Menken A "Musical Theater" Score

It seems every Broadway songwriting team has their niche. Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote romantic pastoral pieces (except for Allegro, Me And Juliet, Pipe Dream...), Lerner & Loewe wrote sophisticated European farces about rich people (except for Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon...),  and Kander & Ebb wrote about dark subjects in entertaining ways, such that you laugh and then worry if you're a terrible person for laughing at that (except Flora The Red Menace, The Rink...) You get the picture.

It may surprise to find out that musical songwriting duo Menken and Ashman never wrote a musical for Broadway -- though several of their collaborations have been brought to Broadway years after they were first written. Their first musical, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, was based on a Kurt Vonnegut novel, and, as you might expect, is filled with satire and weirdness, although, oddly enough, it's told in chronological order and has no sci-fi MacGuffin. Anyway, deeming its cast of fourteen actors too many people for an off-Broadway show, Menken and Ashman went right along into their next project, an eight-person musical (nine counting a single puppeteer) called Little Shop Of Horrors.

(I want to clarify, yes, eight actors. Eight. The guy playing Orin was literally credited in the playbill as playing "Everyone Else.")

Little Shop Of Horrors was their breakout musical. Like God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, a satirical dark comedy about how horrible and greedy human nature is. (Note: God Bless You Mr. Rosewater seems more idealistic until you remember that the rest of the characters need a crazy science fiction author to come up with a reasonable explanation as to why Elliot is being nice to people. More on God Bless You Mr. Rosewater after City Center Encores does their production next week.)

So you might see where this is going. Following the trend in the 70s of musicals getting darker and grittier (in other words, Sondheim and Kander and Ebb were becoming prominent in the 70s), Menken and Ashman come along as a sort of younger, hipper Kander and Ebb. But their next collaboration was a distinct swerve from this. A little animated movie musical called The Little Mermaid, which kicked off the Disney renaissance.

I have to assume that the Disney executives listened to "Somewhere That's Green" from Little Shop Of Horrors and called them up to say "write exactly that song again, but for a mermaid!" before listening to the very next song on the cast album and wondering if they made a huge mistake.

(Seriously. "Somewhere That's Green" and "Part Of Your World" are the same song. I mean, come on. And "Zero To Hero" from Hercules is "Ya Never Know" from Little Shop, but I'll get to that later.)

But despite their gritty start, Menken and Ashman had a hit with The Little Mermaid, and proceeded to write the next two Disney scores as well, Beauty And The Beast, and Aladdin. Howard Ashman died in 1991, but Alan Menken stayed on as the primary composer of the Disney renaissance, writing the score of Hercules with David Zippel, and Pocahontas and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame with Stephen Schwartz. Of the whole Disney renaissance, he did not compose the music for The Lion King, Mulan, and Tarzan. Also, he did Newsies, for what it's worth. He has continued on into the modern era with Enchanted and Tangled.

I think it's fair to say that Disney movies are many people's first exposure to a form of musical drama. (I hesitate to say musical "theater" for obvious reasons.) Given this, I think we can agree that Alan Menken is possibly one of the most influential musical theater writers. He defined the sound of Disney in the 90s and onwards, and the kids who grew up with Disney in those years. I expect as the millennial generation gets to Broadway, a great many of the Broadway composers born in the 80s onward (Lin-Manuel Miranda is one, Pasek and Paul are another two) will cite an Alan Menken musical as their first exposure to the genre.

And now I'd like to talk a bit about the implications and questions raised by a single composer "defining" a genre like Menken did for Disney. Because "Disney musical" is a genre, much like "Gilbert & Sullivan" is a genre.

It's nice to be able to classify musicals based on their musical style. And with some composers, this is easy enough. Porter is jazz, Rodgers is classical, and so on. Stephen Sondheim is a composer who is difficult to classify as one particular musical style, as his musicals span so many different genres. But even so, we can say with reasonable comfort that Follies is jazz, and Sweeney Todd is classical, and so on. Still some others have their own distinct style that's not really part of any recognized genre, such as Pacific Overtures and Sunday In The Park With George. In such a case as that last one, "contemporary classical" is a nice catch-all for "vaguely weird and maybe not traditionally tonal," but that really only applies to Sondheim, and is so vague a term that it really isn't useful.

Little Shop Of Horrors is a musical that can be classified by its musical style. Its score is based in 60s pop and do-op music. But, like Sondheim, Menken is versatile, and while this is the style of Little Shop Of Horrors, it cannot be said to be Menken's style in the same way rock might be said to be Jason Robert Brown's -- and even classifying Jason Robert Brown as rock is being pretty vague. Hercules is the only other Menken score that approaches a similar style as Little Shop, and that is perhaps the reason Hercules is one of my favorite Menken Disney scores. (Pocahontas being my other favorite, mostly for "Just Around The River Bend")

Of Menken's other Disney scores, Enchanted and Tangled stand out, stylistically speaking. I like talking about Tangled in particular, because of the four principle songs in the score (not counting reprises) there are two songs that might be considered "traditional" Disney songs, and two that feel more like contemporary pop -- I don't know if the songs were written before or after Mandy Moore was cast as Rapunzel, which may have had something to do with it -- the pop songs are the ones she sings.

God Bless You Mr. Rosewater is harder to classify, musically speaking. There's a comic patter song in 6/8 time -- a form you might associate with Gilbert and Sullivan -- next to a peppy waltz for the villain, along with a tango, and another villain song that sounds vaguely Cole Porter-esque, as well as a romantic Rodgers-esque ballad. But the whole score ties itself together with a genre I can only think to call "generic musical theater." Which is not remotely satisfactory.

Similarly, the remaining Menken Disney scores (i.e, everything except Hercules, Enchanted, and the two pop-esque songs in Tangled) have a vaguely "generic" style, excepted for some individual songs, such as "Under The Sea" or "Friend Like Me," which have more distinctive styles. But how do classify songs like "One Jump Ahead" or "Be Our Guest"?

The easy answer is very simply to say that these songs only sound like "generic Disney" because Menken has defined what "generic Disney" actually is, in which case his style is "Menken" in the same way Gilbert and Sullivan made their own genre. It feels generic because Disney is ubiquitous.

Hit songs used to come from musicals. Before Hammerstein came along, a great many musicals were mostly just excuses to have star singers sing potential hit songs. Nowadays that's less common. Sometimes songs like "I Dreamed A Dream" or "Defying Gravity" make it into the public consciousness, but it's not that common that popular music and theater music intersect anymore. Which creates an unusual situation for a song like "The Girl In 14G," a song written by theater writers Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlan and made popular among theater crowds by Kristin Chenoweth. Or maybe "They Don't Let You In The Opera If You're A Country Star" for Kelli O'Hara. There are many such songs, that exist independently of musicals, but are written in a style one would associate with musical theater -- this even despite the fact that the latter is written to sound like a country song!

Of course classification is always difficult and muddy, and it's tough to say what makes a theater song fundamentally different from a song from any other musical genre, even when said song is taken out of context, or even written completely independently of any musical. Heck, "When You Get To Asheville" is somehow different when sung by Edie Brickell on a country album than it is sung in the musical Bright Star, even though the songs are almost identical. Maybe it's just a subconscious thing from knowing a song is from a musical, or written by a musical theater composer, or sung by a musical theater star.

But back to Alan Menken.

While it's true that musical theater songs don't tend to get into the public consciousness anymore, Disney songs do, which gives Alan Menken a bit of a unique position of power as a musical theater composer. And if his particular style (assuming we take that to mean the overarching style of "Disney" we use to describe the non-Mandy Moore songs in Tangled) isn't identifiable as a particular non-theater style, it's still the perfect style for Disney. Menken's songs are very melody-oriented, and the guy knows how to write a catchy melody. You can get his songs stuck in your head on first listening, which is more than can be said about many composers. His text-setting is also extremely clear -- and it probably helps that he's been paired with some brilliant lyricists. Clarity and catchy melodies (the latter actually being of significant help to the former) are probably the two most important qualities in a Disney score, and are pretty important qualities in any musical theater score. In the theater, the audience can't rewind and play back the songs at their own pace. The song needs to convey to them all the necessary information in a clear manner in real time, so the audience doesn't get lost, and it has to do so concisely, so the audience doesn't get bored. There's some pretentious academic pride that comes with writing something complicated and incomprehensible, but theater isn't a book where the audience can turn back a page, or read over a line and look up a word or phrase or reference they didn't understand. Any theater scores could use a touch of Disney. Clarity, and even a touch of "generic," helps make the audience feel comfortable even if you're about to launch on a crazy story about a downtrodden florist who kills people to feel his carnivorous plant. Because, let's be honest, Stephen Sondheim probably couldn't have made that musical a hit, but Menken could.

Happy birthday Alan Menken!


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