On Ralph Breaks the Internet, Disney’s follow-up to 2012’s Wreck It Ralph, Alan Menken enjoyed the privilege of being sought after for the legacy he’s built, and a singular musical quality only he could provide. As the eight-time Oscar winner notes, he has become a genre unto himself at this point. “It certainly beats a stick in the eye,” the legendary composer laughs. “It’s nice in that you know that your work is really valued.” The force behind such Disney animated classics as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin—alongside lyricist Howard Ashman, who passed away in 1991—Menken knows a thing or two about Disney princesses, and the songs through which they share their worlds. So, when Phil Johnston and Rich Moore set out on their sequel, with the need for a princess song that was both classical and hilariously subversive, they knew who to call.
Set six years after the events of Wreck-It Ralph, the film returns to the friendship between two video game characters, Wreck-It Ralph and Vanellope, as they navigate the complexities of their changing relationship and lives. Getting her own musical moment, as a Disney princess unlike any seen before, Vanellope sings about “A Place Called Slaughter Race”—a video game world with “fallen wires, dumpster fires, creepy clowns and burning tires,” which she feels is right where she belongs. “Sprouting wings to soar,” Vanellope eschews the image of a more majestic bird in favor of a pigeon, making her way through a “fog of mace” in a Grand Theft Auto-type environment.
Coming to reflect, in comedic, self-referential fashion, on his history with Disney, and all the music he’s composed, Menken has been looking back a lot lately. He’s now involved with a series of live-action reimaginings of his classic animated works, which have proven to be more of a mixed bag. Overall, at this stage in his career, the process has been one of letting go—of releasing control, and seeing what comes from collaborations with exciting new musical talents. “Early on, I would slave over the writing of every single note of every single score. Now, I tend to be a little less hands-on, and a lot of that is just the nature of trusting people you’re working with,” Menken says. “Frankly, I think being overly controlling, after a while, is an impediment to the quality of the work.”
How did you come to be involved with Ralph Breaks the Internet? What excited you about this particular project?
I’ve obviously had a long history with Disney Animation, and along the way, I had written a piece of music, a song for a project that did not move forward. It was a big opening number, and everyone loved it. It became one of those classic outtake songs, and I just put it aside. When they were working on this movie, Tom MacDougall [Disney’s EVP of music] said, “This piece of music of Alan’s, why don’t we wipe off the lyrics, and play with putting some lyrics on it, and see if it’s an interesting idea for this moment?”
So, they did that, and came back with this song and said, “Can we use it?” I said, “No. That song already exists.” It was a different lyricist, and I wanted to keep that intact. But I said, “Okay, I get what you want. Let me write a new piece of music that traces the tone, and style, and structure of what you did.” I left their lyrics and wrote new music, and from there, we ping-ponged back and forth, rewriting the lyrics and the music, and trying things out. Of course, the tone was to do a true wink at one of our songs like “Belle,” or “Part of Your World,” or “One Jump Ahead.” The lyrics were always supposed to be subversive to that, and this was not dissimilar to what I did on the movie Sausage Party. When Seth Rogen asked me to come in, and Glenn Slater and I wrote this song, they deconstructed what we did to become the opening number for Sausage Party. This one hones much closer to the Disney ethos, and is very much in that ethos—it’s just with these characters that are taken from one of these violent games, something that the guys knew better than me. I’m not really a video games guy in particular, so it was a real collaboration of sensibilities.
At this point in your career, your music has become its own genre. It must be interesting to reflect back on an early point in your career, from this vantage point.
I can tell you an anecdote from earlier in my career when it wasn’t quite like that. My first success was Little Shop of Horrors, and I had been working for years on jingles. There was a jingle house called Lucas/McFaul in New York, and they called me “the demo king.” I almost never had the big final—in jingles, you have the big final, and then you sing on it, and you make a good deal of money. Finally, I had done Little Shop of Horrors, and they called me up and said, “Menken, we’ve finally got your final.” It was for a candy bar, and they wanted to do a jingle in the style of Little Shop of Horrors. I said, “Great,” I wrote it—and I didn’t get the job. [Laughs]
That was after you’d already written songs for a hit musical?
That was after, but it was still early in my career. It took Disney to put me over the top as a genre. I don’t think we were quite ready yet. Also, jingles are a whole other thing, anyway, because you don’t publicize jingles. But it feels good to be contacted, for them to say, “We want an Alan Menken type of song.” Truth be told, of course, what I enjoy most is reinventing myself and doing new projects where I work in new genres, or I get to find what the voice of a particular musical is. But this was a lot of fun to work on, and the success has been amazing to watch. I’m, I want to say, gobsmacked about the reaction. I’m thrilled for [the filmmakers], and I feel pretty good for myself, too.
Would you consider this work, between RalphandSausage Party, a new phase of your career, taking a self-aware approach to your own canon?
Well, I’m doing a lot of one-off songs. There’s a movie coming out on Christmas Day, Holmes & Watson, and Glenn Slater and I have a song in that. What’s fun about the one-off song is I don’t have to be responsible for the entire score. I get to come in and do my thing, and then move on. The other part, of course, is I’m spending so much of my career having older works of mine re-adapted. We did the Beauty movie, we’re doing the Aladdin movie now, and we’re coming up to starting Mermaid, and Disenchanted, and all of this. Disenchanted, at least, will be new songs, and that’s great, and in fact it will be new songs for Aladdin and Little Mermaid. Pasek and Paul are the lyricists for my songs for Aladdin, and Lin-Manuel Miranda will be my lyricist for Mermaid. That stuff is great, but the most fun is writing something new. You know, basically the Wreck-It Ralph is a new song, and a unique kind of wink.
What is the process like, as you sit down to write a new song? Do you write music or lyrics first?
In this case, it was a little bit like connecting the dots. But generally, it’s music first. Especially if it’s a very genre-driven song moment, I want to find a piece of music that all by itself says that genre, and then the lyricist will only enhance that. But there’s many exceptions to that, where something’s lyric-first. There’s no hard and fast rules.
Can you give a breakdown of “A Place Called Slaughter Race”—of its various musical phases, and how you thought about them?
[Vanellope] comes into Slaughter Race, and we go into this very classic kind of theme, not unlike “Belle,” or “True Love’s Kiss” from Enchanted. It’s very legato and very classical, and then we’re basically into a [tone that’s] very much like “Belle,” but a twisted Belle, and you go into that rhythm there. Now, she’s being introduced to all the characters in Slaughter Race, and it’s just high energy, and fun, and very pattery. Then we go into a dance break, which is not unlike “Be Our Guest.” It’s jazzy and it’s definitely of the Golden Age of Hollywood period. Then we scoop out of that into her in flight in the car, and that’s another theme that’s classical in nature, but it’s lighter, and more motion, where her character and the Gal Gadot character are racing across the sky. Then we come down to first a very big, classic Disney ending, and then a very quiet, intimate ending. As we structured it, we played with all kinds of ideas. “Can we skip this?” “Can we go right to that? Oh, wait, wait. Let’s put that back in.” I very much took my lead from the directors, in terms of what they wanted for this particular moment, so as far as structure, I really have to share credit with them. They knew what they wanted for their film, and I was just happy to contribute.
Where did your lyrics come from? They’re very funny, and very smartly observed.
The references and the tone of the references come from the guys, from the story, and my role was only to make sure that it was supported musically, and also maybe make a couple suggestions here and there—“Let’s add another little rhyme here.” Because that would be like what Howard [Ashman] and I did on “Belle.” That’s the nature of collaboration. But the deconstruction part of it, there’s a sweetness at the heart of it that is very much the same sweetness that’s at the heart of Enchanted, or Beauty or whatever. The references were very straight ahead, with these wonderful, heartfelt characters, who just happened to have face tattoos. They’re dangerous, and they’re stealing appliances, and [they exist within] an apocalyptic view of the world.
Lyrically, the song deconstructs the Disney princess song as we’ve come to know it…
And that’s not the first time we’d done that. With Enchanted, when we took a Disney character and shoved her into the middle of Times Square, that was the idea that said, “Oh, I want to do this project.” Because there’s that great idea, where you’re mixing tropes in a way that makes any project take off, all the way back to when I did Little Shop of Horrors, and Howard had the idea that we were going to do it with this bright, bubble gum rock and roll, and we’re singing about the end of the world. When you find those contrasts, that’s where you really hook people’s fascination, because you’re mixing styles and flavors in a new way. Definitely with “A Place Called Slaughter Race,” we’re doing that through the mixture of the musical style and the lyric references, and the various winks.
For the directors, part of the idea with the song was to challenge old notions of gender roles, which don’t apply to the world we’re living in now. With your long history at Disney, did you find yourself reflecting back on songs you’d written previously, and what they were saying?
Well, every one of these projects is appropriate for its time. You know, Snow White was really hip for its time. Walt Disney was basically using Sigmund Romberg and operetta in the telling of the story, and through animation—that was revolutionary. There are certain gentle anachronisms in there. I can’t remember what they are, but basically you got a sense of a classic, but also a modern sensibility. And in all the best of Disney, that’s remained. When Howard and I worked on Little Mermaid, one of the biggest ideas was not having Sebastian be a stuffy English crab, but having him be a Jamaican crab, who sings in calypso and reggae. Those are the ideas that make people go, “Oh, there’s something new going on here.” And the big idea, of course, it’s puppy love. It’s certainly mixed with the classic Hans Christian Andersen, but you’re bringing it, again, into the modern world of that time—and this takes that into the modern world of this time.
As someone who was a part of a defining Golden Age of Disney animation, what is your feeling about how their animated films have evolved, in terms of their aesthetics?
Well, CGI and live-action are merging in a way, to the point where a lot of what you see as live-action is CGI. That probably will have some subtle effect on how people perceive certain kinds of adaptations. Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message,” and it’s really true. Hand-drawn animation comes with a long list of associations, as does a Broadway stage, as does an indie film, as does CGI animation. They all come with their own sets of expectations that will always evolve, but when you’re working on anything, you’re always blending your work with the medium and with the expectation of the medium. Sometimes, people aren’t ready for it, like when we did our TV series, Galavant. That was broad musical theater, three or four songs per episode. I don’t know that people have quite been ready for that yet, and maybe it doesn’t work. It’s hard to say. Sometimes you have to lay the marker down and then 10 years, later it works. Sometimes it’s a matter of just being sensitive to what’s around you, and you can’t push the envelope faster than it wants to be pushed.
What has the experience been like for you, revisiting your classic works with new live-action projects?
It’s both liberating and also frustrating, and it’s fine. On a live-action film adaptation of my musicals, I have very little control. I can state what I think might be preferable, but it’s a director’s medium, and you want to first and foremost be supportive of that, and make sure that they want you to be in the room. If you’re going to be a stickler about, “You can’t do this,” and “You shouldn’t do that,” they’ll maybe be respectful, and then not invite you to any more meetings. So, the job is to walk that line and really try to get into what the director wants, and work with that—and at the same time, say, “I think we’ve moved too far over here.” The truth is, with anything at Disney, I don’t have to do all the heavy lifting, because there is such a Disney fan base, and at the Disney company, God knows how many people are going to go, “Wait, you went too far here.” That’s one of the things about Disney: Everything that’s developed there is really experienced by a lot of smart eyes and ears.
What have you found exciting about these new takes?
The new songs, the updating of arrangements, the rediscovery. Also, it’s the pleasure of working on films. I’m leaving, later this week, for London to now do the orchestral [work] on the songs, and it’s just another [opportunity] to be in the room with a large orchestra, and wonderful musicians. That’s such a privilege, to go there and record the underscore for the film, just as when you work in the theater and you’re in a preview of a show, you’re watching an audience react to the show, and learning through their reaction and rewriting it. It’s just the visceral experience of that kind of an interaction. It’s a privilege, and you’re not going to have it for your whole life. You’ve got to really treasure it while it’s there.
Have you enjoyed working with new, up-and-coming lyricists like Pasek and Paul, or Lin-Manuel Miranda?
It’s great. They’re really smart. They went to school on us, they really did. And there’s others. I mean, Bobby Lopez, I wrote his recommendation for college. For some reason, fate had it that the dominate voices of this new generation are people I saw coming up. All of them are the sweetest, nicest, smartest people, and there’s so many more of them. There’s some others that I’m working with now that I can’t mention yet, but there’s a whole new generation coming up, and they’re wonderful. At the same time, I don’t want to lose sight of the brilliant lyricists I’ve had all these years who still want to be working, too. We’re in a very, very strong period for new musicals, to say the least.