Alan Menken talks adaptations of ‘Aladdin’ and ‘The Little Mermaid’

As a composer who knows his way around a good reprise, Alan Menken is appropriately inclined to revisit his work. Take “Aladdin” and “Beauty and the Beast”: After writing the scores for the Disney animated classics in the 1990s, the 73-year-old returned to work on both movies’ Broadway adaptations and their recent live-action film versions.

“These are my babies,” says Menken, the winner of eight Oscars, 11 Grammys, an Emmy and a Tony. “At some point, I know I’m going have to say, ‘Okay, [someone else] take it and do it.’ But I really want to keep my musical stamp in the things that I created. It means a lot to me.”

Chuckling, he adds, “You could call it dedication — or you could call it neurosis.”

Menken’s melodies will arrive in Washington later this month when the “Aladdin” stage musical runs at the National Theatre from April 19-30. Come May 26, his latest Disney endeavor will hit theaters: the live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid,” for which Menken composed the score and wrote new songs with Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Speaking over video chat last month from his North Salem, N.Y., home, Menken reflected on bringing “Aladdin” to the stage, plunging back into “The Little Mermaid” and the endurance of his legacy.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Q: The stage version of “Aladdin” recently celebrated nine years on Broadway. What do you remember most about the challenge of adapting that story for a different medium?

A: Our job was, yes, of course, to bring “Aladdin” from the animated movie to the stage. But I wanted to make it so much more than that. There was some sort of treatment that was basically very true to what had been in the movie [and didn’t include several songs that had been cut from the film]. I was actually unusually adamant that I really wanted to find a way to bring in the songs that [lyricist Howard Ashman] and I had written: “Proud of Your Boy” and “High Adventure” and “Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim.” So we said, “Okay, reset.” And everybody was on board, which I’m really grateful about.

Q: You mentioned Ashman, who died in 1991, a year before the film’s release. How important was it to honor his legacy in the stage show?

A: For me, that was really the ultimate thing. We had to bring in the brilliance that Howard created that we had lost. It didn’t come together easily. We played with so many different elements, but what finally opened on Broadway was just the crème de la crème of all the things we had worked on for “Aladdin.” One of the most gratifying things in my career is the way “Aladdin” has turned out.

Q: When you revisit a project like “Aladdin” or “The Little Mermaid,” what’s the balance between re-creating your previous work and putting a new spin on it?

A: When I create a musical, I’m designing a house that I know others are going to live in, and I want to make sure this structure is strong enough to stand in any adaptation. So I treasure having new collaborators come and give their input into what we’ve already written. I treasure having new actors come and give interpretations to the roles. I love that. The last thing I want is something that’s kind of just chiseled in stone.

Q: How would you describe the experience of collaborating with Miranda on “The Little Mermaid”?

A: Years ago, I kept hearing about this little boy named Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was at the same school as my niece. It was just constantly, “Lin-Manuel Miranda has a question.” “Could you sign this for him?” I was like, “Who is this kid?” Then years passed — and there’s Lin-Manuel Miranda! Us collaborating on “Mermaid,” it’s been wonderful. He’s an artistic genius because there’s such an amalgam of styles in terms of what he does on his own. He was a little bit intimidated working with me, I think, because you’re filling Howard Ashman’s shoes. Lin’s on top of the world, but he’s still going, “Can I do this?” That’s what I love about him — he’s very real.

Q: How did your respective songwriting styles mesh?

A: There’s one song that’s very much in the Menken wheelhouse, a ballad [for Prince Eric] called “Wild Uncharted Waters.” At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a song where I took a variation on a piece of music from the original animated movie — kind of a lilting melody — and then Lin actually rapped over it in the most amazing way. That’s a song called “Scuttlebutt” that’s sung by Scuttle and Sebastian. And then there’s a new song for Ariel, “For the First Time.” There, similarly, I took it in kind of a lilting direction. He said, “That’s good, but can we give it more of a Latin beat?” Sure enough, it just ended up in this unique sweet spot.

Q: So much of your work from decades ago is being reimagined. There are the live-action remakes of your Disney films. “Little Shop of Horrors” is running again off-Broadway. You have a “Hercules” stage musical in the works. How does it feel to see your music remain so present in the public consciousness?

A: It’s wonderful, and occasionally a little unreal. “Newsies” just reopened in London. “Sister Act” is going to be embarking on, like, a world tour. We just had the sequel to “Enchanted” that came out. I always just keep my head down and write and serve the work. I love that, and I also know that there’s nothing more collaborative than musical theater, so to achieve these kinds of successes, it means that you’ve been very fortunate and working with some wonderful people.

National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.

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