Fresh From the "Range," Alan Menken Takes New "Leaps"
BUENA PARK, CA (August 13, 2004) Most people would probably be driven to exhaustion by what passes for downtime in the career of celebrated film and stage composer Alan Menken.
Film, television and Broadway projects swirl constantly around the Grammy®-and Academy Award®-winning composer of Little Shop of Horrors, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules. His latest film, Disney's Home on the Range, will be released on DVD in mid-September, and his upcoming works include live-action television versions of A Christmas Carol (for NBC) and Hunchback (for ABC), a stage version of Mermaid, a stage musical based on the 1992 Steve Martin film Leap of Faith and his second live-action film.
The film, Noel, is due out this holiday season; it represents the feature directorial debut of actor Chazz Palminteri and stars Robin Williams, Penelope Cruz, Susan Sarandon and Alan Arkin. Menken hasn't scored a feature film with live actors since 1993's Life With Mikey.
"Chazz is a very experienced actor, and he has directed films before, just not a feature film," Menken says of the project. "He's a very collaborative man; he likes hearing the material at all levels of writing. He's been terrifically supportive, and I've tried to be supportive of him in giving him all the options he might need. He's a very option-oriented guy."
Asked how working with Palminteri differed from his many experiences with Walt Disney Pictures, Menken says the greatest differences between the genres are organizational.
"At Disney, I have very different arrangements," he notes. "More people participate in managing. With this project, it's really a matter of saying 'Look, here's the money, go do the score.' So I've had to hire people, manage the size of the orchestra, really balance all kinds of issues both artistic and non-artistic that used to be shared at Disney. It's a newer situation for everybody involved, and I've been more on my own."
His most recent Disney project, of course, was Home on the Range, which featured the voice talents of Judi Dench, Steve Buscemi, Cuba Gooding Jr., Rosanne and Randy Quaid in an animated adventure tale about saving a western dairy farm. In bringing recognizable western themes to a new score, Menken says, he started with the big picture.
"I felt the project would be best as a celebration of a genre, so the direction I wanted to take with the score was always finding the very interesting styles of western music and trying to evoke the landscape while telling the story," he explains. "The story went through an enormous number of changes, so the score went through an enormous number of changes. In the end, the songs and styles that ended up in the picture were really a process of survival of the fittest. For instance, we had had a mariachi opening that was a lot of fun and funny as well, with a whole lot of musical color, but when those characters didn't work out for the story, the song slid off the plate."
One thing Home on the Range had in common with Menken's earlier works is his reliance on Yamaha pianos for the development process.
"The Disklavier is the main Yamaha gear I'm working with right now," says Menken. "I have two Disklavier pianos (a DC7A and a DC3A). "When I was working on the songs for Noel I was in Stephen Schwartz's apartment, who is also as you know a Yamaha artist [See Accent, Summer 2003]. And we wrote the songs on the Disklavier, and I was able to take the file, bring it to my piano and continue to develop it." He has also recently adopted a Yamaha DM2000 mixing board, his first digital model.
Amazingly, one writer covering Menken's involvement with Noel referred to it as a "comeback." Asked about it, the composer says his work goes in cycles, and even though six years did pass between Hercules and Home on the Range, life behind the scenes was as busy as ever.
"There was definitely a change of direction that started around the time of Hunchback where they felt that they had saturated the market with the animated musical, especially in the style that Howard and I had started with," he says. (The late Howard Ashman, who passed away in 1991, was Menken's lyrical collaborator on projects like Little Shop of Horrors, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin). "The natural cycle was moving toward non-musical animated projects, or musical animated projects with songs under the action."
"But Home on the Range took a long time it was initially a project called Sweating Bullets, then it went through an entire story change, and then a title change. Work on Home on the Range started maybe a year and a half after Hercules. So the gap wasn't quite as large as it seems."
For more information, write Yamaha Corporation of America, Piano Division, P.O. Box 6600, Buena Park, CA 90622-6600; telephone (714) 522-9011; or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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