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Enchanted - Alan Menken interview

Alan Menken, composer for Enchanted

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ALAN Menken, eight time Oscar winning composer of new Disney classic Enchanted, talks about composing the score and writing the songs – and why it often felt like he was “re-inventing the wheel”!

He also discusses his career to date and what it was like to win the Oscar for the first time…

Q. At what point did you get involved with doing the score and songs for Enchanted?
Alan Menken: To be honest, I was involved even during the early, early incarnations of it when it was still in development. This was one of the great ideas that Disney had. When Kevin Lima came on board as director, he could have gone to anyone, so I was very gratified that he came to me. At that point, when he was ready for music, of course they wanted it yesterday. But he got me involved, got Steven [Schwartz] involved, all the business stuff had to get done, and then we came to a meeting in LA in early December 2005. Actually, it was the 12th!

We’d already read the script, so we talked through the storyboards, saw some sketches and a lot of the things they’d been working on. But Kevin had very specific ideas about the songs and the score, even the song titles. Steven and I liked a lot of his ideas and contributed quite a few of our own and then it was a matter of discussing the song moments and I think on the basis of that conversation, we all decided we’d do it. So then Steven and I went back and began working on some of the specific song ideas we’d agreed upon with Kevin.

Q. Which song was the most difficult to write?
Alan Menken: Probably True Love’s Kiss. I’d say I probably went through about four or five versions of what that would be. There’s many prototypes of what those songs are and people loved what I was doing, but they’d ask whether it could have more melody and so on. Sometimes people can’t even define what they want, but if you give them something in three forms, you have to really hone in on what it is they want. It was tough. I actually had Kevin and Steven at my house and was literally composing in front of them, which was a first. I’ll compose in front of a lyricist, but to have a director sitting there and going: “I like that, I don’t like that!” It was crazy making! But we got there.

And in relation to that same song – here you had the basic statement of the song and then you had the scene with meeting Edward and Nathaniel, which brought a little more to the song, and then a troll appeared, and there’s a chase… those specifics weren’t in place when we wrote the song. So, as we were writing the song and trying to get the specifics, Kevin was asking for the song so that he could use it, and we still needed the specifics! Logistically, it wasn’t easy – it was like re-inventing the wheel!

Q. How did you enjoy working on the songs with Amy Adams and James Marsden? Was it a bonus that both of them had singing backgrounds?
Alan Menken:* Oh, it was a piece of cake and yes it was a bonus. I think they checked it out in auditions, enough to know they sang. But the difference between this film and the animated films is that in the animated ones we had a real infrastructure that went from film to film to film. We had my music team and a way of working, a way of auditioning and so forth. But in live action films, everytime you do a new one, there’s a totally different approach. All the things we did in animation didn’t necessarily fall into an automatic routine.

But at the same time, we had to impose some kind of a structure onto the production, so again they were cast without the normal procedure we’d go through in animation and it was lucky that they were so perfect vocally. One of the great things about Enchanted is that all along the way, in terms of the logistics of making this movie, it was a little bit like re-inventing the wheel, because all the different functions in live action and animation are different and you’re marrying not only two different worlds in the movie, but also in the production of the movie. There’s a lot of politics involved – who’s driving, who’s leading – that were constantly being honed, worked on and re-evaluated.

Q. Given your background with Broadway musicals, do you think Enchanted could be adapted for the stage?
Alan Menken: I don’t know. Possibly. It’s honestly not anything that’s in my mind. [Long pause] You can probably hear the wheels turning now! I don’t know… people joke about it and we’d only really know if we took it seriously and discussed what it would really mean to try and express the animated world on stage, and then the live action world on stage and somehow make the transition have the same impact that it does on film. It is such a filmic concept. I would think the biggest challenge would be from a production point of view.

Q. Your own career has been something of a fairytale, especially in light of the numerous Oscar nominations, and the eight wins. What has that journey been like for you?
Alan Menken: The journey’s been incredible. It’s reached a point where the ownership of my career is in the public’s hands, because so much of the material is known and beloved by children. It’s almost like I can’t tamper with these things because they kind of belong to them, as well as belonging to me. So, I feel very privileged to be the caretaker of this material. Beyond that, there’s no life lessons that can prepare you to have that kind of an impact on people you don’t know. It’s what we all want in our lives, I guess, to drop that pebble and have the circle go out as far as possible. I’ve just been lucky that mine have gone out so far.

Q. At what point did you know that you wanted to pursue it as a career?
Alan Menken: Always. I always wanted to be a songwriter and a composer. I sort of wanted to be Beethoven [laughs]. I wanted to be a classical composer when I was a little boy. I just dreamed of that. I didn’t even know what it meant! I grew up in a family that loved musical theatre, so that was like something I knew. But then I loved pop music – of the age when The Beatles came out, I was just the age where we were all hysterical for that. So, all throughout the ’60s and the ’70s I really wanted to be Jackson Brown or Elton John or Billy Joel. But life took me into theatre instead. So, I’ve really applied my pop sensibility into writing theatre. I’ve found a way to fulfil the classical composer side of myself by actively writing film scores, which is one reason I love doing musicals because I get to exercise both of those muscles.

Q. You’ve now won eight Oscars in total – but what was the first win like?
Alan Menken: I literally felt like a donkey kicked me in the back [laughs]. It’s scary. You go: “Me! Who me?” I remember the first time Howard Ashman and I went to the Academy Awards for Little Shop of Horrors, when Mean Green Mother from Outer Space was nominated, I should have known because we were seated all the way in the middle of the aisle and so it was very unlikely that we were going to make it to the edge. They don’t really know by the way, they’re just guessing. But I remember that Levi Stubbs got up and sang the song and it was among all these other MOR ballads of that year, and one of those won. I think You Take By Breath Away that year. But Levi brought the house down, so I said to Howard: “OK, so if we win should I speak, or you speak?” But he replied: “You can put that speech away, you’re not going to be using it tonight.”

But with [Little] Mermaid I came in and I was sitting right on the front of the aisle and I was like: “Oh boy!” And then Steve Martin called my name and I got up and it was like: “Oh boy!” That was a strange night too because Howard was there but unbeknown to us, Howard was ill and not looking well at all. It didn’t occur to me that it was what it was [he succumbed to Aids at the age of 40]. Anyway, I got up, had my piece of paper… I wish you could just get up there and say: “This is fantastic, thank you.” But you know you’re going to forget at least half the people you’re supposed to thank and they’re going to be miserable. So, you stand up there with the piece of paper and thank everybody. It’s a terrifying moment and it’s unreal. It’s an out of body experience. And boy is it a career enhancement. Or at least once is – but eight is kind of like, “wow”. It’s beyond comprehension.

b>Read our interview with the producers of Enchanted