What was the inspiration behind your favourite Disney tunes?

Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontus, Aladdin and The Little Mermaid each have an iconic soundtrack. Alan Menken explains how he wrote their scores

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He’s the man behind some of the most recognisable tunes in cinema history. Composer Alan Menken is a giant in his field, creating scores for endless Disney classics, from The Little Mermaid to Aladdin to Beauty and the Beast. 

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HIs original music is instantly recognisable to Disney fans, and with the live-action remakes the studio is currently producing for its stable of iconic films, Menken is returning to some of his best-known work and reworking it for a modern audience. 

We caught up with him to hear about the inspiration behind some of his most famous songs… 


Aladdin

“Part of the original intention was we were thinking of the whole Hope and Crosby Road pictures and also the Fleischer cartoons which were very jazzy. The opening is pure Arabic music and you visualise the camel coming over the dunes and you’re playing that ‘Oh I come from a land, from a faraway place’ which is very much in keeping with Arab music.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VvaMgi04oBQ?ecver=1

“In the case of Friend Like Me, in the original story it’s described as genie of the land and genie of the ring. Genie of the ring is described as being black and having an earring and is kind of a hipster. When I grew up, my dad loved to play Fats Waller, this Stride Harlem jazz piano, so I went first directly to that because it’s a joyful association with that style and that’s how Friend Like Me came.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=99Op1TaXmCw?ecver=1

“I was thinking a little more Cab Calloway with Prince Ali – ‘Prince Ali, fabulous he, Ali Ababwa’ – big band jazz.

“With A Whole New World, I was working with Tim Rice for the first time. It’s a sort of Spanish guitar – a very strum feel – and in fact I gave him a dummy lyric ‘the world at my feet’. I think Sir Tim very wisely removed the word ‘feet’ from the title and I could see how a love song might be better off [without it]. But I wanted to keep that Moorish Spanish [style] in the cultural mix, so to speak. It’s like cooking a meal. You’re putting in spices and trying a different spice [to see] if it overwhelms or if it works.”

Pocahontas

“Pocahontas was pretty dead on inspired by Indian music. Certainly the percussion in Colours of the Wind – the flute – on a gut level it’s Menken music but very much inspired by that sense of do-do-do-do-dooo.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pk33dTVHreQ?ecver=1

“It’s that and some very classic English sea shanty-style – one thing people know about me is I love working in pastiche, it’s what I do. I love grabbing a style and using it. 

The Beauty and the Beast

“At the very top, the piece of music in the prologue was written out of necessity. There was a piece written by Saint-Saens – Carnival of the Animals – and the head of the studio at the time, Geoffrey Katzenberg, loved that piece of music in the temp score and no matter what I gave him he said ‘nah, I liked that other one’.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5LOFhsksAYw?ecver=1

“I thought ‘OK fine, I will do my version of that’ and therefore the prologue was very much my version.

“The opening for Belle is a very perky, classical wake up in the morning – it’s meant to be a bolt of energy. I am working in a palette that is visually and musically very early Walt [Disney] and thinking classically – Mozart. It’s a very classically inspired score.

“Be Our Guest is pure Maurice Chevalier and French musical inspiration. Gaston is inspired by a Sigmund Romberg Drinking Song – that whole ‘no one fights like Gaston’ – a big romping drinking song basically.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NUj0XK-tIrs?ecver=1

“It’s sung in tribute to a moron by a group of other morons which is what makes it funny. Howard [Ashman, the lyricist] is great at beating up his antagonists – he just beats them senseless and it’s so funny.” 

The Little Mermaid

“First of all, the very basic theme that starts at the top – the overall music theme you associate with The Little Mermaid – I have this running figure, this four-note figure, and that really was simply a matter of the flow of water. I wanted there to be a constant feeling of flow and so it grew out of that. That was number one – creating that musical flow and having over it this theme that was the over-arching theme – a kind of a gut level approach to what the sea felt like.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PMigXnXMhQ4?ecver=1

“And with Under the Sea itself, I was really doing a wink at Calypso and Harry Belafonte. He was the most famous of the Caribbean singers when I was growing up so that’s another really dominating colour. There’s a lot of very specific colours. We open with a sea shanty – heave-ho, heave-ho – which defines the whole feel. Or in the case of Ursula she’s an octopus, she’s bouncing around around – om-bom-bop, om-bom-bop – Poor Unfortunate Soul. We had an instinct to go very Brechtian like The Threepenny Opera.”

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Beauty and The Beast is available via Digital Download and to buy on DVD, Blu-ray & 3D Blu-ray