It may not be a name, nor face, that is instantly recognisable to the casual filmgoer, but the music scored by Alan Menken most certainly will be, for the genius composer is behind songs that have provided a soundtrack to different generations, penning the likes of A Whole New World and Under the Sea.
He also scored the original 1991 Beauty and the Beast animation – and he’s back, collaborating with director Bill Condon on this live-action remake, and he discusses the challenges in creating new songs for this world and these characters, and his joy on returning to this particular universe. He also tells us about writing for non-professional singers and whether or not he can pick a favourite track from his quite breathtaking back catalogue.
What was it like diving back into this world – which you had helped to create in the first place?
Truth is, the world never left me. We went from the animated movie to the broadway show to every few years there’s another anniversary, it’s like a relative I see five times a year. Adapting it again for a slightly different medium, and how we’re going to do that and why we’re going to that, that’s a challenge, it’s great one on level and anxiety inducing on another. When it works out well, the dominant emotion is relief, we didn’t screw it up. The first rule, like a doctor, don’t do harm. So, in this case of this movie where we’re actually able to maybe even enhance it, that’s pretty special. Bill Condon was captaining this ship and I followed his lead, so thank God he’s as talented as he is, and as smart.
So what do you think is different about this project? How did you approach it differently to the original?
It’s obviously more textured, a little more adult. We were looking at really trying to nail down more of a sense of France, more of a sense of the 18th century, we wanted to tap into more of the back story for Belle and the Beast. The songs really contributed to that quite a bit. In ‘How Does a Moment Last Forever?’ we were looking at a song which first of all is a music box motif which really reflects Maurice and his inventing and that part of his creativity and part of his relationship with Belle and it becomes very boulevard, very French. Then ‘Days in the Sun’ is more of a lullaby, basically as they’re all turning in and thinking about the days before the spell, and then finally ‘Evermore’ where the Beast is realising that he knows what love is, and he’s letting Belle go, and that song ramped us up into the explosion of the killing of the Beast, and they enhance the story in a really good way. But you know, I approach each song individually and put it all together and see what we get.
When you work with a group of vocalists who are professional singers and non-professional singers, is that something you have to keep in mind?
Yeah, with Emma and Dan, who were both new to singing in a theatrical context at least, they were nervous and it’s a cure. You have to make sure they have a support system around them, their own vocal coaches, also musical directors who work with them. I try to stand back. I wanted to make sure that Emma got her comfort level in the studio, and the same thing with Dan. I was in the studio as much I possibly could be considering I live in New York and this was shot in London. In some cases we’d bring Emma in quickly so I’d have my music team working with her. Then you have Audra McDonald and bam! She’s just a pro’s pro. Luke Evans, Josh Gad, there’s not much you can tell them, but Josh is extremely open because he’s a Broadway baby. Kevin Kline has been a star on Broadway too, and he was amazingly open and looking for feedback on everything. Each person is individual.
And Emma Thompson?
I wasn’t in the studio when she recorded. But ah, I love her so much. She comes out of West End musicals, we did a table read and she said she wanted to sing the songs, and with Emma Thompson you just say, ‘go – just be Emma Thompson’.
A lot of actors have said they struggle to then enjoy watching the movie because they’re watching themselves. What’s your relationship with movies you’ve composed? When you watch it back and hear your own track do you have that same sense of self-criticism?
No, but if you were filming this interview and I had to watch it I would probably cringe under the table, it’s just hard to watch yourself. Once I’ve written my music I feel like it’s come through me, it’s more like I’m watching my children than watching me. I can feel critical sometimes, but the audience say they love it and I’m like, ‘oh great!’. You birth a song, so to speak, you don’t really live it in the same way.
Can it take a number of years to be able to look back and think, ‘that was pretty good what I accomplished there’?
Yeah it can, and sometimes it takes a number of years and think, hmmm that’s wasn’t so good. Time offers a perspective, but in general I feel very secure about my barometer when songs come through me, and one thing I feel very secure about is when I write something and think, ‘that’s good’ then it’s good, I know it’s good. Now will it work for that moment, or for that director? That’s another point entirely, but when I’ve written something I get a pretty good sense.
Have you noticed a resurgence of the musical genre, with La La Land at the forefront?
First of all I’ve always noticed that musicals are a pretty strong medium, that’s why I’ve won eight Oscars for these things. People love musicals. They may go through certain waves, and La La Land is a homage, a homage to the love of old Hollywood and musicals, and every time I write a musical there’s a degree of homage to it, it’s a vocabulary that we all share. It’s a good time for musicals until there’s a flop, and then it will be a bad time for musicals for a while, it just goes that way.
With the new songs you composed for this film – how did you approach the challenge of creating something that fits into this already well-established repertoire of songs, but still keep them fresh and exciting?
You have to always keep in mind the vocabulary of the picture to begin with. As I’m writing I can feel whether it belongs or it doesn’t, I don’t know how, it’s an intrinsic thing. Beyond that, each song is its own separate assignment. One is a music box number, one is very French in feel, one is a lullaby, and one is this big muscular anthem. I take each song individually and then see them in context. Even then there are times when I’ll sit and look at a song over and over again, but people say they love it. So sometimes you just have to let go and say, I trust it. I wish I could say that every moment while I conceived it I knew exactly how it would land, but you don’t, really. The audience is your last collaborator.
Does it ever work the other way round? Do you ever compose a song and think it’s really good, but everyone else says, ‘nah, not this time Alan’?
Not usually everybody, but certainly a collaborator will say, you know what, that felt too easy for you, it’s like you’ve done that before. Collaborators are so important, when I write I want them in the room with me and I want the song to not only be a reflection of me, but a reflection of this collaboration, and I’d like it to reflect the director and the writer too as much as possible. That’s how I’ve preserved my career, by working with other people and making sure the material can remain fresh.
A lot of musicians say they could never pick a favourite song they’ve written – but Paul McCartney has said he has one of his own – are you able to?
Yeah, he said ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ was his favourite.
Well that’s bizarre. That’s so random.
Can you look back and think of one you’re most proud of?
No. I don’t see my life and career that way, I see it as a mosaic of things that support each other. There are songs that are meant to be the stars, ‘A Whole New World’, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Under the Sea’ and it’s easy to, well that’s my favourite, but then what do I do about ‘Poor and Fortunate Souls’ or ‘Out There’? Different songs all serve their own function and if they work in a particular moment, then they’re my favourite of that moment.
I’ve always admired people so much who write songs for musicals, because I feel like there’s a restriction in place where you have to follow a particular narrative. I would assume that to be quite suffocating, but is it something you actually helpful when channeling your vision?
The limitations are a blessing. The worst thing you could say to me is ‘just write any song you want right now, anything’. I would wanna kill myself. Writing a song about a man who has a rock in his shoe and he has to hop down the street and he has a drinking problem, I’ll go, ‘great!’ if I can figure out what type of song that is it will be a lot of fun. Specificity and limitations are our friends.
Beauty and the Beast is released on March 17th, you can read our review of the film here.