Behind various iconic Disney movies, Alan Menken was born in New York City to a pianist father and an actress-dancer mother, foreshadowing the musical theatre path of Menken’s own career. With precocious composing abilities to immersion in American pop masters as Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein and the arrival of rock in his teens, Menken grew up in line with major trends of twentieth century music. After graduating from New York University—Steinhardt with a musicology degree, Menken would first find fame with acclaimed playwright Howard Ashman by adapting Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater into a musical. This would prove a springboard to Menken’s own distinguished career. Through the 1990s and 2000s, Menken has been the musical drive behind Disney classics as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Pocahontas. For his achievements, the art industry has rewarded Menken with numerous laurels with nine Oscars, eleven Grammy Awards, and a Tony Award.
One of Menken’s greatest hits, “Friend Like Me” from the potentially orientalist Aladdin was originally conceived as a big band show-tune, reminiscent of jazz age swing. With the casting of the late Robin Williams, the song became more entrenched in pop culture inflected with vaudeville exaggeration. Ultimately, it’s exactly this mixture of musical nuance and nous that makes Disney and, of course Menken, as potent in the business of nostalgia as it remains.