Meet the man behind Disney’s biggest songs

Composer Alan Menken has won more Academy Awards than any other living person, beginning with The Little Mermaid's Under the Sea

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“Oh, those things,” composer Alan Menken quips, as he welcomes me into his studio and spots me eyeing up the trophy cabinet. “When I won my first Oscar, I didn’t have a studio like this and I kept it as a prop to keep the door open. But apparently it was too special to be a doorstop.”

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On display in the glass cabinet in the studio at his home in North Salem, upstate New York, are his eight Oscars, 11 Grammys and seven Golden Globes. He has won more Academy Awards than any other living person. He grabs a Grammy and lifts it up. “$5.95… on sale today!”

While Menken may not be a household name, his music has been heard around the world. The prolific songwriter has composed tracks for animated Disney films including Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

His Oscar-winning streak began in 1989 when he and lyricist Howard Ashman won best song for Under the Sea from The Little Mermaid, and Menken won best score. The film was part of what is termed the “Disney Renaissance”, when the company bounced back from a string of commercial flops and near-bankruptcy.

Another sea change came in the early 90s with the casting of Robin Williams as the voice of the Genie in Aladdin – Robin made it accept- able for A-listers to voice roles in animated films.

“When they brought up the idea of Robin playing the Genie, I was taken aback because I was thinking the Genie would be a Fats Waller character,” admits Menken. “I didn’t know Robin could sing.

“He was working on the movie Hook at the time, spending his day in a harness, then when he was free we would go to rehearsals at this house he was staying at. He had a piano there and he was very diligent about singing every note just the way I wanted it. When we finally got to the recording studio, everyone was very impatient to let Robin go wild. I said ‘No, I want my melody, I want it my way.’

“So they patiently waited until Robin had sung it just the way I wanted. Then they said ‘Right, can we just let Robin go?’ and he went wild. His improvisation, especially in Prince Ali, was amazing. It was a total privilege to work with him.”

The Aladdin theme A Whole New World won an Oscar for Menken and British lyricist Tim Rice. It was the first song they’d written together.

“I knew I was going over to London and I wanted to be prepared, so I got up in the middle of the night and wrote the music for A Whole New World,” the composer recalls. “I created a dummy lyric that went, ‘The world at my feet’, but Tim very wisely decided that ‘feet’ wouldn’t be a great word to have in the title of a love song… Perhaps if you have a foot fetish, it could be powerful!”

Rice has described Menken as a “quick and efficient” composer. “Tim is slower and less efficient, but he is brilliant,” laughs Menken.

His most influential collaborator, however, was Ashman. Menken was studying on the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop when a fellow composer introduced them. Their meeting was “a moment where my life changed”.

The pair’s breakthrough hit came with off-Broadway musical Little Shop of Horrors. From there, they began working for Disney and it was shortly after the 1989 Oscars ceremony that Ashman revealed to Menken he was HIV positive. Prince Ali was written at his hospital bed in New York before the lyricist passed away in 1991. Menken’s work with Rice on Aladdin began after Ashman’s death.

“Howard died too soon,” says Menken. “I didn’t know if my career could continue in the same way, then Aladdin became the biggest animated film ever and won two Oscars.”

Menken, 66, has been composing and playing piano since he was a child growing up in New York. After graduating with a degree in music- ology from New York University, Menken met his ballet dancer wife, Janis (with whom he has two daughters), while working on a rock ballet.

He has no idea how many songs he’s written, but reckons “somewhere near 40” musicals. “And for every song you keep, there are ones you throw out. So there could be 50 songs for each.”

Menken couldn’t spend much time on the set of the new Beauty and the Beast film, for which he has written new tracks. “But we did a memorable read-through with the cast: Emma Watson as Belle, Dan Stevens as the Beast, Emma Thompson, Luke Evans, Ian McKellen and Ewan McGregor. He also recently met the stars of the new London production of Aladdin, Dean-John Wilson and former Sugababes singer Jade Ewen. “I’m at the point where a lot of actors are younger than my material,” he laughs.

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Aladdin opens at the Prince Edward Theatre on 15 June.