A Whole New World of Alan Menken rocks Chicago

Alan Menken, photo by Frazer Harrison

Disney Legend Alan Menken took to the stage of the Auditorium Theatre in the Chicago Loop to perform A Whole New World of Alan Menken.

A Whole New World of Alan Menken

If you’re like me, Alan Menken was a large part of your childhood.  After all, Menken would write for so many Disney films!  I couldn’t even begin to choose my favorite Menken song because there are way too many of them.  This truly speaks to his legacy with having written so many hit songs.

During the evening’s retrospective, Menken shared the ups and downs of his career.  He shared the good times and the sad times.  Most recently, both of his parents died this year with his mother’s death coming just a week ago.  Yet there he was doing his job on stage in Chicago.  It’s true what they say:  the show must go on.  Menken jokingly told the audiences that during rehearsals, there was no way that the audience would call him back for an encore.  Sure enough, the audiences did.  This of course came after performing a song (“Proud of Your Boy”) written for the Aladdin film, which got cut–as did the mother in traditional Disney fashion.  It’s featured in the Broadway musical.

The night started off with a classic Aladdin tune (“Prince Ali”) before throwing it back to the days of a teenage Menken.  He shared stories of growing up and being interested in music but not wanting to practice.  Memories were shared of his pre-Howard Ashman days and how he came to meet his wife, Janis.  A chance encounter with Ashman would lead to Menken working on his first produced musical, G-d Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.  The next musical they did would change their career for better or worse, Little Shop of Horrors.  The Oscar winner would sing a medley of songs from this film and share how so many members of his family were dentists.

While the world was chaos all around, Menken and his wife were starting a family.  There was nothing safe on TV.  However, the animated Disney classics were beginning to make their way to VHS.  You probably would never predict what would happen next.

“It was the one safe space in the world,” Menken said.  “It was a refuge.”

Following this film, Ashman would call Menken about working on an animated Disney musical.  The film would turn out to be The Little Mermaid.  This film would pave the way for the Disney Renaissance.  Menken performed a number of songs including the show-stopping “Under the Sea.”  This song would see the duo win their first Oscar and sit along the aisle.  It would also segue to the next part of their short-lived partnership.  Howard told Menken that they needed to have a serious talk when they get back to New York.  This was when Ashman revealed to Menken that he was diagnosed with HIV+.  After sharing this story, Menken immediately performed a tribute to AIDS victims that was co-written with Ashman, Sheridan Square.  It’s such a moving and eloquent tribute.

Even though Howard was dying, it wouldn’t stop the duo from working on Beauty and the Beast together.  A number of songs from the animated hit were performed as Menken plugged the Howard Ashman documentary.  Appropriately, these songs were a hit with the audiences.  Funny enough, Menken shared how he gave Howard fake music for “Be Our Guest.”  The plan was for the real music to come later.  However, none of that music would carry the same magic.  The tune that made it into the film was the original version.  An early recording of the title song would precede Menken performing the song live for the audience.

The night before Menken would take home another Oscar for Beauty and the Beast, he would win a Razzie for Newsies.  Co-written with Jack Feldman, “High Times, Hard Times” wold win Worst Original Song.  A medley of songs would be performed before diving right into Aladdin.  “Friend Like Me” was originally written in a Harlem jazz style so you can imagine Menken’s reaction when he learned that Robin Williams was cast instead of someone like Cab Calloway.  This is where the show becomes something you HAVE to see in person because Menken sang the tune in the style that it was originally written.  Because Ashman passed away, Tim Rice came on to finish the songs with Menken.  After performing A Whole New World, the retrospective went into an intermission.

The second act would focus on more Disney films but also the Broadway musicals.  “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahantas preceded “Someday” and “Out There” from The Hunchback of Notre Dame–all co-written with Stephen Schwartz.  Hunchback has since transitioned into a Broadway musical just like a number of other animated films.  Menken would co-write songs for Hercules with David Zippel.  Tonight, he performed “Zero to Hero” and  the Oscar-nominated “Go the Distance.”

“It was an utter disaster,” Menken said of 2004’s Home on the Range.  Menken wrote songs for the film with Glenn Slater with Bonnie Raitt singing the song the best described the feelings about this cow western (Will the Sun Ever Shine Again).

“It was such a great idea,” Menken would say of Enchanted.  Kevin Lima was looking for someone who could parody both the classic Disney songs as well as the contemporary Alan Menken songs.  Who better to do this than Alan Menken himself?  Stephen Schwartz would co-write the lyrics.  Menken performed a medley of tunes from this classic (True Love’s Kiss/Happy Working Song/That’s How You Know).

When The Little Mermaid came to Broadway, Menken realized that Prince Eric needed a song (Her Voice).  Next up would be Tangled co-written with Glenn Slater (When Will My Life Begin/Mother Knows Best).

Menken doesn’t just specialize in film as he would also write 60 songs for an 18-episode TV series, Galavant.  Marvel also came calling for him with an Irving Berlin-style tune in Captain America: The First Avenger (“Star-Spangled Man,” co-written with David Zippel).  Seth Rogen would get a shout out during the evening.  This because Menken composed the music for “The Great Beyond” with Glenn Slater, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg.  Because of the song’s lyrics, Menken couldn’t perform much of the song.  Last year’s Ralph Breaks The Internet would see Menken compose a tune for another Disney princess (A Place Called Slaughter Race).

In 2012, Menken had a trio of musicals running on Broadway: Sister Act, Raise Your Voice, and Leap of Faith.

Despite the film winning him a Razzie and being a box office flop, Newsies was the film that would not go away.

“It was such a flop movie but refuses to die, apparently,” Menken said.

Menken would perform “Watch What Happens,” a song sung by Katherine in the musical.  The musical would later earn him a Tony Award.  Another musical that Menken composed was A Bronx Tale (Everywhere I Go).

With Disney looking into their animated past for live-action films, Menken plugged the upcoming versions of Aladdin (new songs co-written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) and The Little Mermaid (new songs co-written with Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Beauty and the Beast is currently the most successful live-action musical of all time with no songs co-written by Tim Rice including “Evermore.”  Menken would perform “How Does A Moment Last Forever.”

As the night came to an end, audience in Chicago would become among the first to be treated to a new song (“It’s a Cool Day in Hell”) written for the upcoming Hercules musical opening this summer.  In particular, this song is sung by Hades, Pain, and Panic around the moment that flames come out of his head in the film.

Never in a million years did I ever think that I would see Alan Menken live in person.  Needless to say but Alan Menken did not disappoint.  Not at all!  While I’ve yet to see John Williams live in person, Menken is a living legend.  If you ever have a chance to see Menken live, you will not be disappointed.  This evening was an awesome yet surreal experience.  I hope that Alan Menken one day wins an Emmy Award because he should have been an EGOT winner by now.

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.