Ask Alan Menken about the painful process of getting a Broadway-bound musical on its feet, and he’ll quote the late Larry Gelbart who once famously said: “If Hitler’s alive, I hope he’s out of town with a musical.”
Menken has multiple stage projects in different stages of development, and he’s quick to say that his two favorite moments in musical writing are “the moment in the room when I come up with the idea for the song, and the 10th anniversary of the show. Everything in between,” he quips, “is various levels of hell.”
Uppermost in his mind is the recent Los Angeles run of “Leap of Faith,” which starred Brooke Shields and Raul Esparza in an adaptation of the 1992 Steve Martin movie about a traveling evangelist out to bilk Midwestern rubes. The show received mixed notices, and the composer’s assessment is candid: “?’Leap of Faith’ was not everything we wanted it to be.”
Work on the show (with a book by lyricist Glenn Slater and film writer Janus Cercone) started 10 years ago, Menken says, “and it has not yet arrived at its final destination. Given that it was a limited run in Los Angeles, and therefore has to be remounted wherever it goes, especially on Broadway, I would say some changes are incumbent upon us.”
But he remains optimistic about “Leap of Faith,” because “the idea of telling a story through gospel-revival (music) was very compelling. That’s one of the areas where ‘Leap of Faith’ has tremendous potential: using the revival as a medium for storytelling.” And one of the show’s songs, “Long Past Dreaming,” has breakout possibilities as one of Menken’s signature tunes a la “A Whole New World” and “Colors of the Wind.”
Also on Menken’s very full plate are a transfer of “Sister Act” — another movie-to-show adaptation, also with lyrics by Slater — from London’s West End to Broadway (opening April 20), and no fewer than three stage versions of Disney films: “Aladdin” (likely to hit the boards “in the next year or so”), “Hunchback of Notre Dame” (which already has had a run in Germany) and a cult favorite, his live-action 1992 movie musical “Newsies.”
Asked how many of these are Broadway-bound, Menken pauses. “If people see that you’re opening out of town with an eye to Broadway, you let yourself in for a lot of distraction and pressure that’s not helpful to the creative process,” he says.
“Some shows will do very well just touring; some shows will do very well playing in Europe. Some will do perfectly well opening cold on Broadway.”
But, after all these years, Menken finds there is still no easy way to predict what will please audiences and critics.
“You never know,” he says. “You think you know in the rehearsal room, and then when it’s on stage it becomes a different animal. You think you know when it’s on stage, and then when it gets reviewed and reacted to, it becomes a different animal. And after it’s run for a year and it’s certified a success, it becomes a different animal entirely; it becomes a kind of institution, inured to those winds of change.”
Musicals, he points out, are the most collaborative art. “You can have a great acting performance and a great score but if you have the wrong book or the wrong sound designer, a score can fall flat,” he says. “At the end of the day, you’re a cog in the wheel. You learn to just put your craft out there as consistently and as forthrightly as possible, in as cooperative a way as possible. And then you react to what else you see and decide what needs to be done.”
‘Tangled’ up in cues | Broadway a perilous ‘Leap’ | Pitch-perfect partner