It may be hard to believe, but this holiday weekend marks 30 years since the release of “Aladdin” – the animated classic that has set the stage for multiple sequels, a live-action reimagining released in 2019, and even a Broadway musical. On the occasion, eight-time Oscar-winning composer Alan Menkenwho bagged two statuettes for his work on the film, spoke to CNN about his memories of making the prescient classic.
Though the film is loved by many – not just for the way it showcases the vocal prowess of the late Robin Williams – Menken says it wouldn’t have been possible without his late lyricist, Howard Asmanwhich he called “not replaceable.”
The talented composer also reflects on how Disney, as a studio, handled the film’s depiction of the Far East and how an earlier version in development was basically shelved due to concerns that predate the cancellation of the culture by decades. .
This conversation has been shortened and slightly edited for clarity.
CNN: When it came to developing ‘Aladdin,’ was there a sense of hesitation on Disney’s part about telling this story?
Alan Menken, composer: “Aladdin” was started almost simultaneously with “(The Little) Mermaid”. While we were still working on “Mermaid,” we’d started on “Aladdin,” had a whole take on it, and it was shelved. Part of the (reason) it was shelved was that it was very irreverent, even more irreverent than it got, and there was a lot of concern about how it would affect Arab sensibilities.
I remember when we started making ‘Aladdin,'[we]thought about how (we) really wanted it to be a fun nod to the Hollywood version of ‘Mysterious East’ and all because it kind of, I wanted that it would have that Bob Hope/Bing Crosby street photo kind of tone, or the goofy crazy Fleischer cartoons.
We knew we were walking a line. Waking up didn’t really come out of nowhere, and it’s not like it wasn’t there. Every time you dealt with a stereotype in these pictures, it was scrutinized very, very, very carefully. Disney wasn’t about to get caught being PC insensitive.
Editor’s Note: These days, when viewers click on “Aladdin” on Disney+, the first thing they see is a message that reads in part: “This program contains negative portrayals and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. The stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. In instead of removing this continent, we want to recognize its harmful impact, learn from it and start conversations to create a more inclusive future together.”
CNN: I remember one of the first texts in the opening The film’s song, “Arabian Nights” (“Where they cut off your ears if they don’t like your face”), had to be changed for fear it would be insensitive. Does that serve as a hint of things to come, in terms of current standards of political correctness, etc.?
Menken: That was changed as soon as the picture came out.
And so we were — Howard was gone — so I rewrote it into, “Where it’s hot and immense and the heat is intense, it’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” Now even “barbaric” as an adjective for heat was still overly sensitive. So for the live-action movie, when Benj Pasek and Justin Paul were my lyricists, that got adjusted as well.
The really irreverent lyrics were in “Arabian Nights.” Because they were setting up a world and we said, “This is our tone. We wink at everything and have fun.” We were making fun of a genre, but making fun of a genre can clearly spill over into making fun of a nation.
There’s always a lot of back and forth about stereotypes, and whether it’s the right stereotype and whether it could potentially be offensive or whatever. But that (text change) was the first place where we actually said, ‘Okay, we need to change that.’
Specifically about making the movie and working with the actors: you got that spoken before about what it was like to work with the late Robin Williams. Any other memories you’d like to share?
Menken: In the (recording) room, Robin was a serious artist. He wanted to learn every note of “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali,” so we dutifully rehearsed it. I think he was in a little bit of pain because he was in the harness all day on (the 1991 Steven Spielberg movie) “Hook”.
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 – everyone naturally said, ‘Okay, Robin, can you just go and have fun? ?”
And… that’s where you just went crazy, because it was Robin “on”. And Robin “on” was incredible. Robin was actually a very sensitive, kind, sweet man. He was great to work with.
What about Gilbert Gottfried, who died this year?
Menken: Gilbert did not contribute musically (to the film). But from the press publishing the movie for the past 28 years, or 29 years, Gilbert would always (say), ‘Where’s my song? You never gave me a song!
You know, there’s always a big gulf between people’s personality and who they are. He was a sweet, kind, humble guy, and gentle and sensitive and fun to talk to and a little nerdy and all that stuff, and then when he’s “on” you know, all of these things would be “blaaaaa!!! ” from him. And in animation, there are a lot of those experiences. There are hilarious anecdotes about people when they’re “on,” and it’s just awesome.
As you mentioned, you started working on this film with Howard Ashman, your long-time collaborator lyricist, but after Ashman’s death in March 1991, you continued working on it with Tim Rice. How do you look back on that time when you worked with Ashman?
Menken: He was just brilliantly smart, intuitive, had an amazing understanding of how we mix styles and vocabularies from our culture, from other cultures, in a really hip and exciting and fun way. And all the serious messages were a bit in the subtext, but brilliant in the subtext. And that started with our stage shows, especially “Little Shop of Horrors”.
And Howard was a very, very fully developed jack-of-all-trades – lyricist, book writer, director and producer. He really was just an amazing amalgam 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 the billion-dollar live-action movie?
Menken: Well, in the case of first (2017’s live-action “Beauty and the Beast”), then “Aladdin” and now “Mermaid” (becoming released next year), this really isn’t much of an advancement… the animated (movie) is really the Rosetta Stone, and it’s just spokes on a wheel coming out of that – and that’s not conceptual 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 have a greater influence on how it differs from the animated (version).
With Broadway, I knew my agenda was to get in as many songs as Howard originally wrote, and I leaned heavily on each one to make sure the storyline reflected that. And I think it was a smart move. It wasn’t just a sentimental gesture to my late collaborator, but the mystique of Howard’s work and the brilliance of his work is one of the greatest draws for our projects.