Principal POPS Conductor Steven Reineke eked out time from his rehearsal schedule to discuss with the Houston Press the impact Menken made on Broadway and on Disney.
"Alan is such a great songwriter, and he collaborates with top notch lyricists. He’s got a great sense of melody and he is able to match his music to the animated film so well. He hit at the right time. It was a zeitgeist creating the Disney Renaissance. He and Howard Ashman set off the Disney Renaissance where the musicals, particularly the movies, had great success. They took these stories and translated them to animated music films that were accessible to children and adults," Reineke said.
"It was the '90s, and Alan's style of writing was cinematic in scope, but there were elements of pop sounds and harmonies as well as the Broadway song aesthetic. They have the big production numbers, the 'I want' song, and that sets up the impetus for the story. It was the right time and right place and right people, and it created Disney magic," he added.
Magic, indeed. The Disney Renaissance is the period lasting between 1989 and 1999 when the big animated and digital blockbusters oft associated with the company were created. However, to appreciate the boom Disney experienced during those years, it helps to understand where Disney was beforehand in the animated industry. It was in dire straits.
In the '70s and '80s, Disney's animation department suffered setbacks and blows in the forms of production flops and employee turnover. One animator, Don Bluth, left to create his own studio, which became a major rival of Disney productions in the '80s. That rivalry, though, lit a match underneath #TeamDisney.
Disney's artists worked up enough steam to keep the animation department in business as it churned out movies that fared well enough domestically at the box office, so the Disney execs decided to keep the animated department in operation a little longer.
Then, enter Menken and his songwriting partner Ashman. Menken already had experience with Disney with 1982's "Little Shop of Horrors," but now he was tasked with writing the score to 1989's "The Little Mermaid," something he had never done before. And just like Ariel finally found her voice, Menken and Ashman found tremendous success, winning a Grammy Award and two Academy Awards. Disney's animation department was granted new life.
And we know how that story went (Hint: See paragraph No. 1) and how it worked out for Menken. His work is so prolific that he boasts eight Academy Awards, meaning he has received more Oscars than any living person.
"My husband Eric used to be Alan's personal fashion stylist. Eric knew him before I did. Alan has become a dear friend and is great to be around. It’s impressive to go to his house and see his studio. He has a cabinet filled with his awards. It's jaw dropping to see," Reineke added.
The movies that Menken worked on were a natural fit for the Broadway stage, which is exactly where they headed. As such, Reineke has brought in Broadway belters to provide vocals for this weekend's concert: Katie Rose Clarke, Jordan Donica, Matt Doyle and Montego Glover.
Clarke's Broadway credits include Miss Saigon, Allegiance, Wicked and Light in the Piazza. She also grew up in Houston, so this is a homecoming of sorts for her. Donica is currently starring as Jordan Chase in the third season of the CW's "Charmed" and recently guest starred in the award-winning "Blue Bloods." He originated the role of Freddy Eynsford-Hill in the 2018 Tony-nominated Lincoln Center Theater production of My Fair Lady.
Doyle is currently starring as Jamie in the Broadway revival of Company. His previous Broadway credits include Spring Awakening, War Horse, Bye Bye Birdie and The Book of Mormon. Glover is a Tony Award nominee whose Broadway credits include Hamilton, Memphis, Les Misérables, It Shoulda Been You and the original Broadway production of The Color Purple.
The show undoubtedly will prove popular with audiences, and it also marks the very first concert of the Houston Symphony's 2021-22 season. Reineke also notes one more reason this concert will stand out for him, especially since the previous season placed a cap on the number of musicians who could be on stage at once due to COVID-19 concerns.
He said, "I’m just looking forward to seeing everyone again. I’m looking to seeing our full symphony. This will be the first time I’ve had the symphony together in over a year."
Houston Symphony's Once Upon a Time: Alan Menken's Broadway will play at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana Street. For tickets or information, call 713-227-3974 or visit houstonsymphony.org. $29 to $140.