‘Aladdin’ turns 30: Alan Menken on the journey of an animated classic



It might be hard to believe, but this holiday weekend marks 30 years since the release of “Aladdin” – the animated classic that paved the way for multiple sequels, a live-action reimagining released in 2019 and even a Broadway musical. To mark the occasion, the eight-time Oscar-winning composer Alain Menkenwho nabbed two statuettes for his work on the film, spoke with CNN about his memories of directing the prescient classic.

While the film is beloved by many – not just for the way it showcases the fiery vocal prowess Robin Williams – Menken says none of this would have been possible without his late lyricist partner, Howard Ashmanwhich he called “unreplaceable”.

The accomplished composer also reflects on how Disney, as a studio, handled the film’s depiction of the Far East and how a previous version in development was actually shelved due to concerns that preceded decades-long cancel culture.

This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

CNN: Regarding the development of “Aladdin,” was there a sense of hesitation at Disney as to how to tell this story?

Alan Menken, composer: “Aladdin” was released almost simultaneously with “(The Little) Mermaid”. While we were still working on “Mermaid”, we had started “Aladdin”, we had a full version and it was shelved. Part of the reason it was shelved was very irreverent, even more irreverent than it became, and there was a lot of concern about how it would affect Arab sensibilities .

I remember when we were starting to do “Aladdin”, (we thought) how much (we) really wanted it to be a fun nod to Hollywood’s version of the “Mysterious East” and all because he had I wanted it to have that sort of Bob Hope/Bing Crosby road image tone, or the goofy, crazy Fleischer cartoons.

We knew we were walking a line. The awakening didn’t really come out of thin air, and it’s not like it wasn’t there. Every time you dealt with a stereotype in these images, it was very, very, very carefully scrutinized. Disney wasn’t about to be caught being PC insensitive.

Editor’s note: Today, when viewers click on “Aladdin” on Disney+, a message appears first that reads in part: “This program includes negative portrayals and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. Stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. Rather than suppressing this continent, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversations to create a more inclusive future together.

CNN: I remember at the time, one of the first words of the opening song from the film, “Arabian Nights” (“Where they cut off your ears if they don’t like your face”), had to be changed lest it be insensitive. Did this serve as a hint for things to come, in terms of current standards of political correctness, etc.? ?

Menken: This was changed as soon as the photo came out.

And so we – Howard was gone – so I rewrote it to “Where it’s hot and huge and the heat is intense, it’s barbaric, but hey, that’s my home.” Now, even “barbaric” as an adjective for heat, was still too sensitive. So for the live action movie, when Benj Pasek and Justin Paul were my lyricists, that was also adjusted.

The truly irreverent lyrics were in “Arabian Nights”. Because they were setting up a world and we were like, “That’s our tone. We wink at everything and laugh. We were making fun of a gender, but making fun of a gender can clearly turn into making fun of a people.

There’s always a lot of back and forth about stereotypes, and if it’s the right stereotype and if, possibly, it could be offensive or whatever. But that (lyric change) was the first place where we actually said, “Okay, we have to change that.”

Specifically about making the film and working with the actors: you previously spoken on what it was like to work with the late Robin Williams. Do you have any other memories to share?

Menken: In the (recording) room, Robin (was) a serious performer. He wanted to learn every note of “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali,” so we rehearsed it dutifully. I think he was in a little pain being in the harness on (Steven Spielberg’s 1991 film) “Hook” all day.

Then of course when we got to the recording sessions, and after he faithfully delivered exactly what I wanted from the song – that kind of Fats Waller style of singing the songs – then everybody said “Okay, Robin, can you just go have some fun?”

And… that’s when you just went crazy, because it was Robin “on”. And Robin “on” was amazing. Robin was actually a very sensitive, kind and gentle man. It was amazing to work with him.

And Gilbert Gottfried, who died this year?

Menken: Gilbert did not contribute musically (to the film). But since the film’s press junket for 28 years, or 29 years, Gilbert always said, “Where’s my song? You never gave me a song!

You know, there’s always a big gap between people’s personalities and who they are. He was a sweet, kind, and unassuming guy, and sweet, and sensitive, and fun to talk to, and a little nerdy and all that stuff, and then when he’s “on,” you know, the whole thing would be “blaaaaa!! !” out of it. And in animation there are a lot of these experiences. There are hilarious anecdotes about people when they’re “turned on”, and it’s just amazing.

As you mentioned, you started working on this film with your longtime collaborating lyricist Howard Ashman, but then continued working on it with Tim Rice after Ashman’s death in March 1991. How do you think back at this time now, working with Ashman?

Menken: He was just brilliantly smart, intuitive, had an incredible understanding of how we mix styles and vocabularies from our culture, other cultures in a really hip, exciting and fun way. And all the serious messages were kind of in subtext, but brilliantly in subtext. And it started with our stage shows, with “Little Shop of Horrors” in particular.

Alan Menken, bottom right, with Ron Clements and John Musker and backstage at 'Aladdin' in 1992.

And Howard was a very, very developed jack-of-all-trades (all trades) – lyricist, book writer, director and producer. He was really just an incredible amalgamation of so many gifts and talents.

What about how the animated “Aladdin” served as the basis for so many successful iterations that followed, including the long-running Broadway show and billion-dollar live-action movie? dollars?

Menken: Well, in the case of the first (2017 live-action “Beauty and the Beast”), then “Aladdin” and now “Mermaid” (coming soon coming out next year), it’s really not so much of a progression… because really the animation (the movie) is the Rosetta Stone, and it’s just spokes on a wheel coming out of it – and that’s not conceptually on my part. It’s just the way the studio works, the way each division works. And it also allows the director of each iteration to kind of have more influence on how it differs from the animation (version).

With Broadway, I knew my plan was to want to incorporate as many of the songs that Howard had originally written as possible, and I leaned heavily on everyone to make sure the script reflected that. And I think it was a smart decision. It wasn’t just a sentimental gesture towards my late collaborator, but the mystique of Howard’s work and the brilliance of his work is one of the greatest assets to our projects.


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