November 15, 2017

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By Renée Alfuso (CAS '06)
Photography by Joseph DiGiovanna

Alan Menken at his piano

It’s a Friday morning in North Salem, New York, and composer Alan Menken is at the piano playing a medley of his ’90s hits from Disney animated musicals. He’s been revisiting those classics in his home studio, where he’s hard at work on the upcoming live-action version of Aladdin, rearranging his original score as well as writing new songs.  

He did the same for this year’s blockbuster Beauty and the Beast and will soon be collaborating with Lin-Manuel Miranda on a remake of The Little Mermaid, causing him to reflect on how his illustrious film career began.

Alladin's lamp in Alan Menken's home

The Disney maestro is reworking his music from Aladdin and The Little Mermaid for the upcoming live-action remakes.

Oversize utensils hanging in Alan Menken's studio

The oversize utensils hanging in his studio were part of the costumes worn during Beauty and the Beast’s 13-year run on Broadway.

“I laugh now when I think about how little I was being paid to do Little Mermaid,” Menken says. “But animation was not that big a deal in those days—it had gone into a huge slumber. So at that point, everybody at Disney was on a quest to essentially give rebirth to the animated musical.”

The resulting success of The Little Mermaid launched a new film era known as the Disney Renaissance. Menken and his writing partner, the late lyricist Howard Ashman, were able to revive and redefine the form by treating their Disney films just as they did their off-Broadway shows like Little Shop of Horrors.

A framed photo of the original cast of Little Shop of Horrors

Menken got his first big break with Little Shop of Horrors, which set a record as the highest-grossing off-Broadway show of all time (pictured here is the original cast).

Menken in his tortorium

Taking a break from songwriting in his home studio, Menken visits what he calls the tortorium—a solarium that he and his wife built to house their seven tortoises, complete with heated floors for the family of reptiles. Petunia (above) is the largest and still growing at just 15 years old. Menken’s love for the shelled creatures originated with his wife, and the duo now supports a tortoise preservation program in the Galápagos.

“We were very consciously creating an animated musical that had all of the dramatic and structural intelligence that we had in our stage musicals, and that approach found a huge audience in the world,” he recalls. The influence became beyond anything I ever could have imagined.


A previous version of this article in the print version of the NYU Alumni Magazine mistakenly noted Alan Menken's school as Steinhardt. Menken received his BA from the University College of Arts and Science at the Heights campus in 1972 and an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree in 2000. We regret the error.

Preview our playlist of songs composed by Alan Menken (ARTS ’72, HON ’00) below!