Interview | Alan Menken and the Art of Disney Villain Songs
Few composers have left such an indelible mark on the contemporary culture as Alan Menken, a man who – along with collaborators like the late Howard Ashman – was responsible for many of the most popular musicals of this past generation. Alan Menken left his indelible stamp on such films as Little Shop of Horrors, The Little Mermaid, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tangled and of course Beauty and the Beast, an animated classic with a live-action remake that arrives in theaters this weekend.
Those films have a lot in common, but one of the most popular elements of each and every one of them are the villain songs. Practically everyone can at least hum along to tunes like “Gaston” or “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” and audiences are still discovering just how rich and complicated and subversive numbers like “Hellfire” and “Mother Knows Best” really are.
Disney villain songs are among the most popular pieces of music in family movie history, so when I sat down with the man responsible for so very many of them, I knew we would have to spend most of our time talking about the creative process that goes into producing musical numbers for monsters. Alan Menken enthusiastically opened up about his classic (and not-so-classic) movies, with lots of insights and anecdotes about films ranging from Beauty and the Beast to Newsies to Home on the Range, a film the composer describes as “the dumbest movie.”
Crave: I’m a big fan of your work. I actually performed “Dentist!” at my high school, with an actual power drill. It was plugged in, and on stage…
Alan Menken: It’s a little dangerous!
Yeah, I got my hair stuck!
[Laughs.] Oh man, that’s bad.
It’s okay. It didn’t rip out any scalp.
Where was this?
This was John Muir high school in Pasadena. Yeah, that was fun.
[Sings.] “When I was younger, just a bad little kid…”
Which actually brings me to the crux, the thing I want to talk about the most with you. You have this long and exciting history as a composer but I think more than any other composer I can think of, you’ve written a lot of classic villain songs.
Does that even occur to you as something you’ve done? Is the “villain song” a genre?
No! No, it’s just you want to write a well-rounded musical and there’s antagonists in musicals. I mean, you could say there’s comedic villain songs, and then there’s “Hellfire,” you know? They come in many shapes and sizes. There are some musicals where we couldn’t have a villain song. I always wanted to have a villain song for Hades in Hercules, but I couldn’t figure out how we would have Hades sing. Whether it was the way he was depicted in the movie, whatever. [There’s] no given about a villain number. We also wanted to have one for Narissa in Enchanted. I remember I wrote one for Narissa but we just couldn’t get it in.
What was the Narissa song?
She’s walking down the street and says “Nobody Gets in My Way.” It was a real rock raver. It would have been great for Susan Sarandon, but you know, each musical defines itself based on the medium, based on what you’ve written before and how they all balance out. So yes, a villain number is a very valuable thing to have but if you look at most musicals, one way or another there’s an antagonist number. That’s just, I supposed, in a Disney project – or then again, in Little Shop of Horrors – if it’s something that’s a little exaggerated in terms of its tone, the villain might also be a little exaggerated.
I’ve noticed a lot of villain numbers tend to be about one or two things: either braggadocio, talking about how great or wicked they are, or they’re kind of seductive. The villain song from Tangled, for example, is about trying to convince Rapunzel to stay where she is. It’s a lie.
Yeah, and boy, that was a subtle villain number to write.
That was hard.
Because you can’t give it away…
[Laughs.] You can’t give it away, and she is her mother at that moment. We had to walk some very delicate lines there, in terms of “Mother Knows Best.”
In terms of their relationship…?
Sure, I mean, it needs to be established that she loves her mother and her mother loves her, and also you’re dealing with a subtle kind of emotional abuse that is clearly a much more serious and subtle element than you can give value to in a Disney song, a song for Disney. You have to sort of scale it back to her simply being a manipulative mother, and lighten it so that they can still have a mother/daughter relationship. If you think about it that’s a lot of modulating that has to happen with that. Or again, I go back to “Hellfire.” “Hellfire” is [about] a man who’s tortured himself and then projects it onto Esmeralda. He has to destroy her because he can’t control his feelings about her.
How did you get away with “Hellfire”? His feelings about her are lust. I was amazed Disney even did The Hunchback of Notre Dame to begin with. I mean, they lightened the ending, but beyond that… what sort of conversations were had about “Hellfire”?
Howard [Ashman] loved… there’s a number from Tosca that was one of his models. The truth is, you say “How do you get away with it?” Again, I could turn that around and go, “How do you get with not going to a legitimately authentic place?” Even if it’s what you think of as being family entertainment, you still want to go as deep as you can go. And then you can always bring it up and soften it around the edges, rather than doing some kind of watered down version of what it really is. Our job is to tell the story and if we go too far then we will pull it back. It’s no fun to put on the brakes before you first race the car.
I think we went, with Hunchback, that probably was as dark as Disney animated has ever gone. And it’s so popular. You know we now has a stage version which is now… I’m heading to Berlin to see it over there. It’s really popular and really good. Yeah, it was dark, no question about it, but a generation grew up – I think – loving it.
In Beauty and the Beast you have a couple villain songs. Obviously there’s “Gaston”, which is a great rousing chanty, practically.
But you also have “The Mob Song”, which is also in its way a villain number but villain is society.
Yes, it is.
Can you tell me about the origin of that song and what you were trying to accomplish, in particular?
Well, it’s every demagogue, in a sense, rousing the populace towards the scapegoat. In this case the scapegoat is The Beast. We’re going to kill The Beast. Again, that’s subtext. What it is is Gaston is jealous and angry and he wants to destroy this Beast. That’s what it is, and in order to… you see this buffoon of a man turner darker and darker and darker until he becomes an instrument of evil.
For the new version you’ve had to take a story you’ve already told, Beauty and the Beast, and incorporate new bits. It’s got to be about an hour longer. You added some new songs, and one thing you didn’t add – and I wondering if maybe you’d go here – but there’s no early Beast song. When we’re introduced to The Beast as a monster that could have been another opportunity to do another villainous type song, to demonstrate how he’s perceived. Was that ever a temptation.
No. No, the equivalent of his early Beast song really takes place in the prologue, which already is very musical, but it’s narrated. I also think, I don’t think you’re sufficiently invested in The Beast at the top to have him sing. The Beast is not the villain. The Beast is the protagonist.
Now, could you do a Beauty and the Beast where in the sense the role that is taken by Belle is architecturally taken by The Beast? I guess you could. That would be very interesting, wouldn’t it? It would be like… [Laughs]… The Beast walks through the castle and the objects sing, [sings to the tune of “Belle”] “Bonjour!” “Bonjour!” “There goes The Beast, that we hate him, hate him!” “Why yes, HERE I AAAAAAAAM!” [Laughs.] I don’t know. I don’t know. But I never felt a temptation towards that. It’s just architecturally, it really doesn’t seem appropriate. But again, then you’d have to tear the building down and rebuild it from scratch.
I guess my point is, I hear a lot of actors talk about how they don’t really judge their characters. It seems like The Beast, when we meet, is sort of judging himself. He does seem to have gone to a very dark place and just accept that he’s a monster in some regards. He plays the part.
He’s an angry, petulant young man who has now been trapped in a beast’s body and hates the world and is a very dark soul. Period. I think we have to take that at face value, pretty much.
Do you have a favorite song that you’ve ever written?
No, I hate that question.
They’re all your kids?
I realize it is such a…
I know you have to throw it out there…
But I’d be more interested, you’re the interviewer not me, but I’d be more interested if you had a favorite song of mine. I could say, okay… but you know, they ARE all my children so I can’t do that.
That’s absolutely fair. What is the biggest surprise, someone who has come up to you and said, “You know what my favorite is’ [BLANK.]” Tell me about that.
Somebody, I was doing an interview in London, said “You wrote my favorite song.” He said, “A song called ‘People Like Us’ from Leap of Faith.”
What?! My head just went… [mimes his head exploding].
That’s a deep cut.
Sometimes people will say, “Oh, I love that song ‘I’ve Got a Dream’ from Tangled” and I go, “Really?”
Are YOU not a big fan…?
It’s such a… it is what it needed to be, which is a very kind of simple, dumb song.
Is it difficult to write that? You know what the story needs but you’d rather do something different?
What you need to find is, what is the vocabulary that’s appropriate to this scene and these characters, that is unique. I was actually thinking about there’s this movie called A Mighty Wind, remember A Mighty Wind…?
I was thinking I wanted it to be like The Kingston Trio or whatever. I knew it was going to be guys playing guitars and that’s really what I was aiming for with “I’ve Got a Dream.” It was never really actually animated that way, but anyway… you know, people really like it. That always surprises me. There are a lot of things that will surprise me. I always felt great about what I wrote for Newsies but Newsies was a total flop.
I loved Newsies.
Yeah! But it was a total dead-on-arrival movie.
I don’t get it. It was such a cheerful, good musical and those numbers were sung constantly by every choir I was ever a part of.
Well, but it was D.O.A. and then we turned it around.
Is that satisfying, now that it’s a Broadway success?
OH MY GOD is it satisfying. It’s one of the joys of my life, seeing that turnaround for Newsies.
Has there been any talk about turning it back into a movie now?
I don’t know. Well, they did do a movie of the live-action stage [show], and it’s really good. It is very good. They got a lot of close-ups, it’s quite good, and you get the audience reactions. It’s very exciting.
Are there any others? Would you be interested to do the live-action Hunchback movie? Are there ideas where you could stretch that out more, for example?
Sure, I’d be interesting in doing… I mean, the things that occur to me… a stage version of Hercules I think would be a lot of fun. We are doing a sequel to Enchanted, which I’m excited about.
Is that going to be another full musical?
It’s a film musical. That’s the plan. [Laughs.] If someone could figure out a way to turn Home on the Range [into a movie], then I’ll know that hell has frozen over! [Laughs.] Well, you know the songs were good. It’s the dumbest movie. It’s three cows played by Dame Judi Dench, Roseanne Barr and Jennifer Tilly.
“Back together again!” Oh, and then a villain played by Randy Quaid, yodeling. Come on! That’s primal stuff!
Is that the weirdest movie you’ve ever done?
Yeah, the one you’re just like, “Wow…”
Well, remember I just did Sausage Party. Actually that wasn’t weird. That was really well done, had real profundity to it. Home on the Range was definitely a… [thinks] a trouble experience, that had a lot of fun attached to it, but it was at the end of the pre-[John] Lasseter era of [Disney] Animation and the infrastructure was really changing. It was just what it was.
Are there any other fairy tales left that you’d like to do?
Oh, I don’t know. Honestly, any of the ones that have come to me have been assignments. No, I don’t really have much of an agenda. There are certain areas I look at occasionally that are fun to work at. I was working on a Damon Runyon musical because I love Guys and Dolls and I love the Runyon world. There are certain worlds I’ll try to go into here and there that might be interesting but more than anything else I really respond to… the universe brings me an interesting assignment, interesting collaborators, interesting associations, and if it clicks I go, “Yes! Let’s do it.” But my challenge, for me, is to also go “No, I don’t think so” if it doesn’t seem really right.
Can you give me an example of something you turned down, that didn’t feel really right for you?
I don’t want to do that, because it’s not fair to people.
I’m not trying to be rude. I’m just curious.
Yeah, if it’s a clever idea but I don’t know what musical vocabulary I would use, where it would be “Oh, I get it! I see why that’s fun, or that’s smart.” If I can’t find that… I don’t need to just write a musical to write a musical. I want to find what’s going to be unique space because musicals take up a lot of time and a lot of effort.
The Top 25 Best Disney Villain Songs:
Top Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.