Alan Menken spent time during his BYU visit to hold a Q&A with students.
PROVO, UT — It is a rare sight to see the Madsen Recital Hall filled wall to wall with students. Excited attendees flocked into every available spot to meet the composer of the soundtracks to their childhood — Alan Menken.
Menken, a Tony Award-winning and eight time Academy Award-winning composer, made his debut performance at BYU to adoring audiences over the course of two nights. On the second day of his visit, Menken addressed students in a question and answer forum.
Students were mesmerized as they listened to Menken talk about his successful career. For many of these students born during the years Menken gained Disney popularity, listening to Menken brought their beloved childhood movies back to life. Menken helped usher in an era known as the “Disney Renaissance” with his work on movies like “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “Hercules.”
BYU student Matthew Arnett took the opportunity during the forum to ask Menken about balancing the music and story when writing a musical. “He said to make the music subject to the story. I thought that was great advice; to look at the big picture. It’s not about what I want to do as a musician, it’s about what the creative team has to say together for the whole project.”
The surprising guidance that stood out to students was Menken’s advice to cut things they love and not get attached to their work.
After he was told not to ask Menken what his favorite song is, facilitator Brent Yorgasoninstead asked what song Menken wished did not get cut from a film. “I learned not to have that wish,” Menken said. “Cutting things is going to be the most important thing you’re going to do with your career as a writer. It’s cutting and saying ‘okay, I’ll write another.’ Just don’t look back.”
Later in the lecture, Menken responded to a student’s request to give direction for those wanting to become musical composers. “I could give you life advice or practical advice,” he said. “They’re the same in a way. Life advice will keep you sane and going. The practical advice is to listen to people and don’t get precious about your work. Be willing to work in any way possible — in collaboration, on your own or standing on your head. Whatever it takes to get your work done, do it.
“My life advice is pretty much the same. Always be moving forward, don’t look back, figuratively. If somebody wants to look at something you’ve done before and fix it, okay you can do that, but don’t ever obsess over it. Just write another one because what is precious is your gut, your talent and your voice. The song may be precious to other people — you can’t let it be precious to you.”
Menken’s advice resonated with attendee Jeanelle Long. “I think that’s important for artists to remember, because artists can become extremely protective of their work and get offended if somebody hates it. I think not letting work become precious is a really healthy way of looking at things.”
The forum provided an opportunity for students like Arnett, who are pursuing the same path as Menken, to seek advice and help them toward their goals. It also provided a setting for students to hear from Menken in ways they had never experienced. Students laughed, along with Menken, when Menken mistook his water bottle for the microphone and they cheered as he seamlessly played snippets from his popular compositions. Menken ended the lecture with a climactic rendition of “I Can Go the Distance” from Hercules.
Student Alyssa Garn attended both Menken’s concert and forum. “I was surprised his performance, although scripted, was so personable. The way he answered the impromptu questions during the forum compared to the way he told the scripted stories at his concert was almost indistinguishable. He puts passion into everything he does. I believe I saw who the real Alan Menken is and how he writes such inspiring songs.”