unsung Menken – An Evening with Alan Menken

| March 17, 2013 | 2 Replies

Be Our Guest.  Under The Sea.  Go The Distance.  Beauty and the Beast.  Little Shop of Horrors.  Whether it’s from a Disney animated feature or not, everyone is familiar with the songs of eight-time Academy Award winning composer, Alan Menken.  However, for every song you know and love there are scores and scores of songs that were cut, deleted or trashed. Great songs are cut for a number of reasons including the length of a show, the scene they were written for changes, or someone just wants a different song.  Alan Menken‘s body of work goes way beyond what everyone knows and loves.  The “unsung” Menken songs are just as beautiful, just as catchy and just as fun as their more famous siblings.

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Recently, pianist and musical director Caleb Hoyer and director MK Lawson produced a wonderful show in New York City called “Unsung Menken.”  The show featured a host of incredibly talented Broadway performers singing the lesser-known songs from the catalog of the beloved Tony, Oscar, and Grammy-winning composer of hits such as Newsies, The Little Mermaid, & Little Shop of Horrors - Alan Menken.

caleb_alan_mkMusical Director Caleb Hoyer, Alan Menken, Director MK Lawson
Photo: Matt Madison-Clark

Accompanied by a five-piece band, the cast included: Debbie Gravitte (Chicago, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway), Liz Larsen (Hairspray, Damn Yankees), Jack Noseworthy (Sweet Smell of Success, A Chorus Line), Joe Iconis (The Black Suits), Sally Wilfert (Assassins), Jeremy Morse (Bloodsong of Love), Meg Bussert (The Music Man, Brigadoon, Camelot), Leenya Rideout (Company, War Horse), Badia Farha (Leap of Faith), Molly Hager (Fat Camp), Nancy Anderson (Wonderful TownA Class Act), Melanie Field (EvitaPhantom of the Opera), and Eric Michael Krop (Godspell), Danielle Gimbal, Maria Malanga, Lauren Marcus, Jared Nepute, Will Roland, and Jordan Stanley.

alan and groupFrom L to R: Nancy Anderson, Alan Menken, Jack Noseworthy, Marilyn Maye (guest),
Debbie Gravitte, Molly Hager and lower center Eric Michael Krop
Photo: Matt Madison-Clark

We caught up the folks involved in this wonderful musical review about the hows and whys of the show.

How did you come up with the idea to do “Unsung Menken?”

CALEB: It came from two different places.  One was a revue that MK and I did of Alan’s music in college. It included both his greatest hits and several lesser-known songs. The lesser-known songs ended up being some of my favorites, just because it felt like we were introducing them to people, and in between songs EVERYONE knows they came as such surprises to people. The other inspiration was Debbie Gravitte. I had done a concert with her and mentioned to her how much I loved Alan Menken’s work and her album of his music, and mentioned in passing the idea of doing a whole concert of his unknown material, and she was very encouraging.

MK:  Right.  It was Debbie being so encouraging that made us think “Hey, maybe we SHOULD try and put together a concert of this stuff.”  It was the little push that made the baby of an idea seem like it could grow up to be a reality!

As with many composers, I am sure there were numerous songs that never saw the light of day.  How did you go about choose which songs would be included?

CALEB: We had the songs we knew and loved from the beginning. But we were also invited by Alan’s team to go up to his studio and hear a lot of unreleased material. His sister Leah very generously and patiently guided us through tons of projects and songs and played them for us, and we discovered a real treasure trove of songs. From there it was just sorting through what made a good and varied program, what we were actually allowed to do (of the unreleased material), which songs suggested performers that we knew, and which ones we loved.

MK:  When we were up at the studio, both of us started making “wish lists” of performers – with many songs we would hear it and have a vision of a performer we know singing it.  I think we found ourselves leaning toward songs especially if we had a clear picture of the performer singing it.  Some we didn’t end up being able to perform, but it is fun to look back on those lists and to see how many of the performers that were a part of the concert were actually ON that list!

CALEB:  If rights and things weren’t an issue, we could do this concert seven more times with completely different programs. Alan’s popular work is just the tip of the iceberg of his body of work, and he’s so prolific.

There were songs from familiar, produced musicals that were cut and/or never included in a show.  Can you give a few examples?

CALEB: We defined “unsung” very broadly. Some songs are published, recorded, and readily available, just from projects that weren’t widely popular, like Home on the Range or that one may not necessarily associate with Alan, like Life With Mikey. Some songs are cut from projects, like “Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon”, which was cut from the film of Little Shop, or “Wasting Away”, which was cut from the stage version of The Little Mermaid. There are songs from unfinished shows, like The Honeymooners or Lysistrata: Sex and the City-State.

caleb and mkCaleb Hoyer and MK Lawson
Photo: Matt Madison-Clark

And there are stand alone songs. There were songs that were included from Alan’s shows that never got produced.  Can you give a few examples?

MK: The Honeymooners was never produced – apparently at the time (I believe Alan started writing for this project in the 80s), at that time Jackie Gleason’s estate would not give over the rights.  The song “To the Moon” comes from that score – it was a ballad for the character of Alice.

Is there a particular song or songs that you fell in love with after you heard them?

CALEB: There are so many songs we hadn’t heard that we fell in love with. Alan’s music in particular has a quality to it that you feel like you’ve known it all your life. “To The Moon,” which he wrote both music and lyrics for, feels like it could stand alongside the most well-known of his songs.

MK: ”Here In My Neighborhood,” which he wrote for Sesame Street, was one of my favorites the first time I heard it… I actually play it on my iPod quite a lot!  It is one of those songs that expresses a sentiment so simply and in a straightforward way it just feels like a good old friend giving you a hug – but that’s the magic of Menken I guess you could say, because I felt that way the very first time I heard it.

CALEB:  I feel like it almost becomes profound in its simplicity. I feel like there’s a sub-category of songs in his canon that express all the emotions in our lives that are uncomplicated, things like friendship, love, loyalty, devotion. I think because his music is so direct and heartfelt, he’s able to bring lyrics to life about things the characters know to be true for certain in a way that’s very unique.

Anything else that you’d like to let us know about the show?

MK: For me, it came from this strong desire to showcase Alan Menken’s versatility.  That’s not always something people think of when they think Menken.  He was and is a truly GREAT theatre composer. Especially when/if you ever have an opportunity to look back at his early theatre writing… I mean, it is really wonderful.  It has SO much character, which is maybe one of the qualities that made him such a great match to write for animated films.  I was proud when Caleb and I finally landed on a set list, to hear how nothing in the whole concert felt like anything else.

CALEB: We could have chosen so many composers to do an “Unsung” concert of, but Alan was a no-brainer to me. No composer has been more influential to me, and I feel like I keep rediscovering him as I grow up. Seeing Ariel sing when I was three years old was my first exposure to musical theatre and that kind of singing. Playing from the vocal selections of Hunchback was what taught me to sight read, and that’s when I really took off as a pianist.  I attended his alma mater, NYU, which led to me receiving a scholarship in his name. It was there I met MK and the first project we did together was One Step Closer, our revue of his music.

That led to NYU producing the 10th Anniversary concert of King David, arguably his greatest “unsung” score. I grew up listening to that highlights album and never thought I’d get to even see a production of it, let alone work on one with Alan himself. As corny as this sounds, his music feels like a friend that’s always there for you. It always makes me happy, it always brings a smile to my face, and I can think of no greater hope for one’s work than that: to make people happier.

Below is a list of songs that were performed that evening. (Note: the video links do not correspond to the listed performers that evening.)

A-seymourMaria Malanga, Danielle Gimbal, Lauren Marcus, Badia Farha
Photo: Matt Madison-Clark

Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon (cut song originally meant for the end credits of the film LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS)
Badia Farha (Leap of Faith, Sister Act) with Danielle Gimbal, Maria Malanga, and Lauren Marcus
lyrics by Howard Ashman

A-mollyhagerMolly Hager
Photo: Matt Madison-Clark

Cold Enough To Snow (from LIFE WITH MIKEY)
Molly Hager (Fat Camp)
lyrics by Stephen Schwartz

_DSC0334Debbie Gravitte
Photo: Matt Madison-Clark

I Wanna Be A Rockette (from KICKS)
Debbie Gravitte (Jerome Robbins’ Broadway – Tony Award)
lyrics by Tom Eyen

a_king_davidKatharine Heaton
Photo: Matt Madison-Clark

Never Again (from KING DAVID)
Katharine Heaton
lyrics by Tim Rice

aJeremyJeremy Morse
Photo: Matt Madison-Clark

The Way Of My Father (from REAL LIFE FUNNIES)
Jeremy Morse (Bloodsong of Love – Drama Desk nomination)
lyrics by Alan Menken

alizlarsenLiz Larsen
Photo: Matt Madison-Clark

Wasting Away (cut from the stage version of THE LITTLE MERMAID)
Liz Larsen (The Most Happy Fella – Tony nomination) with Will Roland and Jordan Stanley
lyrics by Glenn Slater

a_joeiconisJoe Iconis
Photo: Matt Madison-Clark

Here In My Neighborhood (from SESAME STREET)
Joe Iconis (The Black Suits)
lyrics by Alan Menken

A_jacknosewJack Noseworthy
Photo: Matt Madison-Clark

Sheridan Square
Jack Noseworthy (Sweet Smell of Success)
lyrics by Howard Ashman

Screen Shot 2013-03-14 at 12.34.33 AMMeg Bussert

Cheese Nips (from GOD BLESS YOU, MR. ROSEWATER)
Meg Bussert (Brigadoon – Tony nomination) with Lauren Marcus and Jared Nepute
lyrics by Howard Ashman

amelaineMelanie Field
Photo: Matt Madison-Clark

To The Moon (from THE HONEYMOONERS)
Melanie Field (Evita)
lyrics by Alan Menken

a_leenyaLeenya Rideout
Photo: Matt Madison-Clark

Will The Sun Ever Shine Again? (from HOME ON THE RANGE)
Leenya Rideout (War Horse)
lyrics by Glenn Slater

a_ericEric Michael Krop
Photo: Matt Madison-Clark

Made of Stone (from the stage version of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME)
Eric Michael Krop (Godspell)
lyrics by Stephen Schwartz

a_nancyNancy Anderson
Photo: Matt Madison-Clark

No (from LYSISTRATA: SEX AND THE CITY-STATE)
Nancy Anderson (A Class Act)
lyrics by David Zippel

a_childrengodDebbie Gravitte
Photo: Matt Madison-Clark

Daughter of God
Debbie Gravitte with Danielle Gimbal, Maria Malanga, Lauren Marcus, Jared Nepute, Will Roland, and Jordan Stanley
lyrics by Howard Ashman

a_gravitte_album

In 1996, one of the singers, who was in the show was Debbie Gravitte.  Debbie recorded an all-Menken album, “The Alan Menken Album” and according to the liner notes, Alan Menken allowed Debbie to visit his studio and comb through old shows, demos, lead sheets, outtakes, computer files and CDs.  Debbie recorded many of the songs performed in the “Unsung Menken” concert including  ”I Wanna Be A Rockette,” from Kicks: The Showgirl Musical.  Menken collaborated with Tom Eyen, the Tony Award winning writer and lyricist for Dreamgirls, in 1984 on Kicks, a musical about members of The Rockettes during World War II.   The show never made it past its three workshops.  Debbie said that the workshops were amazing.  ”The biggest thing, I hate to say this, but the biggest thing I remember from the show was watching Bebe Neuwirth,” said Gravitte.  ”I am am thinking oh my God who is this girl she’s gonna be a big star and this was in a room full of beautiful dancers.”  

We caught up with Debbie and asked her about the CD and Alan Menken.

What inspired you to record “Part of Your World?”

DEBBIE: Bruce Kimmel, a record producer, had been working with a number of my “colleagues ” in the theatre and I sort of asked him, how about doing a CD with me? At the time, there were lots of Cole Porters and Irving Berlin CDs being produced, and I had met Alan (Menken) through my husband who had been a part of his “Kicks” workshop, and I just knew that Alan was the person for me. He had that mixture of theatricality, with a bit of pop and a touch of magic thrown in to the mix.

When Alan Menken invited you to his studio to “go through his stuff” and see what you wanted to sing – what was going through your head?

I think I just wanted to make sure I understood the directions to his house! I already knew he was a great guy: accessible. And he was totally supportive from day one of me recording his tunes.

Before going to Alan’s house, did you have an idea of what songs you already wanted to sing?

I had to idea at the time of the depth of his material. He pointed me to a lot of the music. I remember specifically the song SANTA FE from Newsies. It was a favorite of his, and he thought it would be great for the CD. Of course he was right, and this was years before the show was a huge success on Broadway. (but after the movie!)

Were there other songs – unsung or not – that you wanted to record but were not able to?

I think there a few that are still in a file somewhere. I did try to stay away from the most recorded songs at the time, and actually, when we went to re-release it, we added a tune, (SOMEDAY/GOD HELP THE OUTCASTS).

Is there a second Alan Menken songbook CD in the future?

I have been working on a new idea for a CD, and the idea of revisiting Alan again keeps coming up….so check back soon!!!

What’s coming up next for you?

Besides recording my next mystery CD, and continuing my Symphony Concerts all over the world, (Kuala Lumpur this fall!!!), I have high hopes for a new musical that just had a workshop out in La Jolla by the same team that did MEMPHIS. Keep your fingers crossed!

alanmenken_bwayworld

Alan Menken Photo: Broadwayworld.com

In 2009, Stephen Holden, the cabaret critic for The New York Times called Alan Menken “The Musical Monarch of the Magic Kingdom” and judging from the evening the feeling was unanimous – long live the king!


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Category: Disney World, News

About the Author ()

Originally from Philadelphia and now living in New York City, Chuck has worn many hats including pastry chef, hotel manager and his current position as a publicist. Ever since he was a kid, Chuck had a passion about everything Walt Disney including going on a local Philly quiz show when he was twelve where his area of expertise was Walt Disney. He loves going to see great performers, amazing museums, seeing Broadway shows, eating in all kinds of restaurants and traveling. Chuck's favorite cities to visit are Paris, London, Las Vegas and Turin. He, of course, loves Walt Disney World and Disneyland.
  • Beverly Moran

    Thanks! Really enjoyed the article and have always been amazed by Mr. Menken’s talent. As a huge Disney fan, I tribute his music to the success of so many of the Disney movies and how they have become all-time favorites and known throughout the globe. Awesome article about an awesome man! Thank you!

    • Guest

      You’re welcome. I am glad you enjoyed it. Yes, I agree, he is a huge talent and he writes some spectacular music.