By Whitney Sorensen
BYU’s Bravo performing arts series welcomes Tony– and Academy Award–winning composer Alan Menken to Provo with his one-man show A Whole New World of Alan Menken. This concert showcases his extensive musical catalog and offers a glimpse of the hard work required to create even one memorable song.
My friend and I secured our tickets to this event months ago when BYU announced that Menken was coming. We both grew up on his well-known songs from Disney favorites like Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast, and I love going to concerts where I know the performer will share stories of the creative process behind the art.
As we took our seats, we examined the basic stage setup. A black grand piano sits right in the center, and three gold-framed video screens hang from the rafters. Throughout the performance, these screens show images and clips to enhance the stories and songs Menken shares.
Thanks to his swift fingers flying across the piano, Menken manages to pack all the high-points of his career into two hours. He opens with a rousing version of “Prince Ali” to get the audience excited and then launches into the story of his life, which is inextricably tied to the stories of his songs.
I was pleased to learn that even a person as successful as Menken struggled to get his career going. He happily recalls a few tidbits from the years before Broadway and Disney by sharing a fun jingle he wrote for the garden spray Roundup and the words of a scathing review of his music in an early off-Broadway show God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. It’s a simple bit of dramatic irony that plays well—it gets the audience identifying with and rooting for him, even though we know he’s about to burst into a string of hit songs that would make any budding songwriter envious. Sure enough, Menken next sings a few tunes from Little Shop of Horrors, including the hilarious “Dentist!” From then on, almost every song is a recognizable hit.
I loved hearing the logic behind how he created the melodies for The Little Mermaid. The dark but jaunty sounds of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” were inspired by the thought of Ursula’s tentacles bobbing along the ocean floor, and the opening strains of “Part of Your World” are intended to sound like flowing water. The entire evening is filled with tidbits like that, exactly what I had hoped for from the concert.
Menken’s truest gift is his composing ability, but his voice is also capable. In some ways, the limitations of his vocal instrument serve to shine a larger light on the brilliance of the music and lyrics. For example, when he sang “Watch What Happens” from the Broadway version of Newsies, I sensed anew how intricate its pacing and tempo are. Menken himself has to take a huge breath before launching from the syncopated verse into the first chorus.
Menken spends a great deal of time paying a well-deserved tribute to his late songwriting partner Howard Ashman. One high point of the evening occurs when he shares a song they co-wrote about the friends they lost to HIV and AIDS, “Sheridan Square.” During the encore, he also performs “Proud of Your Boy,” a song they wrote together before Ashman’s death. It was intended for Disney’s Aladdin but never made it into the film; now it’s performed in the Aladdin Broadway musical.
A Whole New World of Alan Menken is an unforgettable night showcasing the talents of a singular composer. Many thanks to BYU’s Bravo series for bringing him to Provo for the first time, and cheers to Menken himself. May you continue writing movie, stage, and TV musicals for years to come.
Bravo! Professional Performing Arts at BYU presents A Whole New World of Alan Menken
de Jong Concert Hall, Franklin S. Harris Fine Arts Center, BYU Campus, Provo
March 7-8, 7:30 PM
BYU Arts Facebook Page
A Whole New World of Alan Menken Facebook Event