An interview with Alan Menken about BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: DIAMOND EDITION by Elaine Lipworth
Disney’s most requested film BEAUTY AND THE BEAST combines a poignant, timeless story with extraordinary music and the marvels of Disney animation at its best. With state of the art picture restoration, pristine 7.1 Digital Surround Sound and fascinating additional viewing, including behind the scenes features, deleted scenes and immersive games, this is the second installment in Disney’s new ‘Diamond Collection’. [The ‘Combo pack’ is a Blu-ray Disc plus a DVD in a single package.]
The film has become a modern classic, indelibly embedded in cinematic history – but equally relevant and entertaining now is as it was when first came out in 1991.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST was the first of only two animated films ever to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. (The second was UP in 2009).
The story is well known. Set in the picturesque French countryside during the late 18th century, it centers on Belle, a bright and beautiful young woman who finds escape from her ordinary life and the advances of a boorish suitor, Gaston, by reading books.
Meanwhile, in a distant castle, a young prince has been transformed into a tormented beast under the spell of an enchantress. His servants are now animated household objects. In order to remove the curse, the Beast must discover a true love who will return his affection before the last petal falls from an enchanted rose. When Belle’s inventor father stumbles upon the Beast’s castle and is taken prisoner, the beautiful girl comes to the rescue and agrees to take her father’s place. But with the help of the castle’s enchanted staff, she sees beneath the Beast’s exterior and discovers the heart and soul of a human prince.
The film was directed by Gary Trousdale and the enormously talented voice cast includes Paige O’Hara as the voice of Belle, Robby Benson as the Beast and Richard White as Gaston. Angela Lansbury gives a memorable performance as Mrs. Potts, while David Ogden-Stiers is Cogsworth, the head of the household.
Composer Alan Menken won an Oscar for Best Music, Original Song together with the late Howard Ashman for BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. They received Oscar nominations for the songs BE MY GUEST and BELLE.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST was the first Disney animated film to inspire a Broadway stage musical.
Alan Menken has composed huge hits such as THE LITTLE MERMAID, ALADDIN, HERCULES, POCAHONTAS and ENCHANTED and has won more Oscars than any other living person. He sat down for the following interview.
Q: You have been involved with so many wonderful Disney films, what does BEAUTY AND THE BEAST mean to you?
A: “BEAUTY AND THE BEAST has been a perennial favorite of people who love Disney animation. They have a continued appetite to know more about it and to see it enhanced. That is incredibly gratifying. I love the film too. I just watched it again and it is gorgeous. It is possible that it is even more beautiful than it was when it debuted. It is very gratifying to have this ‘Diamond Edition’.”
Q: Can you explain what it was that you did musically with BEAUTY AND THE BEAST?
A: ”All Howard and I did was to tell the story, which is very romantic. The setting is timeless and I just went to my gut, which is what I always do. With this one, Howard was in his last days, although at the beginning I didn’t know that, but by the end of working on it, I knew that this was a great artist’s last creation. I am sure that emotion informed what we did. We worked with a palette of French and classical and Broadway music and it was a culmination of a certain kind of emotion for us. Also all these projects we do – whether it is THE LITTLE MERMAID OR BEAUTY AND THE BEAST or ALADDIN – are homages. This one is an homage to the most romantic parts of the Disney canon. Maybe I was channeling something special I don’t know, but it was clearly romantic and timeless and I credit Howard with a lot of what we came up with.”
Q: The music has everything: from poignancy, to humor and ultimately joy, how did you convey that spectrum of emotions?
A: “That is what we always aim to do. As an ideal, the Disney musical is always a combination of things that are joyful and things that are wistful and scary too and BEAUTY has all those elements. I can only be as good as the stories I am telling and the characters that I am bringing to life. And with this film we were bringing some powerful things to life.”
Q: Can you specifically talk about the memorable musical high points of the film?
A: “Let’s take it chronologically. I had to come up with my version of THE CARNIVAL OF THE ANIMALS by Camille Saint Camille Saint-Saëns (French composer) at the top of the movie, which is a very impressive and very timeless piece of music. We were weaving a spell and that’s the prologue music. When we got to BELLE, I was really going for operetta, something to portray this innocent character in a world that is so protected and safe. And then transitioning to the town where she is seen as odd, out of place, we have BONJOUR , when she is walking to the town and everything is so busy and bustling and she is oblivious to the fact that she is different from everyone else. The song is telling the story of Belle going to the town and everyone’s reaction to her and getting to see Gaston and knowing he is infatuated with her - but more infatuated with himself.”
Q: The song GASTON is funny and highly evocative isn’t it?
A: “GASTON is really tongue in cheek, it is a drinking song sung by basically a group of Neanderthal level guys in praise of a complete lug-head. So it’s hilarious and when we were writing that song I could not contain my laughter. It was very funny material. Then we have BE OUR GUEST. I remember I said to Howard ‘I’m going to give you a song which will just be the dummy, I said ‘this is it without me even thinking about it, then I’ll write something really good.’ So I sang the tune to him ‘ya da dum da da dum …ba ba ba ba ba ba …’ and I said ‘now I will write the real music’. Of course after struggling I couldn’t improve on that dumb piece of music that I wrote initially, because it was just right and it got out of the way to let Howard’s lyrics shine.”
Q: You won the Oscar for BEAUTY AND THE BEAST of course.
A: “I don’t think I had ever spent more time writing a song than with that particular one. It was the height of simplicity and we knew we would have to write a song that could have a life outside the movie. So there was an extra dimension to the work we were doing and that really took a lot of time. SOMETHING THERE was a very quick replacement for a much more ambitious song called HUMAN AGAIN, a nine minute song that was in the end too ambitious for the film. A modified version of that song of course made it into the movie when it was re released and also into the Broadway show. Finally THE MOB SONG was almost like a macho adventure underscore and again something that was in its own way groundbreaking.”
Q: Can you discuss the wonderful comic elements, provided by Mrs. Potts (voiced by Angela Lansbury)?
A: Mrs. Potts is actually modeled on Mrs. Bridges from UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS, the character from the BBC series. She was the maid but ran the whole household. Howard was really channeling that when we wrote BE OUR GUEST. She is the most joyful, motherly presence with little Chip. They are so sweet and remind me of PETER PAN a little bit, which was always Howard’s favorite. He grew up loving PETER PAN.”
Q: What will we see that is special in this Diamond Edition?
A: “You will see HUMAN AGAIN, you will see storyboard versions of the songs we wrote, which means you will see some of the original visuals that we were writing to. You will see a history of Howard Ashman with pictures of him from his childhood, close to when he passed away and you will get a real appreciation of what he accomplished. You are going to see the connection between BEAUTY AND THE BEAST on Broadway and the animated musical. You see how often performers came from Broadway to animation and how much the animated musicals are now going to back to Broadway and bringing employment and opportunities to Broadway actors, producers and designers. You are also going to see some history of how BEAUTY AND THE BEAST came about.”
Q: Obviously it led to one of your eight Oscars – you have more than other living person. What does that feel like?
A: “I feel very fortunate to be honest. I feel so privileged to have been involved with Disney and these musicals, because they are great matches for my talents. That is why we have had the success we have had, because of the chemistry between what I do and what Disney does.”
Q: What are the themes of this classic story and the film specifically?
A: “In essence BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is romantic in the deepest sense. It’s about this girl who is bookish and lives through the fantasies she has found in these books and she’s smart. She wants to be a good girl. In today’s world she would be a very good student. But she is put into a situation where she meets a beast who is primitive and he is enhanced by her intelligence. And she is enhanced by his tragic nature. It is about her compassion for him and that is what brings him to life again as a human being. All that is very deep. If you look at the magical nature of the castle and the world of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, it really takes all of us into our ‘child selves’ . You can’t be in the movie and stay in modern day reality. You have to let go and become a child again which is what all the best of the Disney animated projects do.”
Q: I assume your own inner child is very much alive?
A: ”It is all about my inner child, entirely about my inner child. There is not a whole lot of calculation going on. But when I go back and watch SNOW WHITE, CINDERELLA, PINOCCHIO, if you really stop and watch them, your child-self takes over. I write and exist from my gut and not from my brain. My brain gets me up in the morning and tells me where to go (laughs) but my gut tells me ‘this is the music we need here. This is the emotion we’re feeling now’; and I make more decisions from my gut than I do from my head.”
Q: I know you have been very much inspired by the great Disney classic FANTASIA, does that movie continue to be an inspiration? Is it still close to your heart?
A: “Oh my goodness yes. To this day my favorite Beethoven Symphony is the 6th Symphony: The Pastoral. Well why is that? It is because of FANTASIA. In a way that film was my doorway into classical music, but I think I would have discovered it anyway.”
Q: Many of your films have also gone onto become enduring classics, like the early Disney films you mention. Were you born with this formidable talent? I know most of your family were dentists not musicians.
A: “Well yes that is true. All the men in my family were dentists (laughs). My father, his father and brother, my mother’s sister’s husband and my father’s sister’s husband - all dentists. But from my earliest time I was very responsive to music and to how music reflected stories and drama. It is part of who I am. It is sort of an accident that I ended up being involved with Disney, because it never could have happened.”
Q: How did it happen?
A: “Back in about 1987 at the time that THE LITTLE MERMAID was being made, Howard Ashman was actually writing a show with Marvin Hamlisch. I guess he could’ve gone to Marvin Hamlisch and said ‘do you want to work on this Disney animated movie?’ So I look at it as fate. How else can you look at your own life? I feel very gratified and fortunate that I got to do those films and I would love to do more. TANGLED is coming out and that is wonderful. And if I never do another one I will be very, very satisfied with my life, I’ve done eight animated musicals plus ENCHANTED and NEWSIES. That is a huge amount of output so I feel very lucky.”
Q: Finally can you sum up what is in store for lovers of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, with this new DVD?
A: “If you love BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and you love Disney animation, this Blu Ray/DVD set opens up a whole different dimension. You will see the directors and I and the producer talk about each moment in the movie in detail, But it also has the story behind the scenes and the sketches behind the scenes. It is really riveting and moving to me as someone who was involved, and I think it will be even more riveting for people who were not involved, to be drawn in by seeing it in this medium. It is beautiful. If you make room for this experience in your life – no matter what your age – it is really quite special. We all have very busy lives, it is often hard to stop for a second and put a movie like this on, but if we do: it is a Godsend.”
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: Diamond Edition Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack is Available October 5th!