did not initially set out to be one of the most renowned musical composers of his generation. He has been lauded for providing the music and scores for nine Disney films and also composing several popular Broadway shows, which makes it quite difficult to believe that Menken initially started out with a goal of becoming a doctor.
After changing his major to music at NYU Steinhardt’s Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions, he would go on to bring the music to pair with Howard Ashman’s lyrics for two off-Broadway plays. The first, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, was an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s popular novel and the second would become one of the most famed cult musicals of all time, one that did not make it to Broadway until 11 years after its original run.
The meek shall inherit
In Little Shop of Horrors, three narrators who vaguely resemble Diana Ross and the Supremes sing about protagonist Seymour Krelborn, a lowly store sweeper who happens upon a venus flytrap that has a strange tendency toward unexplained growth and an even stranger penchant for human blood.
When Seymour is rising in notoriety within his small skid row community, his three female narrators with matching high-waisted dresses and beehive hairstyles sing “You know the meek are gonna get what’s comin’ to ‘em by and by.”
Menken and his writing partner Ashman were the meekest of the meek, fresh-faced and ready to take on the stage musical world by storm. But seven years after Little Shop made its off-Broadway debut, Ashman secured an entirely separate project that would cement both of his and Menken’s place in musical, animation and entertainment history.
A mermaid gets her voice
Though it was Ashman who literally gave Ariel her singing voice (he recorded demos as the mermaid princess of Atlantica) in the planning stages of The Little Mermaid, but without Menken it is likely that voice would not have traveled as far as it has.
In interviews with the animators who created The Little Mermaid, there is a resounding reverence for Ashman’s musical creativity. Jeffrey Katzenberg, a head of Disney film at the time of The Little Mermaid, described animators sitting with their ears pressed against doors while Menken and Ashman composed the music in a closed off room playing what would be the score of the film that has touched so many.
Menken and Ashman had a rapport that worked perfectly along with the Disney model. With Ashman’s clever lyrics based on wordplay and silliness and Menken’s heartfelt music to accompany it, they contributed some of the most memorable music of the early 1990’s.
Let the bells of Notre Dame ring out
Ashman passed away in 1991 of complications due to AIDS. Though he and Menken had already written the music and lyrics for Disney’s follow-up to The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and a few songs toward Aladdin, he did not live to see Beauty and the Beast appear in theaters.
Yet Menken powered on making some of the most memorable music in Disney history in the following years. With Ashman in the back of his mind, Menken went on to write music with other lyricists, the likes of which include Stephen Schwartz (most famous for composing music and lyrics for the musical Wicked) for Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and most recently Enchanted; David Zippel for Hercules; Tim Rice (known for working with Elton John on The Lion King) for Aladdin; Glenn Slater for Home on the Range and Tangled.
For decades, his work has been used in stage adaptations of these films, in live-action movies, in cassette, CD players and iPods, and that’s truly where his impact lies.
A guy like you
The gargoyles in The Hunchack of Notre Dame that serve as Quasimodo’s confidantes and cheerleaders sing to their protagonist in the latter half of the movie, “Could there be two like you? No way!”
Menken, known to some as the Master of Disney Music, the God of Reprises or otherwise, has contributed some of the most oversung and overloved songs of this generation. Students in the school of Menken cite his music as picking Disney out of the dark ages of peppy musical theater-inspired agony with some of the most lovely and memorable songs of the past twenty years.
While some may afford great passion to the music of The Rescuers, Oliver & Company (I personally love “Once Upon a Time in New York City” and “Why Should I Worry?”) and other post-early Disney, pre-Menken Disney films, it’s no doubt that his work has stood the test of time better than these more obscure, hipster-friendly alternatives. Stunning duets like “A Whole New World,” beautiful solos such as “Part of Your World,” and great ensemble numbers like “Zero to Hero” prove that there is a certain spark to Disney music that did not exist in the few decades after The Aristocats and before The Little Mermaid.
Menken’s proclivity toward the traditionally melodic Broadway melody inspired a revival of those earlier memorable songs like “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” or “When You Wish Upon a Star” with a spin toward the even more catchy, taking into account themes and incorporating unique instrumentation like he does in “Under the Sea” or “That’s How You Know” with Caribbean steel pan drums or in “Steady as the Beating Drum” with traditional-sounding tribal percussion.
Go the distance
Through the years, Menken has carved out a name for himself in the Disney family – earning him a spot among the Disney Legends in 2001 – the same year Ashman received the title posthumously.
With eight Oscar wins under his belt, three Tony nominations and countless other awards, the real success of Alan Menken has not been statues of solid gold but instead becoming the blood that runs through the veins of so many people.
Even those who do not identify themselves as Disney fanatics must admit to knowing the music of the Golden Age of Disney. Unwillingly or not, these songs are the essence of late 20th and 21st century culture, a phenomenon that spans gender, age groups and time itself.
For a guy planning on entering the medical field who by chance chose to switch into a study of music, it’s clear that the least we can offer is our sincerest thanks. Because without him, Disney might not even be part of our worlds.