Disney’s Aladdin: Musical Maestro
This feature is excerpted from Disney’s Aladdin: A Whole New World (The Road to Broadway and Beyond) by Michael Lassell.
Earning a staggering number of accolades for his work on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and the film version of Aladdin, among many others, Alan Menken is an undisputed master of the stage and film musical. For this stage version of Aladdin, he reveals that he had a very particular vision.
‘It’s always been a dream of mine,’ says superstar composer Alan Menken, ‘to somehow restore the telling of Aladdin the way Howard Ashman and I first envisioned it, and how we wrote it. The Disney film version is a dazzling action-adventure tale with great animation effects and a handful of songs, some with lyrics by Howard and some by the great Sir Tim Rice. But the original concept that Howard first pitched was a tribute to those old Bob Hope–Bing Crosby ‘road pictures’, almost a satire of that kind of Hollywood romantic comedy. And it was also meant to be a celebration of the jazz of the 1930s and ’40s, particularly the music of such breakout stars of the era as Fats Waller and Cab Calloway.’
So when Thomas Schumacher, president and producer of Disney Theatrical, told Menken he was putting together a script of Aladdin to license to amateur theatrical groups, the multiple Oscar®-winning musician saw an opportunity to revisit the roots of the Aladdin project. ‘Remember, this was years before we even considered developing Aladdin for Broadway,’ says Schumacher. ‘I thought Alan would be way too busy to get involved with our little licensing project, but he really wanted to do it.’
‘They came to me with a script based closely on the movie,’ recalls Menken. ‘It would have been fine, but it wasn’t the musical-comedy homage to popular jazz-era movies that Howard and I first proposed. So I said, “Look, I have a whole treasure trove of existing material that was never used, songs for the main characters and characters that were eliminated in the film, including Aladdin’s three sidekicks, Babkak, Omar and Kassim.” And so Chad Beguelin, who was writing the script, dug into Menken’s trunk and came back with something altogether new.
‘As we began to work,’ Menken says, ‘it became clear that we were going to need some new songs along with hits from the film and some songs that were written but never used. So I suggested that Chad write the lyrics since he was writing the new libretto and was already an accomplished, Tony®-nominated lyricist in his own right. Chad was absolutely terrific at creating new songs that fit perfectly with those Howard, Tim and I had written for the film.’
For Menken, the journey has been deeply personal, because his beloved musical partner, Howard Ashman, died before the Aladdin film score was complete. Menken is particularly grateful to have restored ‘Proud of Your Boy’, a song for Aladdin to sing to his fretful mother. ‘It was the hardest thing to lose from the film,’ says Menken, ‘and not just because the song was lost – I’ve lost a lot of songs in my career – but because we had also lost Howard. ‘That song packs an enormous emotional punch, and men in particular seem to relate to it deeply. So many of us go through a phase when we are disappointing our parents, or we think we are. I’m delighted to have had a hand in reshaping Aladdin. I love the show and all the music. But I am especially happy that Howard’s poignant “Proud of Your Boy” once again has pride of place in the story of a boy who finally became all that a mother could wish for in a son.’