Alan Menken on Disney's Tangled
Alan Menken is, as his official biography states, among the Walt Disney Studio’s most prolific composers. The New Rochelle, New York native co-wrote Aladdin’s romantic “A Whole New World," Pocahontas’s sweeping "Colors of the Wind," and dozens of memorable songs for Disney’s animated classics The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996). Menken recently talked to me about his work for Disney’s new animated picture, Tangled, based on the children’s story of Rapunzel.
Have you read Rapunzel?
I had read the basic outlines. But when I was approached [for composing songs for Tangled], I went back and read the Grimm’s fairy tale, with the prince being blinded, and I thought, how are we going to tell the story through songs?
There is more guitar on the Tangled soundtrack. Why?
That was one of the concepts. When I thought about Rapunzel in the tower and her long hair, on a gut level, and I thought of the folk music of the 1960s—Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell—and, it wasn’t an immediate yes, but I wrote six different versions of that opening number [“When Will My Life Begin” performed by Mandy Moore as Rapunzel] and it worked.
What were you thinking for “I See the Light”?
Well, the first version was much more anthem-like and [I realized that] it wanted to be more gentle and folk-like, so I brought my mini-rig out and we began throwing melodies up, doing songs and riffs and harmonies, and we waited for something to stick. But we finally got to this version of “I See the Light”.
Tangled expresses a similar theme to another movie you worked on, Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, with the songs “Out There” by Quasimodo and “When Will My Life Begin?” by Rapunzel. Were you aware of the stories’ similarities during the writing process?
Painfully aware—and we wanted to make sure we avoided them. But there is a difference. Quasimodo looks out [from the church bell tower] and knows he wants to be out there in the world—but Rapunzel is not so sure; she’s afraid. We have to want it for her. So, it was a challenge. There’s also a very different energy in Tangled.
You have said that you seek clarity in your music and that you think it’s important for someone to understand the lyrics. Why?
Because you can so easily lose an audience on a musical. You need to be moving a story forward through music. A song can be the greatest story, and then you go into a snooze, and you need to see how the character develops in the song. A musical can be simple but a musical needs to be smart, and, in fact, there’s a very serious act of construction in a musical. In Tangled, we had to have to have Rapunzel start with [the premise that] ‘everything’s great here [in the tower]’ and end with: ‘when will my life begin?’
Do you have a favorite song from Tangled?
The song I’m most proud of is “I See the Light” but I also have to say “I’ve Got a Dream” was very hard to come by. It’s one of the dumbest songs I’ve done in my life, but it’s funny. It had to be a comedy song and an ensemble piece.
Do you have a favorite song from The Little Mermaid?
Probably “Under the Sea.”
Do you enjoy hearing your music on the organ at Disney’s El Capitan movie theater on Hollywood Boulevard?
Yeah, I love that. I met the organist there when we did the Beauty and the Beast sing-along. It’s a great experience.
Are you a Disney investor?
Do you have an iPod?
I have an iPod, an iPad, a MacBook Pro. As soon as Apple can embed a chip in me, I’ll do it.
How has Apple’s iTunes changed the way people consume your music?
Frankly, we make less money because it’s so easy to share [songs]. But, like everyone else, I love the convenience of being able to download songs. And someone may buy one song and then decide to buy the whole album.
You were once a pre-medical student at New York University. Are you glad you didn’t become a doctor?
The world is lucky I didn’t become a doctor. I took piano and guitar lessons but I’m very ADD [for Attention Deficit Disorder] and I couldn’t concentrate. My parents thought I was practicing—and I wasn’t—but I couldn’t wait to get to the piano and do something I wanted. It was like breathing. And I thought: ‘you can’t make a career out of [doing what you love]’. I didn’t want to go to graduate school and I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. But I knew I had a great sense of rhythm.
Is Tangled similar to Enchanted?
Enchanted was such a compelling idea from the very beginning—to take this character and have her thrust into this world—and Rapunzel doesn’t have that knowing wink that Enchanted does. We didn’t want to repeat ourselves, either. This really had to take itself seriously.