Alan Menken on the ‘Eclectic Nature’ of Live-Action ‘Beauty and the Beast’s’ Score

Beauty and the Beast
Courtesy of Laurie Sparham/Disney

For the new, live-action “Beauty and the Beast,” Disney music and soundtracks president Mitchell Leib recalls extolling the property’s assets at an early development meeting. “The one thing you’ll never have to worry about is the music,” he remembers saying. “Look at the spectacular songbook you’re inheriting from the original animated film. Complement that with two or three new songs, and you’re done!”

It may not have been quite that simple, but Leib was right about the movie’s strengths. The original 1991 film won Oscars for its score and title song and became the first of Disney’s animated musicals to be adapted into a Broadway show, earning 1994 Tony nominations for best musical and score.

Music producer Matt Sullivan worked for two and a half years on the remake. “I wanted to rework things you don’t want to miss from the original,” Sullivan says. “But it’s also a little bit darker. You know more about why these two people were drawn together — what happened in their past.”

For composer Alan Menken, Disney’s new $160 million picture marked his third time working on versions of the title. The challenge was to find new ways to musically depict the characters, the period, the locale, and the darker aspects of the fairy tale, while retaining now-classic tunes like “Be Our Guest.”

When Bill Condon (“Chicago” screenwriter and “Dreamgirls” writer-director) was announced to helm the new “Beauty,” Menken was encouraged. “This is a really smart man who loves musical theater. He and I both wanted more of a sense of the 18th century, of France, of the culture in musical terms.”

As the screenplay delved further into the backstory of Belle, her father, and the prince-turned-beast, Menken and Condon found places where new songs might deepen the emotional context. Tim Rice, who had stepped in to provide lyrics for the Broadway version after the death of original lyricist Howard Ashman, reunited with Menken for the current incarnation.

One of the songs, “Days in the Sun,” was actually begun years before during an early burst of work on “Beauty.” Notes Menken, “It was basically a lullaby for the enchanted objects in the castle, each remembering what it was like before the darkness came over their lives.”

Another song, “How Does a Moment Last Forever,” appears in several spots in the film. It starts as a music-box theme sung by Belle’s father that becomes, in Menken’s words, “very ‘French boulevard’ in its musical harmonies,” as she learns about her past in Montmartre.

Disney’s desire to revisit the animated film’s success led to engaging Céline Dion — who sang the end-title version of “Beauty and the Beast” with Peabo Bryson in the original — to begin the end titles of the new film with “How Does a Moment Last Forever.” Ariana Grande and John Legend sing a new duet of “Beauty and the Beast.”

Curiously, the original animated-film score contained no song tailored specifically to the Beast, so for Broadway they added “If I Can’t Love Her” as the closing song of Act I. Menken wanted that for the new film, but Condon felt it would be more dramatic at the moment when the Beast lets Belle go so she can rescue her father. So Menken and Rice wrote a new song, “Evermore,” for Dan Stevens (as the Beast) to sing. There’s also a new song in the prologue, “Aria,” which Audra McDonald performs.

Even Menken-Ashman fanatics will discover something new, as unused Ashman lyrics for the original songs “Gaston” and “Beauty and the Beast” were unearthed for this version.

Menken concedes that since he was coming to the work for a third time, he needed to step back and let others add their insights to the score. “I had a great music team around me,” he notes. “I still wrote most of the score, but a lot of it was arranged by other people.

“There’s an eclectic nature to the score,” Menken adds, “longer, simpler lines, and some of it sounds very much like animation scoring, but with not as many primary colors — subtler in the orchestration. Bill wanted a more live-action sensibility to the music.”

Longtime Menken associate Michael Kosarin conducted the score with a 93-piece London orchestra.

Menken will soon be revisiting other aspects of his Disney past: Live-action versions of “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin” (which won him four more Academy Awards) are already in the works.

“This is a big factor in my life right now,” he says. “These are my babies.”

WATCH: Emma Watson and the cast of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ bring the classic songs to life

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