Meet the man behind all of your favourite Disney songs

You owe your childhood to Alan Menken

When you think of the world’s most celebrated songwriters, Dylan, Lennon, McCartney and King come to mind. Icons of the past, forever etched in the history books.  But there’s one musician with more hits than any of them. Fewer people might know his name, but millions (including you) have hummed his tunes for decades.

Meet Alan Menken, Disney’s number one songwriter and composer for the past thirty years. Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Hercules, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pocahontas, Tangled, the list goes on. Name a famous Disney song from your childhood and, chances are, he probably wrote it. With latest project Beauty and the Beast out on DVD this month, we sat down with him to talk Emma Watson’s stage-fright, working with Robin Williams and the classic songs he wishes he’d written.

Alan Menken

What was it like working with Emma Watson?

Emma was great. She had the perfect voice for Belle, but was quite scared and insecure about singing actually.

Was she worried about her ability?

I think so, yeah. She really hadn’t done it before and at our first session her voice was shaking. I don’t think of myself as scary, but we really wanted to protect Emma. She had her vocal coach and I tried to take a back seat because lots of what she had to do was very technical. I think she put a lot of pressure on herself. Emma’s very much a newbie to musical theatre compared to the rest of the cast – Emma Thompson, Kevin Kline, Luke Evans, Josh Gad – they all just kinda ripped into it.

You worked with Robin Williams on Aladdin – what was that like?

Robin was in LA doing Hook at the same time as Aladdin. He would come off set – where he was basically in a harness all day – and then come back to the house that he was renting. We’d be at the piano working out the songs. Robin learned every note – he was amazing. A very nice brilliant man and a master of hilarity. He could really turn it on like a faucet and it was incredible to watch.

Do you have any special memories with him?

I remember at the Golden Globes I had a table with my wife and Robin came over to say hi. He leans down as Janice gets up and it turns into this whole routine with both of them sitting down and standing up and so on. Robin just loved to make people laugh and that was a big part of his life. I think later on, as physical issues came up, it was very difficult for him.

What was it like watching him as the genie?

He alternated between quiet and sensitive and explosively on. I can’t get into the underlying psyche of someone like Robin Williams but he was at that level of fame where he was somewhat self-protective. He never opened up to the point of saying, ‘Oh that could have been better’ or ‘I could have done that this way’.

Was he easy to work with?

He actually got a little upset at one point because he had another movie called Toys coming out at the same time. He wanted to give preference to that movie and didn’t want his name used as much as it was in the promotion of Aladdin. He got over it eventually though.

Disney is notoriously controlling of their content. How much autonomy do you have over your output?

I’d like to think I have total control, because musicals are very collaborative. I have a team who I respect immensely, so if they have opinions I’m interested in hearing them. I very seldom have to exert my influence because I have to be very open about things, but yeah, if I need to I guess I can put my foot down.

What’s your favourite song you’ve written?

I couldn’t pick one. I see my songs and shows almost like a mosaic – part of a bigger picture. I can tell you about some of my favourites – ‘Out There’ from Hunchback. I love ‘Friend Like Me’, ‘Under The Sea’, ‘Beauty and the Beast’. They’re all different and they all have their own place in my heart.

Is there a Disney song you wish you’d written?

Oh boy. I’m having a hard time with this. Probably ‘The Second Star To The Right’ from Peter Pan. I heard that when I was a little kid and it has all these special connotations for me.

What are you working on next?

We’re in the process of remaking some old classics. We’re doing Aladdin right now which Guy Ritchie’s directing and then we’re onto The Little Mermaid.

What about a Hercules  or a Hunchback remake?

Possibly, I can’t say anything yet but I think Hunchback would make an amazing live action musical. Right now I’ve got a very full plate of work and it’s wonderful.

Beauty and The Beast is available via Blu-ray and DVD now