Friday, September 30, 2016

A Whole New World of Alan Menken

All the way back in 2013, Theresa and I camped out at the D23 Expo just to hear Alan Menken and Richard Sherman perform a concert together. The concert was so incredibly amazing and ever since then, I've been checking periodically to see if there were any more performances by Alan Menken.
For years, there was nothing. Then in March of 2016, a friend from the Disney forums on let me know that Alan Menken would be performing at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Southern California in September! Awesome!
For months I watched that website just waiting for tickets to go on sale. Finally, 6 weeks before the concert, tickets finally went on sale. Theresa's parents agreed to watch the kids, so it was going to be just Theresa and I out enjoying a night to ourselves.

After enjoying a really tasty Italian meal at a hole-in-the-wall shop that was completely booked up (good thing I made reservations), we made our way to the Segerstrom Concert Hall.

Up close in the orchestra level would have been great, but apparently there was a pre-sale for tickets I didn't know about. Instead, I bought seats in the very front row of the first balcony level.

Not a bad view at all, plus there's three screens on stage as well, with the middle screen being used as a live view of the performance.
I actually heard that some of the seats down at the bottom were a little too close and had a bad viewing angle. Imagine sitting in the front right section in the photo below. I overheard one of the guests say that they could only see Alan Menken's knees. Everything else was hidden behind the piano. All in all, I'm quite happy with our seats.

Right around 8pm, the lights dim and a voice comes over the speaker system. 
Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Alan Menken!

Alan - "Welcome and thank you for being here. You are at the world premiere... and possibly the last performance of A Whole New World of Alan Menken. Let's have some fun!"

The first song of the night was "Prince Ali" from Aladdin.

Alan - "Welcome to my office. This is my desk. My awards cabinet... Look at this stuff. Isn't it neat? Most of my songs are written here. Except for that last one. "

Alan - "That jaunty and triumphant song from Aladdin, that was written from beside a hospital bed, where my friend Howard Ashman was fighting for his life. It's ironic. This is the story behind the songs."
So the evening started off on a bit of a sad note. 

Alan then took us all the way back to his childhood, showing pictures on the screen of a young Alan Menken who loved music, but hated to practice. He told us the story of how he would learn the first few lines of his lessons, say Beethoven,  and then make up whatever he wanted after those first few lines. His parents didn't know the difference.

He went to university at NYU as a pre-med, but that didn't last long. He eventually found his way to the piano practice halls where he enjoyed writing silly songs. While there, he was asked to write a musical called "Separate Ways".

After he graduated, someone recommended he start working with a choreographer from the Downtown Ballet Company on a Rock Ballet. Not much happened with that, but while he was there, he met a beautiful dancer there named Janis.
Very hard to find an old picture of them together, but here's a more recent one. They've been married coming up on 44 years in November.

And they were struggling artists together. He'd coach singers and he even wrote some songs for  Sesame Street where they would pay $135 a song.
Even wrote jingles, like for the pesticide Round-up.

He directed a musical comedy act, and wrote songs for it. Here he is playing one of those songs.

After working for a little while, he eventually met Howard Ashman and his life changed forever. Howard was a director, writer, who had his own theater, the WPA Theater. He remembers asking years later what WPA stood for. We'll Produce Anything.

Alan was asked to write the music for "God Bless You Mr Rosewater."

The show was a great experience but it didn't have that long of a run, despite some really pretty good reviews. Well, there was one reviewer, pretty prominent reviewer, who didn't like it. He hated the show and said "but all of this is preferable to Alan Menken's sub-Mitch League music. Not one bar of tunefulness, not one glint of invention is allowed to access. Pseudo-melody after pseudo-melody flow past us like a dirty mop dripping liquid grayness, climaxing in a telephone conversation set to whimsical Sprechstimme, until we wonder how so many instruments can, for so long, avoid straying, even by mistake, into music."

But the lessons Howard and Alan learned they applied to their next project. It would be only 8 characters, a giant man-eating puppet, and would be much more producible.
From Little Shop of Horrors, we heard "Little Shop of Horrors Prologue" "Suddenly Seymour" "Dentist!" and "Somewhere that's Green".

Next, Alan told us the story of how he lost his first Oscar. For the film version of Little Shop of Horrors, he was nominated for Best Song for "Mean Green Mother from Outer Space". At the Oscars, surrounded by movie stars, they were seated in the middle of a row. After Levi Stubbs performed the song live and it brought the house down, Alan was thinking they really had a shot at winning. However, Howard said "you can relax. you're not giving any speeches tonight". The winners sit on the aisles. Aww.

With the proceeds from the movie, Alan and his wife Janis bought a farmhouse outside the city. They had a daughter. He'd sit and watch Disney VHS tapes with her. Classics like Winnie the Pooh, Snow White, and Fantasia. One day he got a call from Howard saying Disney has asked about us writing an animated movie together.

How to start it? Well how about with flowing water.
Alan played us "Part of Your World", "Kiss the Girl", and "Poor Unfortunate Souls"
And then finally the calypso song that changed his life. "Under the Sea"

For The Little Mermaid, again Alan and Howard were nominated for the Oscars. This time though... they were seated on the aisle. They won twice that night. Once for Best Song, "Under the Sea", and also for Best Score. Afterwards, sitting there at the Governors Ball. Howard said, I'm so happy now, but when we get back to New York we need to have a serious talk. Alan pressed for more details, but Howard didn't want to spoil the night.
Back in New York a few days later they met up. Howard told Alan how happy he was that now he knew Alan would be taken care of. But Howard was sick; he was diagnosed as HIV+.

Even though Howard was sick, Alan and Howard kept working together and started on their next Disney project. Alan described it as, "There was this opening number, it was like 7 minutes long. And it started with B... the lead character in like... a cottage... eh, I gave it away, well, like you didn't know... and she goes into like, a town... and people are saying... Hello, in another language. And Howard said, No one asked for a 7 minute opening number. We can't send it. They're going to laugh at us. But Howard, it's good. Fine, we'll send it. And Disney loved it."

Alan played us the opening song "Belle" from Beauty and the Beast.

Then could barely breathe when Howard put the lyrics to Gaston in front of him. Next we heard "Gaston".

For the "Be Our Guest" song, Alan put down a quick little Parisian tune so Howard could work the lyrics, with the intent of writing some better music for it later. After the lyrics were written, the only tune that sounded good was the original quickly written music. Alan played us the a couple versions of "Be Our Guest" with a different tune, and then the version we all know and love.

After the success from The Little Mermaid, Howard and Alan were given an assignment to write a chart hit.
Alan found an old cassette tape from one of their practice sections for the title song "Beauty and the Beast" and played it for the audience. It was interesting to hear some of the original words that were considered, as well as the different tunes that went along with those words.
Alan then played us "Beauty and the Beast"

Howard passed away 6 months before Beauty and the Beast was completed. He wasn't around for all the awards and accolades. It was another big night at the Oscars. Again walking away with two. One for Best Song, and another for Best Score.

Back stage, one of the press people said, how's it feel to win 2 Oscars, and also win a Razzie for the Worst Song of the Year?
We heard "High Times, Hard Times" from Newsies.
Yeah, Newsies. High Times and Hard Times indeed.
"Carrying the Banner"
Next song sung by a 15 year-old Christian Bale in the movie, and Alan for us tonight was, "Santa-Fe"
So yeah, Newsies was such a flop! It made like $2.6 million. It's DOA.

But Disney was certain they'd have a hit with Aladdin. Howard and Alan had actually started work on Aladdin before Beauty and the Beast, but it went through continuous re-writes, before eventually being green-lit again.

Alan recalled working with Robin Williams, and all the effort he put into making "You ain't never had a friend like me".

Aladdin went through a lot of changes, and by the time the film was back on track, Howard was gone, and Alan was faced with the daunting prospect of finishing the film without him. After the disappointment of Newsies, his confidence wasn't at the highest point. Disney suggested working with another lyricist Tim Rice. And he attempted his first Disney animated song without Howard.
"A Whole New World"

Alan - "My life was heading into a whole new world. More to share in Act 2."

After a quick 15 minute break to stretch our legs, it was back into the theater to finish the show.

Alan played "King of New York" from Newsies after returning from intermission.

Disney wanted to get into Broadway. And they wanted to do it with Beauty and the Beast. One of the songs that they couldn't get into the movie, but were able to find a home for it in the Broadway production was "If I Can't Love Her" written for the Beast. Beauty ran for 14 years on Broadway.

Less known, a few blocks down from Beauty at Madison Square Garden, another musical of his ran for 10 seasons, and that was A Christmas Carol. Alan enjoyed it because his daughters got to participate dressed as angels singing in children's choirs for it. "God Bless Us Everyone"

Before he worked on Wicked, Steven Schwartz was ready to quit the business. Alan approached Steven about collaborating on a new Disney Animated Musical, and the very first song they wrote together was
"Colors of the Wind"

And after Pocahontas, Disney asked for even more from them with The Hunchback of Notre Dame. "Out There"

Initially Hunchback did not do well. But Alan never gave up on any of his projects. They're his children. It made it into a stage production as well.

After Hunchback, things took a gospel infused turn. "Zero to Hero" "Go the Distance"

My favorite Disney movie.

Not long after that Alan got asked to dinner by a few Disney execs to discuss a new project. Disney Execs - "Alan have a martini", so he had a martini. Then a bottle of wine. Okay, we're going to tell you now. It's a western from the point of view of cows. Yeah... As the production went along, it became less and less a musical and more a movie about cows. Plus there was a villain with a magic yodel.

During the development, 9/11 happened. Afterwards artists had a hard time capturing how shocking and painful it was to them. This song from Home On The Range captured that for Alan, especially sung by Bonnie Raitt. "Will the Sun Ever Shine Again"

Enchanted. Long in development. About a Disney princess who has a spell put on her and is transported into modern day New York City. Great idea. At first Alan was in it, then not in it. It was on, then it was not on. Then finally it was back, and he heard they were looking for someone who could parody his style. And he was thinking "I can parody my style". Alan met with the director, then was back on the project.
Movie started with early Walt style music "True Love's Kiss"
Then a cheerful working song like Cinderella "Happy Working Song"
Then finally a parody of himself "That's How You Know"

So Little Mermaid was adapted to the stage. And when adapting from the movie, they realized one of the characters that could really use some fleshing out was Prince Eric. "Her Voice" was written for him because of that.
For his next Disney animated film, they came back to him with another princess who had lots of spirit and very long hair.
"When Will My Life Begin" "Mother Knows Best" "I See the Light"

In 2012, he actually was King of New York, with 3 shows on Broadway at the same time. Sister Act "Fabulous Baby"

After 10 years of writing and re-writing, Leap of Faith opened, and it ran a month. "Leap of Faith"

When Newsies came out, it was a bomb. But there was a generation that watched it on cable and video. This did not go unnoticed by Disney, who decided they should write a Newsies Musical so at least those high schools will have something they can perform. And as they were doing it, they thought this is good. Maybe it could go to Broadway.

The film introduced a new character, Katherine Plumber, and to this day Alan hasn't been able to sing/play one of the songs she sings every night and get all the way through it without some mistake. Tonight was no different but he still performed a great rendition of "Watch what happens"
Interesting how a movie can get a Razzie for Worst Song, and go on to get a Tony for Best Score.

Alan has worked some specialty songs. Marvel asked for a USO show song for Captain America The First Avenger. "Star Spangled Man"

Then a song for foul-mouthed groceries in the movie Sausage Party. "Great Beyond"

Finally over 60 songs for just 18 episodes of Galavant. It was hard work, but it was so much fun. "Galavant"

Life has been good. He's been married for 44 years to his wife Janis. Kids are doing well and performing. Anna Rose Menken and Nora Menken are singers and performers.

Coming this fall, one of his new works, A Bronx Tale. We heard an early preview of one of those songs, though I don't know the title of it since the song list for the musical hasn't been published, and the play won't be performed until February 4th.

When A Bronx Tale opens, it will join the Tony Award winning production of Aladdin that's there now.
Alan - "And for this, we were able to put in a lot of the song that Howard and he had worked on so long ago. And for our final song tonight, I'd like to dedicate this song to Howard."
"Proud of Your Boy"

Of course Alan received a standing ovation from the entire theater. After nearly a minute of clapping, Alan reappeared for one encore song. But what to play?
How about being the first audience to ever hear one of the new songs from the new live action movie Beauty and the Beast!

Wow. What an amazing concert hearing Alan Menken perform tonight. So many songs I remember from growing up, and songs that I sing to Ian when he goes to bed. Alan Menken has such an amazing body of work that it's hard to pick a favorite. Hearing songs from my favorite movie Hercules, Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and so many more.

After the show, in the lobby it was great catching up with friends who were also attending.
Big thanks to my friend Andrew (on the right) for letting me know about this show so many months ago. And great seeing Craig as well (bring on Minnie's Moonlit Madness!).

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