How does one refresh the tunes of a tale as old as time?
That assignment went to Grammy, Tony and Oscar winner Alan Menken, who composed the music for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast — the 1991 animated classic, the 1994 Broadway musical and the live-action remake directed by Bill Condon, out Friday.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Menken about rediscovering lost lyrics by the late Howard Ashman, writing new songs and “just shutting up” about that gay character.
How did you tweak the original film’s beloved songs for the remake?
We made adjustments in all of them, mostly for choreography, staging, people’s ranges and dialogue we added. We adjusted some lyrics in “The Mob Song” because Bill wanted this sense of Gaston as a demagogue at that point, and the turnaround of Lefou. It was just a few lines — I hated to lose Howard’s lines, every word of Howard’s is precious. But we added some unused, lost lyrics of Howard’s into “Gaston” and “Beauty and the Beast.” So beautiful.
There’s such a rich trove of unheard Howard Ashman lyrics that we’re so blessed to draw from. So much of what helped make the Broadway show Aladdin so successful is that I was able to go into that trove and find material that Howard had written for the original that didn’t make it in. It’s just wonderful that throughout my entire life, that brief time I had worked with him, I keep getting to reach back.
What did you think of Lefou as a tribute to Howard Ashman?
Being honest, it actually wasn’t an idea that was discussed. I mean, I really allowed Bill free rein. And still, when I look at the movie, OK, if you want to interpret it that way, you could. The only difference is Lefou and Gaston are a little less exaggerated in their behavior, and there’s this teeny little wink at the very end that doesn’t really say anything. It’s beyond tiny, it’s not even visible. Listen, anything that’s about inclusivity and a tribute to Howard is a beautiful thing. But at this point I just — you know, with the attention that particular [issue] got, I’m just shutting up.
Tell me about the three new songs, with lyrics by Tim Rice.
My main priority was to protect what was there originally and add in those places where it feels organic to the medium.
“Days in the Sun” initially came about 10 years ago, when the idea of a Beauty and the Beast live-action film was first floated around. I was in London opening Sister Act, and Tim [Rice] and I got together and wrote two songs, including “Days in the Sun.” It’s a lullaby when the enchanted objects and Belle and Beast think about what they miss about their lives. Bill thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to establish a lot of backstory — we’re emotionally attached to these characters, and we want to feel more of a connection to who they are.
“How Does a Moment Last Forever” is very French and holds the backstory for Belle and [her father,] Maurice. It asks, “How do we hold on to those fleeting moments in our lives?” Incredibly, we have Celine Dion singing it over the end credits, which is just so amazing. I think that song has some extra meaning for her because we lost her husband, Rene [last year]. They were such a devoted couple.
And it would’ve been perfect to have Beast sing in the animated [movie], but we just weren’t able to find that moment in that particular medium. But on Broadway and in the live-action film, it’s essential that the Beast sing. See, the Beast is really the protagonist of the story, whose life has changed in the most dramatic way. So we wrote “Evermore,” which also ramps up everything for the end of the movie, when it’s just action, action, action.
Why not use any songs from the Broadway adaptation?
There was an open question until we got into it. But the initial six songs from the animated musical were clearly going in. There were two [from the stage production] that I would’ve loved to use: “Human Again,” which Howard and I initially wrote for the animated movie. I love that song, but it was a nine-minute number and problematic because of the logic of the story. So instead, we used “Something There,” since both deal with Belle and the Beast falling in love and everyone anticipating becoming human again. The other one, of course, is Beast’s “If I Can’t Love Her.” The Beast has driven Belle away and now that he can’t love her, who could he ever love? It’s a moment of just crying out to the heavens. But that song was put in specifically for the act break of a Broadway show; in a film, people aren’t going out to go to the bathroom and get drinks.
There’s also a song in the Broadway musical called “Home,” which is not in the movie, but Bill wanted to use the theme in the score of the scene when Belle first enters her room in the castle. I was just thrilled.
Are you someone who checks how people are reacting online to a new clip with your music, like Emma Watson singing the overture?
If someone points it out to me. For a while now, I try to ignore the hoopla, because if you buy into that, you have to buy into the criticism. All you can do is put your work out there and move on; you just never know what will come. When Newsies first came out, it just crash-landed with a thud; it won a Razzie for worst song of the year and I felt such embarrassment. Fast-forward and it’s a hit on Broadway and I win a Tony for the score! I feel sorry for people who hang on to their triumphs or get obsessed with their failures. It’s just such a waste of energy.
What are you working on next?
A lot of film projects. Apparently, we’re talking about a live-action movie-musical of The Little Mermaid. I had one meeting with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Marc Platt and that was it. It was great. I don’t know who’s directing it, I don’t know who’s writing it, but they’re tied up in London for Mary Poppins Returns. I’ve known Lin-Manuel for much of his life; when he was a kid, he went to school with my niece.
At Disney, there’s also the Aladdin live-action movie, a developing sequel to Enchanted, and the Tangled TV show, and at Warner Bros., there’s apparently going to be another Little Shop of Horrors adaptation. And I’ve been working on an original musical for Universal [with Josh Gad and Jeremy Gerelick] — Steven Schwartz and I wrote a whole score and lots of songs. It’s a lot of fun. And also, my first animated movie in over a decade, but nothing’s greenlighted.
Is there ever a past work you wouldn’t want to revisit for a live-action adaptation?
Well, if it’s one of my projects and they want to do it, it’s sort of a shotgun marriage — I have to do it because it’s my baby. My favorite thing is a brand-new project from scratch, because you really never know how they’re going to come to life. Going back for the third and fourth time to old ones is very gratifying, but it’s not my favorite use of my creativity. And when I do that, I really count on having strong collaborators who share their vision of where they’d like to see this go, like Bill Condon, and that makes it easier and more satisfying to me than if I had to do it on my own. I don’t know where I’d go if I alone had a third go-around on one of those projects.
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