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Ian Cheeseman: Break-a-Leg

Ian with his musical theatre hero, Alan Menken.

My special guest on this week’s Break-a-Leg radio show is a man who has won eight Oscars, eleven grammys, seven golden globes, a Tony and a daytime Emmy.

He is Musical Theatre Royalty and as far as I’m concerned, my favourite musical theatre song writer of all time.

Alan Menken was the reason that Walt Disney’s Animation Studios had a magnificent resurgence at the end of the 1980s, starting with the Little Mermaid in 1989. Disney had stuttered after Walt passed but Menken’s glorious songs lifted the next generation of animations. They became the greatest the studio has ever produced. Little Mermaid was followed by Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Enchanted and Tangled. All the songs in those films, many of which are now hugely popular stage shows, were written by Alan Menken.

He writes the melodies collaborating with different lyricists like the brilliant Howard Ashman, Tim Rice, Stephen Schwartz, Glenn Slater and David Zippel, just to name a few. Songs like Part of Your World from Little Mermaid, the title track from Beauty and the Beast, sung in the animated film by the brilliant Angela Lansbury and A Whole New World from Aladdin, are all time classics.

As well as those familiar songs and shows, Alan Menken wrote the Am/Dram staple Little Shop of Horrors, the ever popular Sister Act and the under-valued King David. His version of A Christmas Carol will be at the Lowry next Christmas and Aladdin is touring the UK and will be at Manchester’s Palace Theatre for three weeks in May.

What a coup then for me and Tameside Radio to get to speak to my Musical Theatre hero over zoom from his home in New York State. I had so many questions to ask him, but I had to guard against being overwhelmed when speaking to the great man.

He was generous with his time and we discussed the way he writes, his favourite shows and songs, his inspirations and the partnerships he has forged within the World of Musicals. I started by asking him what he was most proud of during his amazing life so far, “I think it’s the things you put out into the World that make a difference. The things that fill my heart the most are my family, my dogs and my cats but also my collaborators and the joy of being in this room (his studio at home) and creating the songs, music and scores that hadn’t existed before is such an amazingly fulfilling part of my life.

“When I write an emotional melody it affects me, of course it does. You recognise it immediately. It’s always best for me to recognise the context of the song when I’m working on it. The hardest song for me to write is just simply trying to write an emotional song (with no context). When you work in Musical Theatre you have the gift of working with a character and within a story. It involves creating a World through music which allows me to hone the best piece I can to fit that situation.

“Emotionally I like to take people to a place they’ve not been before. The goal is to start from a place we know and then take it to a new place. One of the reason’s I prefer to write the music first is because it then creates a new place for the lyrics to go. Occasionally I will work from the lyrics, but I find it more rewarding to write the music first.”

That’s just a little flavour of our chat and you can hear the full interview from 7pm this Sunday in my Break-a-Leg Alan Menken special. There’ll be loads of great Menken songs too and so I hope you’ll join me. If you can’t listen on Sunday, it’ll be repeated at 9pm on Wednesday and available on tamesideradio.com. Just search my name on the presenters list and you can then play the full show at your leisure. Enjoy the show and Break-a-Leg in a Whole New World!

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