This is one in a series of Tony nominee snapshots in the lead-up to the awards Sunday night.
The man behind "A Whole New World," "Colors of the Wind" and "Under the Sea," Alan Menken's most loyal audience to-date has been late-80s and 90s babies, an audience that will inevitably grow with generations to follow. The 61-year-old composer's insanely prolific musical career is most recognizable by such later-year Disney classics, but his knack for soundtracking has naturally translated into a parallel career in musical theater -- one that often mirrors his film choices.
Sunday night, the eight-time Oscar winner (and 19-time nominee) could win his first Tony for the stage adaptation of Disney's "Newsies," which he scored the film version of in 1992. This season alone, Menken has also penned music for "Leap of Faith" and "Sister Act" on Broadway, and a stage version of "Aladdin" in Seattle.
Menken sat down with The Huffington Post recently to discuss film vs. theater, what's different about the stage version of "Newsies" and why he would have rewritten "A Whole New World" if no one liked it.
You've got so much out there -- how do you manage the production, how do you go between one show and the next?
Well they're very different shows, and they're different teams, and they're different theaters. Somehow I am able to keep them apart, and each one has its own story. "Newsies" seemed to have just come blasting out of the box, in ways we never expected -- honestly we never did -- and it's like, wow, OK, and you just sort of ride the horse. "Leap of Faith" is having a much more complicated birth, and it's been a long trek with that project with so many changes and it's still trying to figure out how to bring people into the theater [this interview was done before "Leap of Faith" closed early], and yet there's that Best New Musical nomination, which is like, wow. And then there's "Sister Act," which started out well, it had to contend with "Book of Mormon," and now, on its own, is having a resurgence. So they're all just different stories. For me the headline is, especially right now, "I Love What I Do." That's the headline, is the joy of feeling like you belong in this business and the people you're working with.
Did you have have a favorite of the three you worked on this year?
Actually we did "Aladdin" in Seattle this year -- that was so much fun. That was a blast. My favorite experience in general probably was the "Little Shop" experience which probably was terrifying, frustrating and exhilarating and amazing, but because it was the first, that was the one where I watched the show just launch itself for the first time and thought, oh my god, I'm going to have a career.
How about movies vs. shows?
They're such different experiences, you know? Movies, there are moments when you're writing a song or demoing, a moment in the recording studio. Musicals much more just eat up your life for a certain period of time. Movies you can insulate yourself more from audience to a degree, and just look at box office. In theater, the audience is a very dynamic part of your process and you feel much more exposed. And much more personally embraced at the same time.
When you do you know it's ready?
Oh it's all collaboration, it's all the people you're working with, the people's reactions. I'll always work with my collaborator in the room so I have a reaction, on a note-by-note basis. I know in my gut when something works for me, and I'll fight for it, but I'm a very easy re-writer. If somebody doesn't like something, I don't care if it's "A Whole New World," I'll say fine. I'll write you another song, and if "A Whole New World" was the right one, we'll go back to that song. The best way to end an argument is to say fine, I'll write you something else and see if you like it better.
What kind of research did you do for these three musicals?
Well, I'm not a big research guy. In the case of "Sister Act," every song had a prototype that we were pastiching. So Glenn and I would listen to all the classic disco or funk or soul songs and try to find prototypes that were smart and knowing. In the case of "Newsies," it was just a matter of figuring out, what did we do right on that movie, and let's make sure we continue that. I was drawn to this R&B/rock, very contemporary style. We had one misstep where we did sort of more turn-of-the-century music a la "My Lovey-Dovey Baby," and those things we had in the movie, and those things were not helping. And in the case of "Leap of Faith," it's all in gospel revival, so I did a lot of research on gospel revivals, watched a lot of video and actually went to some pentacostal services. I tried to be as authentic as possible about that.
Do you envision a time when all musicals on Broadway you wrote in some way or another?
Ah ha ha. That would be a sign of the apocalypse, I think.
Brad Balfour and Mallika Rao contributed to this interview.
Listen to "King of New York" from the "Newsies" soundtrack: