Happy Birthday, Alan Menken!

I grew up listening to two piano men in my house. One was the lyrical genius Billy Joel and the other composed songs that played in the background of every Ken and Barbie wedding I had, every time I went to sleep scared of the dark, and every time I popped in a favorite Disney tape into the VCR. In college, his music kept me company while I experienced painful all-nighters or bursts of creative writing energy.

And today is his birthday.


It’s hard to believe that one of Disney’s greatest musical assets almost became a dentist. In all seriousness, every male in Menken’s family was one and he thought his life’s path would most likely bring him to dental school. He even enrolled at NYU as a pre-med student, but thankfully he put down the spit sucker and took to his piano for a degree in music instead. After college, he met his wife who was a ballerina while he made money accompanying ballet classes. (Isn’t that the most romantic thing you’ve ever heard?)

Then the Disney stars aligned in 1979 because when Alan joined a theatre workshop, he met another musical genius who I’m sure you’ve all heard of- Howard Ashman (and if you haven’t, seriously? SERIOUSLY?) They worked together on a musical version of Kurt Vonnegot’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater but then hit some real success with Little Shop of Horrors. After that began their long and extremely successful stint with Disney. I often think of Alan and Howard as our generation’s Sherman brothers. They were two very different men who worked extremely well together. (Minus all the whole family drama. They were actually great friends.)

After Howard’s untimely death, Alan kept composing for Disney and he still manages to blow me away every time. I’m a big James Horner fan (Braveheart, An American Tale, Titanic have some amazing instrumentals) but sometimes, his music starts to sound alike. I can hear the same tune at some spots and while it’s not a BAD reoccurring sound, with Alan’s music, it’s always something unique. Every movie is a completely new world and his music reflects that. For instance the chimes in the opening main titles of The Little Mermaid (Estelle and I BELIEVE they’re chimes, we’re no musicians here, people) remind me of bubbles and the sea. In contrast, the violins playing when you first meet Pocahontas, make me think of leaves blowing in the wind. The music does a fantastic job in furthering the action of the story, which to me, looks like one of the hardest jobs ever. Yet he pulls it off wonderfully every.single.time. I’m always so excited to see what he’s up to next and glad to know, that he doesn’t look like he’s stopping anytime soon!

Most recently, he was creating more songs for the full-length stage debut of Aladdin at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre.  It’s a two- hour and 15 minute-production that also includes a lot of the music that was cut from the original film. If all goes well, we could be seeing this on Broadway someday and that would make both Estelle and I VERY happy New Yorkers. For a little non-Disney fun, all you folks from the big apple should check out Sister Act on Broadway. He wrote the music along with lyricist, Glenn Slater (who helped him out with some additional songs for The Little Mermaid on Broadway. Why, oh why, did that close!?)

There aren’t any books out there about Alan in terms of biographies which I think is a damn shame. I, for one, would love to know what it’s like creating these legendary tunes or what is was like even in the beginning before Disney ever came along. What was going through his mind when we won his first Academy Award? His second? His eighth…Mr. Menken, if you ever read this, PLEASE write your story! You can even set the laptop on top of the piano!

I leave you with this fantastic video I found on The Disney Blog a few weeks ago. This was a bonus feature on the Tangled UK DVD and it’s a short music medley of Alan singing some of his best Disney hits.

Wishing you a very Happy Birthday, Mr. Menken! And many, many more!

One thought on “Happy Birthday, Alan Menken!

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