Would “Beauty and the Beast” still be a “tale as old as time” without the iconic music from composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman?
Short answer? No. Without the memorable soundtrack, the animated Disney movie wouldn’t have been such a beloved classic.
In the new live-action adaptation, out Friday, the songs are put to good use again for a whole new generation.
Menken attributes the music’s lasting appeal to a blend of different styles, from classic to operetta to pop.
“Certainly the beauty of the animated movie — no pun intended — and the popularity of people growing up with it obviously is a huge element as well,” Menken says. “There’s that sense memory that people have. And you want to serve that and use it in the best way possible. That’s the only way I can explain it.”
Menken and Ashman, who died in 1991, were nominated for three Oscars for three songs from “Beauty and the Beast,” winning for the title track, and Menken took home another statue for the score.
Even with that background, Menken still wasn’t sure what his involvement would be with the new film.
“My biggest concern initially always is: What’s my relationship going to be with the project?,” he says. “Will I be in the center of it? Will I be possibly marginalized ... and at the same time they’re adapting my work, so therefore I have a role.”
All these questions were quickly answered after they named a director.
“Once Bill Condon was involved all those concerns were addressed because he’s very collaborative,” Menken says. “He’s very smart. He loves musicals. His take on the material felt really good to me. I could let go then and let him be the captain of the ship and I just contribute. For the most part we became a team very early and very quickly and it was a pleasure.”
While Menken is a veteran of musicals, the stars of “Beauty and the Beast,” Emma Watson and Dan Stevens, were not.
“Emma and Dan, I think, were kind of wide-eyed, like, ‘Oh my god,’” Menken says. “And then also, ‘Oh my god the composer is going to be in the studio with me.’”
Menken says they had their vocal coaches, as well as Michael Kosarin, his longtime musical director on movies, Broadway shows and television, working with them.
“I have complete faith in him representing me with the actors,” Menken says. “He works with them and I kind of stay in the back in the control room, way back from the glass. ... The results are right there on the screen.”
The leads may be new to musicals, but the cast does include a real theater legend in Audra McDonald, who plays Madame de Garderobe, who is transformed into a wardrobe.
“Audra McDonald is what Meryl Streep is to movie acting,” Menken says glowingly. “And I’m not trying to restrict her, because I know she does stage, too. ... She’s just incredible. ... I just adore her. Working in the studio with her was just stand back and just watch and wonder.”
With “Beauty and the Beast” hitting theaters Friday and “A Bronx Tale,” the Chazz Palminteri musical that he wrote the music for, currently running on Broadway, Menken is keeping busy. He also has a few upcoming film projects in various stages and he’s writing the occasional tune for the new “Tangled: The Series” television show on the Disney Channel, which launched last week with a movie and begins its weekly run on March 24.
And then there is the live-action “Aladdin” — another Disney musical scored by Menken — which is still in the early stages of preproduction. Not much information is available yet, though Menken says there is still script work going on and a possible director.
“I know there are ongoing talks with Guy Ritchie,” Menken says. “He and I have not met yet.”