Da Doo Blog

Interview with Alan Menken, part one

I don’t remember the first time I met Alan Menken.  No doubt it was at a rehearsal or early performance of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, but I’m sure I was much more excited about the possibility of being in the same room as Kurt Vonnegut than about meeting some new composer.

That was 34 years ago.  We’ve had a chance to get to know each other since then.

I hated to ask Alan to answer some questions for this blog.  He’s been kind of busy these last few years and he gets requests from all sorts of people all the time.  But around Christmas I sent an email (“I know you’re busy…do you think at some point you’d be able to…don’t worry if you can’t.”  That sort of thing).  Alan got back to me immediately with, “sure, shoot the questions over.”

In fact, in the years since Howard died, Alan has never been too busy for me.  He’s treated Bill and me like partners in the business of keeping Howard’s work alive – which we are – all three of us.

So here we go.  I tried to ask questions that aren’t always asked.  More next week…

What was your first thought on meeting Howard?

I first met Howard when he came to my apartment to meet about collaborating on ROSEWATER. My first impression was that he seemed edgy and guarded. He wore torn jeans and a bomber jacket. He talked with a tight, intense energy, chain-smoking the entire time. And he was clearly very smart.

How about upon seeing the WPA theater for the first time?

I fell in love with the WPA Theater from the first moment I arrived there. It was a no-frills, creative playground. Kyle [Renick, co-founder of the WPA] and Howard clearly had a very authentic history together. And I felt, for the very first time, a sense of ownership of my own process.

Howard was a bit of a perfectionist, I know, and demanding of himself and others when working.  Was there ever a time you wanted to slam down the keyboard cover and say, “Enough, already”? It’s okay to answer this, we’ll like you anyway.

Of course!

I wanted to throttle him on a regular basis. When we were working he could be controlling, impatient, demanding, cutting, arrogant and condescending. And yet, he was actually the most considerate, thoughtful, smart, compassionate wise, generous and supportive friend I’ve ever had.

Is there a particular moment in your partnership with Howard that you think personifies the way you worked together?

Making a song

The moment I will never get over is when we were working on Something There for BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. We had been told that Human Again would not work for the movie; at least not in the form that we’d written it in. We were going back to the drawing board to write something more contained and simple. Howard wanted to tape the music that I’d written at his piano. He had a Walkman Pro with a little mic attached that wasn’t working right. Seemingly out of nowhere, he took this VERY expensive portable tape recorded/player and hurled it across the room. It smashed against the wall. When I got over my shock, I went to pick it up. Howard shouted “Don’t touch it!!”

With the burden of dealing with losing control of his body AIDS, not to be able to control his creative process as well was too much.

When Howard worked it was a total commitment. And every fiber in his being was brought to bear.

How did you complement each other, how and when did you butt heads?

We both loved all kinds of styles of music and what can be expressed through them. We were both all about results. It didn’t matter if the process was agonizing.

We butted heads constantly. But that was a deliberate part of our “marriage”.

Could you talk a bit about how you dealt with Howard’s illness.  Being in this business, I know you lost other friends and colleagues, can you talk about that period during the AIDS crisis?

The period, from 1981 thru 1995 was like living through a war, with unthinkable casualties and no end in sight. My first experience with AIDS was late in ’81, with a workshop of a rock musical I’d written titled ATINA: EVIL QUEEN OF THE GALAXY. Our stage manager came down with this intestinal bug that seemed to be cropping up elsewhere in the world. He was losing weight and strength. And, shortly after that workshop he died. Something was wrong in the universe. I felt it strongly in my gut. It cropped up in dreams, before I knew what was to come.

And then the avalanche hit. Directors, writers, producers, designers, choreographers, musicians etc etc etc… And those of us who knew and loved Howard said to ourselves “But, please, not Howard…” And he would reassure us all that he was fine. His weight loss was due to colitis or a hernia. And we all happily believed him.

Little Mermaid Oscar Night

Then, at the height of our success, with THE LITTLE MERMAID, it was becoming impossible for the secret to be kept any longer. At the Governors Ball, following the Oscars in 1990, Howard sat with me and said “When we get back to New York we have to talk. Not tonight.” And two days later he told me about being sick – HIV Positive; a death sentence.

Ironically, the emotional explosions at our work sessions stopped. We now shared this reality and I think it made things a little easier for him.

For me, it was a hellish period. My wife Janis knew, but I couldn’t tell anyone else. All I can say is that the emotions that were bottled up and dealt with on a personal level by Howard and me and probably most everyone else working with us is reflected in our score to BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.

Next week:  Working together and what might have been.



Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,
Posted on: January 8th, 2013 by Sarah Ashman Gillespie 3 Comments

3 Responses

  1. Myungji Kwak says:

    This is the best interview ever. I’m glad to see this, and also you.

  2. Jordan Briskin says:

    Without a doubt, I think that Howard would be elated beyond belief to see how his legacy has managed to survive as long as it has. Little wonder that Roy Edward Disney called him “another Walt Disney”.

  3. Benoit Massart says:

    Dear Sarah, dear Alan,
    It happened tonight that finally, I got to know more about the brilliant man that was your brother and your colleague. I am 27, French, gay, and the first movie I’ve ever seen at the cinema is Beauty and the Beast. As I am very keen of keeping Top 50 of almost everything, it should be no surprise to you that I incorporated B&B as number 3, just after Gone with the Wind and . Not only I can say that B&B rocked my childhood, but it is an obsession, still now. I am very found of the voice acting of both the american and french version of the movie (I hope you are aware of Lucie Dolène, our French Mrs Pot and White Snow back in the 60s. If not, please pay tribute to this amazing woman as soon as possible, as she is now very old… just saying Mr Menken…). Something struck me very hard about Mr Ashman, and that happened 10 years ago I guess: I then realized that I was gay, I struggled for the idea for a long time, and I tried to find people that I may know in history that may have been gay, and to whom I could relate so that I could convince myself there were hope in my condition for living a great life. And that’s where I learnt from Howard Ashman. Knowing he was behind the songs of Beauty and the Beast was a real shock. I feel so related to this music for so long now. But today came the revival of all these emotions when I read so many articles over the Internet on the fate of Howard, of the house he never lived in with Bill, of the terror of AIDS. I read somewhere, I quote, “From his deathbed, Howard wrote the lyrics for Beauty and the Beast’s songs—three of them would be nominated for Best Song at the Academy Awards, and the movie’s title song would win the Oscar.” Is that so? That was the sentence that struck me today, and I cried in front of my computer. After reading all about it, and trying to digest all these shocking informations, I finally landed here, on this interview of Mr Menken, and just down the article, I saw this sentence: “All I can say is that the emotions that were bottled up and dealt with on a personal level by Howard and me and probably most everyone else working with us is reflected in our score to BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.” So I want to say that, dear Sarah, dear Alan, yes, that is true, I can feel it, and so do many people around me that has this fascination for Beauty and the Beast. All the best. Benoît.

Leave a Reply