Interview with Alan Menken, part two
For the second part of my interview with Alan Menken, I wanted to explore his thoughts on some of the less well-known Ashman/Menken projects and to get his thoughts on what might have been.Here goes:
As you know, I am a great fan of the Ashman/Menken musical, GOD BLESS YOU, MR. ROSEWATER. I know the show is special to you, as well. What is it about Rosewater that moves you?
ROSEWATER is all about the American underclass and how Eliot Rosewater, who wants to improve their lives, is labeled as crazy. The Rosewater family is wealthy and so powerful that there is a county in Indiana named after them. And yet, when the eccentric heir to the Rosewater fortune decides to move out to Rosewater County to help the poor, pathetic, ignorant, unwashed “losers” out there, he is rejected by his wife, criticized by his father and hounded by a lawyer who is intent upon having the fortune re-directed to other relatives. At the end, when Eliot decides to acknowledge being the “father” in countless false illegitimate paternity claims that have arisen, he knowingly divides the family fortune among all those poor “losers” he has grown to love and care about.
What’s also special about ROSEWATER is our relationship with Kurt Vonnegut, who benignly considered us “a bunch of nobodies” when we wrote the musical. He was a true original, with a great heart. And I only wish we all could have a reunion now and share our mutual admiration.
Can you give us some insight into the projects that almost were – especially Babe?
BABE came about because the actorwho played Eliot Rosewater, Fred Coffin, had been approached about playing Babe Ruth in a musical based on the Robert Creamer biography. I was a huge baseball fan but Howard was definitely less so. My wife, Janis and I took Howard to Yankee Stadium to see a game -- a riotously funny experience. (Howard renamed third baseman, Greg Nettles, “Greg Nipples”.)
We worked closely with Creamer and Coffin, using Fred as much as possible on our demos. The basic approach was to tell the story of this larger than life boy – George Herman Ruth -- who was never able to become the man he wanted to be. He was a hard living, big kid, who was always the son and never the father. Then, when his ability to play waned, rather than allowing him to become a manager, he was shut out by the baseball establishment.
We ended up writing five songs before conflicts with the book adaptor, who unfortunately came with the project, made continuing too much of a legal risk. We worked on BABE simultaneously with working on LITTLE SHOP OF HORROS. At certain times, it was a toss-up as to which one we’d would give priority.
BABE really only exists as some songs. How did those songs come about – did you and Howard just decide to do some character pieces? Was there a rough outline that you worked from?
As I remember we just picked those tent-pole moments that seemed the most obvious and promising, dealing mostly with Babe’s passions and his conflict with achieving the kind of acceptance he craved.
Could you talk a bit about Daughter of God? How did it come about? Did you write it for anyone in particular?
Daughter of God was written for Emmylou Harris. Howard loved her. It is kind of weird that, even after all these years, we haven’t accomplished getting her to record it. But, at the same time, if it was to happen it should have been back in the 80’s. It’s about a working woman, whose life is so hard that what she values most, above all, is being able to sing. And if one can sing, then life is worth living.
How about Sheridan Square? Did Howard come to you with the lyric or did you both decide to write about the AIDS epidemic.
Sheridan Square was a song that reflected the overwhelming number of young lives being lost overnight in the gay community. I felt honored to be the composer who Howard chose to be the vessel for that message. There was so much we shared as friends and as collaborators. But the topic of gay versus straight is something that could have driven a wedge between us; especially at a time when the nightmare he was going through was “closeted”.
On a different note, is there a particular LITTLE SHOP moment that you treasure?
There are so many moments. I wouldn’t know how to pick just one.
But I do remember Howard and his agent, Esther Sherman and me and my manager, Scott Shukat, having drinks to celebrate our initial Off-Off Broadway success. “The boys” had arrived. It was such a rite of passage that every successful musical theater team goes through. And, yet, fate dictated that the moment was never repeated.
I remember the lobby of the WPA, with the New York theater elite crowding around us, and our “big green goldmine”.
And I remember the audition room, seeing Lee Wilkof and Ellen Greene (and Nathan Lane and Faith Prince) giving amazing life to our lines and our notes.
And finally, the first open dress rehearsal, with the first thunderous audience reaction.
Is there a special project you would have liked to work on with Howard, something you think would have especially suited your chemistry as a writing team?
Before Howard became too ill to work, he and I had started work on a musical based on the Damon Runyon story Little Pinks specifically the movie, based on that story, Big Street. But we never even wrote one song, because another writer held the rights. And we would have had to wait a few years before they would become available. I was mystified when Howard just gave up on trying. Later I realized that he was running out of time in his fight against AIDS. And he assumed – correctly – that he wouldn’t be around when those rights would be available.
Years later, I acquired the rights and worked on not one, but two adaptations of that story with other collaborators. I couldn’t solve the tonal issues. But I just know Howard would have figured it out. It was the story of a showgirl, Your Highness, and the busboy, Little Pinks, who worshiped the very ground she walked on. When she is crippled by being thrown down a flight of stairs, Pinks gradually becomes her knight in shining armor; even pushing her wheelchair all the way, from New York to Miami beach. Only when she dies in his arms does she acknowledge her unlikely hero.
In my mind, this was a story that was an analogue for the illness Howard was dealing with privately. We will never know what our version of this musical would have been.
With all the interviews you’ve given over the years, what is the question about working with Howard that isn’t, but should be, asked?
I guess the only remaining question is “What might have been”. And that one is too painful to entertain. I recently sat down, following the death of Marvin Hamlisch, to prepare to perform their song from SMILE, Disneyland. And even though it already had music written by Marvin, I essentially had the experience of sitting down in front of a “new” lyric by Howard Ashman. The feeling that came over me, as I sang and played at the piano, giving life to his words, was powerful and personal. And it reminded me of just how much I miss my friend and my collaborator. I grieve as I type this now. But I know – honestly – that he has remained my collaborator in so many ways in the over-20 years since he’s been gone.