There’s not a bigger name in musicals than Alan Menken, who has won eight Oscars, 11 Grammys, and a Tony Award.
And there are few busier composers in film or on stage. Menken has just finished working with Germantown Friends alum Benj Pasek and Justin Paul on a live-action film version of his Disney hit Aladdin, written with Howard Ashman. He’s now working with Lin-Manuel Miranda on a new film version of The Little Mermaid.
Menken’s into the fourth decade of a great run. His first big show was Little Shop of Horrors, his quirky 1982 Off-Broadway hit (and 1986 classic movie) with Ashman. The duo then figured large in the Disney renaissance, writing words, music, and score for Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin.
Ashman died of AIDS in 1991 during production of Beauty. Menken went on to write for many other films (including Newsies and The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and musicals (including Sister Act).
The national tour of Disney’s 2011 stage musical Aladdin is now playing at the Academy of Music. It has all the movie’s hits, plus three Ashman/Menken tunes left out of the film, as well as four others written for the musical with new composer Chad Beguelin.
Incredibly, this is the first time Disney’s Aladdin has been to Philadelphia. Menken spoke with us by phone from a car on his way to work in New York.
What were your favorite pop songs growing up?
I’m a child of the ’60s, so you had the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the British invasion, and folk music. But, you know, I don’t think of those as pop songs so much as a whole social movement we were enlisted in.
The Beatles had and still have a uniqueness and a tremendous energy and originality about their early songs that was revolutionary. Songs such as Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” are incredibly constructed, beautiful songs. I loved the singer-songwriters, too. With Joni Mitchell’s songs, you had the stories, the singer’s voice, the speaker who comes through so viscerally.
I felt the same way about Jackson Browne. His songs really speak. When you hear “These Days,” oh, my God, it just takes you.
The music and lyrics for Little Shop of Horrors are so funny and so well suited to the story … but this was a real divergence from what people thought of as a musical. You must have been chuckling to yourself a lot as you were working on it.
Howard [Ashman] had the idea back when he was in college. He loved the  Roger Corman movie, and as soon as he brought it up to me, I was dazzled by it, this tale of a nerdy guy who works in a flower shop with a plant that eats people – and actually makes his life better because of it.
Howard had the idea, and we took a crack at it, with a score close to the Corman movie in style, jazzy and weird, and it didn’t work as well as we wished. Then Howard came back with, ‘Let’s do it as a parable about the dark side of greed, and let’s use doo-wop and rock-and-roll music.’ And you just had to go, ‘Wow. What a great idea!’
How was it emotionally for you to finish the music for the original animated Aladdin, given Ashman’s passing?
For me, there’s a note of sadness to all of the work I wrote with Howard. That has transformed itself into this feeling I have that I’m still collaborating with him, whatever I’m doing. That’s just how it feels to me.
The real brunt of the loss was really Beauty and the Beast, because it was happening during the recording sessions … With Aladdin, which we’d started on by then, it was a sense of, ‘Can I keep the legacy going? What career can I have now, with Howard gone?’
But then Beauty and Newsies and Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules came one after another, and I didn’t have much time for mourning, aside from shedding a tear on a plane.
What was it like to turn Aladdin into a play? What was your job there?
The movie was wonderful and gratifying, wedding songs I did with Tim Rice with the ones I had done with Howard. Howard and I had written songs that were lost when the movie got changed in production, and I wanted those songs, “High Adventure” and others, resurrected if at all possible.
And, as any collaborator would, I loved working with [director/choreographer] Casey Nicholaw and Chad Beguelin, the writer of the new book, and the stage show reflects their sensibility as much as mine. Casey loves choreography, pace, and entertainment, and he creates a machine that, once it gets going, will work for years. Chad is uniquely great as a book writer. He’s funny, but he’s also a real structuralist who knows how to create characters and incorporate the older songs
And now you’re returning to the 1980s and 1990s films for a new generation.
What’s interesting is these live-action films do kind of leapfrog over the Broadway shows. With Aladdin, I’m so happy we did the Broadway show. It’s such a completely unique experience, though, that it’d be difficult to translate to film as it is. That’s why I hope people see the musical stage version of Aladdin – the film is not going to be a film version of it. You have to try to find something new, and [director] Guy Ritchie has his own vision, one that makes it worthwhile and worth the effort.
What’s it like to work with Lin-Manuel Miranda? Is Little Mermaid going to have hip-hop?
I would doubt it. Lin is much more than hip-hop: He’s an all-around musical theater person. He’s a phenomenal, smart guy. You know, a lot of this generation of songwriters I knew as kids. I knew about Lin years ago, as well as writers like Bobby Lopez (Book of Mormon, Avenue Q), and Pasek and Paul, I knew about them when they were still in college. They’re all kind of my boys.
You’ve worked with Ashman, Miranda, Rice, now Pasek and Paul – you’re a career collaborator.
At some point, I figured out a few things: Don’t ever fall in love with your own work. Always be ready to throw something out and try something new. If you have a good idea but you can’t use it right now, wait; it’ll come back.
The worst thing you can do is dig your heels in and make a cause célèbre of saving one song or one idea. In songwriting, if you want to be successful, you have to get out of your own way as much as possible. Be in the moment with your collaborators, be open to trying new things all the time, listen to the audience, and know that you’re part of a much bigger thing.
Through July 1 at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St. Tickets: $20-$159. Information: 215-893-1999, kimmelcenter.org.