Alan Menken is a legend when it comes to movie musicals. He’s been involved with properties ranging from Little Shop of Horrors to most of your favorite Disney movies from the 90s and beyond. When Disney decided to add a new song to their live-action version of Aladdin, there was really only one choice. They had to bring Alan Menken back. Screen Rant had the chance to sit down with him recently and discuss what it was like to come back for this new version of the film and discussed how he took the music you know and love from the original and updated it for the new film and new cast.
First of all, Aladdin is my favorite Disney movie of all time. And I loved how they brought it to life. Legitimately, I was crying at the end of this movie, tears streaming down my face. It was such a brilliant remake. Remaking Aladdin in live-action is a huge undertaking. What is it about the challenges that made you come back to the property?
Alan Menken: I had no choice. If Disney’s going to do it, I’m going to come back to it. That’s a hard question to answer, but what made me come back is a necessity to protect my work and a desire for a payday. Now, what allowed me to come back in a good way was the fact that it was a different medium, and therefore I can find another dimension in a live action film. Because unless you go heavily stylized, live action will demand another approach. And God knows Guy Ritchie as a director will force a completely other approach, which then became the push and pull of ‘How do I get what I need from that and work it with this?’. And I think Guy didn’t even know yet in the beginning what this would be. Guy’s a good reactor, so there’s a lot of me going, ‘Okay, I wrote this song. What do you think?’ I think he wants to be sensitive to what I want, so there’s a lot of feeling out on both sides. ‘How do you like this?’ ‘Oh, I like that.’
So we’re building a vocabulary of how far we can go together. And then a huge factor was writing the song “Speechless.” We knew we wanted to write a song for Jasmine. You basically throw the song as far as you can to make it great, and then you somehow make the project rewrite [itself] to accept it. We wrote the song, and it was great, and we love it. And then we go, ‘Okay, how do we fit this into the movie?’ How? If you do the song too early, it’s too early to justify the song. And if it’s a whole song later, it’s too late to justify the song. Okay, we divide it into two pieces then and it evolves. But who is she singing it to, and how are they reacting to it? Okay, time stops, and she sings it. That could work. But those are all abstractions, and then you have to score it and put all the elements together, and maybe it’s not going to work. And it worked.
It definitely worked.
Alan Menken: Yeah. But that was a huge job.
Sidenote: my friends want to thank you for our karaoke nights, because you provide all the music for them. While scoring the original, did you ever imagine how the film would play out in live action?
Alan Menken: No. The animated movie was done, was complete. It was great. I was just so happy that I was able to somehow write through the death of my great collaborator Howard Ashman, start a new collaboration with Tim Rice, and have it feel like one movie. That was hard enough right there.
“Arabian Nights” is now a much larger number. Can you explain some of the changes that were made?
Alan Menken: When it was first conceived and demoed, in the very first version of the movie, “Arabian Nights” was a huge number. It was huge. Then it was cut down to a teeny tiny number at the beginning of the animation. Then on the Broadway show it’s a big number, but it has a very different function. For Guy, the script has us going through the marketplace and seeing the spices and seeing the all the different cultures interweaving, so the lyric was adjusted to serve that. And I had to deal with what would I hang onto and what would I make new. You look at it, and you have to go, ‘Okay, I’ll do this.’ Luckily, with collaborators like Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, they’re up to the task of doing something that blends with what Howard did.
Was Will Smith already onboard when you came back on the project?
Alan Menken: No. Because I read about it being done before anyone told me. I knew it was being done, I knew Disney would make a deal with me to do it, I didn’t know who the Genie would be. And then the casting happened.
The genie is such an iconic character, and Robin Williams is so good, that it’s hard to play that role.
Alan Menken: There’s plenty of examples of films where they’re greenlit to move forward, and they want to get X actor. And they don’t get X actor, so they go with Y, and it doesn’t turn out to be as good of a movie as it should have been. Well, we happened to get X actor, so thank God for that.
And I love that he makes it his own.
Alan Menken: I realized early on: with Will, you let it go. Let him do his thing. With some of his choices, he was practically a member of the music team. I think of the arrangement ideas that he came in with, and I was like, ‘Do it. Let’s hear it.’
So was “Friend Like Me” more of a collaboration?
Alan Menken: “Friend Like Me” is my song, but I liken myself to an architect. It’s a full blueprint, there’s the house. People might live in that house and sound like Robin Williams. They might live in the house sounding like James Monroe Iglehart, and they might be in the house sounding like Will Smith.
Will certainly is the kind of guy who is going to want to put his stamp on a song, and he does. And that is absolutely appropriate for a performer and an artist like him. But is it a collaboration? No, “A Friend Like Me” is “A Friend Like Me” as far as the lyrics and the music. But Will’s version that is in this movie stands alone as a Will Smith interpretation of that song.
What specific musical choices and stylings did you craft for Will Smith that you weren’t able to with the animated version?
Alan Menken: I didn’t craft any of that, his performance crafted it. Once he did his performance, we just supported that with the arrangement. The arrangement really is the [original] arrangement revamped in a modern way. Will’s choices and his interpretation really drove what the arrangement was going to be.
How did you make the score more three-dimensional for a live action adaptation?
Alan Menken: It’s more Arabic instruments, more contemporary in its basic tone. I’d like to say it’s less overtly melody-driven, but there’s actually a lot of melody in it and Guy really likes melody. One of the people on our music team is Chris Benstead, who’s great at mockups. He did mockups of some of my songs that Guy really liked, and they really drove what we did for the score. They had really a rich live action tone to them, so I’m very indebted to Chris.
Which song was most personally fulfilling to see brought to life for you?
Alan Menken: “Speechless.” Because it’s a new baby, and it was so hard.
And it fits so perfectly.
Alan Menken: It’s very gratifying to hear people say that. For the last two weeks, going all over the world, I’m hearing people saying that and thinking, ‘Wow, that works.’ I’m so relieved.
I love that Princess Jasmine has this more fleshed-out history and background, and this song is the perfect complement to that.
Alan Menken: It is. But in doing so, you wonder if you’re tripping up Aladdin and subjugating it. We’re not, but that was the danger. And so the proof is in the pudding, as they say. We got a good a good pudding.
How did you approach the lyrics and humor found in the songs?
Alan Menken: That was there in the original animation. I guess the best answer is get out of the way. Just set the tone and let the lyrics pop. Music can be witty, but it’s not funny unless it’s conceptually funny. So just give it the right tone, the right conceptual vocabulary, and just let the lyrics bounce off that music.
What other films did you use for inspiration, to set the tone while you were composing the music?
Alan Menken: Probably Lawrence of Arabia, The Thief of Bagdad, or the old Fletcher cartoons. I don’t know, because the songs really drive the score. And the songs are so far from just Arabic, they’re an homage to the Hollywood view of the mysterious East. It takes you back to the 40s, to Bing Crosby and road pictures.
This is my favorite movie, but my girlfriend’s is The Little Mermaid. How far along are you in that one?
Alan Menken: Two meetings in. I’ve written some of the music for the new songs. Lin Manuel Miranda is very involved in the In The Heights movie right now, so I guess we’ll get to it over the summer.
- Aladdin (2019) release date: May 24, 2019