He may not be as famous as Andrew Lloyd Webber or Stephen Sondheim, but Alan Menken is one of the most celebrated composers for stage and screen. He has won 11 Grammys and eight Oscars, for songs such as “A Whole New World” and “Under the Sea” and for such film scores as “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.” He won a Tony (for the score of “Newsies”), and is esteemed for composing “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
And, if he is successful, he will be writing the equivalent of a new musical every week. Menken is the composer for the ABC pilot “Galavant,” a fairy tale with many twists. We talked with the New York native recently about “Sister Act,” which he composed. It opens Tuesday at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis.
Q: How did you discover your calling?
A: I grew up in a family that loved musical theater. But I thought I’d become a dentist like all the other men in my family. I wasn’t a great student. Very ADD. Right out of college, I said, “If I starve, I starve; if I die, I die. This is what I’m going to do with my life.” I’m uniquely drawn to writing music, and less to being a player [of instruments]. Maybe it’s my ADD. But what really settles my mind and soul is to let music flow through me as opposed to having my nose in a score and sight-reading.
Q: To some of us, it seems almost Delphic how someone creates a Broadway song. Do you go up to a hidden temple, spin around and chant until a god sends down a lightning bolt full of hot inspiration?
A: It’s actually pretty straightforward. Before anything, you ask a million questions that will help shape something. What’s the character? What’s the moment? What needs to be accomplished? What do you need people to feel?
Q: Howard Ashman, Tim Rice, Stephen Schwartz, Elton John — you’ve worked with some impressive people in your long career. Do you need your collaborators in the room with you?
A: They’re often in the room to give me feedback. I like instant feedback. It helps me shape it and shape it and shape it some more. The lyric has a huge impact with what I do with the music and how the music lands. Often the melody gets written first, but not always.
Q: Your most famous song, “A Whole New World,” was a pop hit by Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle, then part of “Aladdin” on Broadway. What’s the story behind it?
A: It represented a stylistic departure for me as I was starting to work with Tim Rice. The assignment I gave myself was to have this sense of a flying magic carpet with a little bit of flavor. I tailored it with the kinds of things I associated with Tim Rice. When I was working with Howard Ashman, I would write a piece of music to a dummy lyric, so I tried that with Tim.
Q: How did that go?
A: Oy. I was going over to my first session with Tim in London. I didn’t want to be empty-handed. I worked in the middle of the night. I got to his house with that piece of music. We demo’d it. And it clicked. Then came the single with Regina Belle and Peabo Bryson. And that reached No. 1. Then it became a huge part of the Disney universe, which is a hit-making machine of its own. They use the music in their theme parks and attractions. Then we bring it back to Broadway in a show in a new way. They are a great example of how music can be wedded to a dramatic concept in many forms.
Q: What does the music do for you?
A: The songs were a safe place for my soul as I was writing them. Anytime you throw a pebble in a pond and the circles go out in the world, touching people, that’s a miracle.
Q: How different was it to adapt a screenplay for the stage, as you do with “Sister Act,” than to create work from scratch?
A: I looked at the movie and thought, for the purpose of musical theater, there have been so many adaptations done with R&B scores, I wanted to try something fresher. I thought it would be interesting to use disco, which is a sex- and drugs-fueled dance music, for sacred purposes. Holy disco. Nuns rocking out. That’s funny stuff.
Q: Did Whoopi Goldberg, who starred in the 1992 film, approve?
A: That’s a funny story. I had written the first draft, and played a medley at the mayor’s house. I was explaining that we were doing this show and then heard a voice and I looked over. It was Whoopi. She gave us her blessing. Not long after that, Joop van den Ende, a mega producer in Europe, brought Whoopi on as a producer. She ended up being much more than that.
Q: How do you draw audiences to the theater when they can see the movie?
A: Theater is different from film in that you don’t have the close-up. Since you don’t have that shortcut, you have to build the feeling into the architecture of the piece. You know the character is lacking something, and you want to root for them. That’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway.
Q: Is it about the song?
A: Not always. The feeling the composer elicits in the musical has got to come from the audience’s connection to the story and the characters. Sometimes, people confuse how much the composer is doing. They say, “Oh, that melody is heart-wrenching.” Yes, that’s part of the craft. But more important is the overall stylistic choice that you make, and the context that the song is in. Sometimes, the quietest, simplest song can have the most profound effect, and sometimes a character bawling her eyes out onstage can leave you cold.
Q: Your musical style ranges all over the place. Is “Sister Act” representative of the Menken style?
A: I do pastiche. The primary palette is ’70s pop. Donna Summer, Lou Rawls, the BeeGees or Curtis Mayfield. There is a unique Menken style and vocabulary in what I do, but utilizing pastiche is a big part of why I’ve been able to succeed and write so many musicals. It’s liberated me from being trapped by my own identity.