It may be hard to believe, but this holiday weekend marks 30 years since the release of Aladdin, the animated classic that set the stage for several sequels, a live-action reimagining released in 2019, and even a Broadway musical. To mark the occasion, eight-time Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken, who received two statuettes for his work on the film, shared his memories of creating the visionary classic with CNN.
While the film is loved by many — not just for how it showcases the late Robin Williams’ vocal prowess — Menken says none of this would have been possible without his late lyricist Howard Ashman, whom he called “indispensable.”
The seasoned composer also reflects on how Disney as a studio handled the movie’s depiction of the Far East and how the previous version in development was actually shelved due to concerns that predated culture cancellation by decades.
This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
CNN: When it came to developing Aladdin, were there any doubts at Disney about how to tell the story?
Alan Menken, composer: “Aladdin” was started almost at the same time as “(The Little Mermaid)”. When we were still working on The Mermaid, we started Aladdin, had a complete picture of it, and it was shelved. Part (reasons) put him off, he was very irreverent, even more irreverent than he had become, and there was a lot of concern about how this would affect the feelings of the Arabs.
I remember when we started doing Aladdin, (we) thought about how (we) really wanted it to be a funny wink at the Hollywood take on the Mysterious East and all that, because it had such a, I wanted to make it look like a Bob Hope/Bing Crosby road photo or crazy wacky Fleischer cartoons.
We knew we were on the line. In fact, revival didn’t come out of nothing, and it’s not like it didn’t exist. Whenever you come across a stereotype in these photographs, it has been very, very, very scrutinized. Disney wasn’t going to be caught with a PC insensitivity.
Editor’s Note: Today, when viewers click Aladdin on Disney+, a message first appears that reads in part: “This program contains negative images and/or abuse of people or cultures. The stereotypes were wrong then and wrong now. Instead of taking this continent away, we want to recognize its malign influence, learn from it, and start a conversation to create a more inclusive future together.”
CNN: I remember at the time, one of the first texts in opening the song from the film Arabian Nights (“Where they cut off your ears if they don’t like your face”) had to be changed for fear that it would be insensitive. Did it not serve as a hint for the future, in terms of today’s standards of political correctness, etc.?
Mencken: This was changed as soon as the picture came out.
So here we are – Howard is gone – so I rewrote it like this: “Where it’s hot and vast and hot, it’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” Now, even “barbarian” as an adjective for warmth was still overly sensitive. So for the live action movie, when Benj Pasek and Justin Paul were my lyricists, that was also adjusted.
The really irreverent lyrics were in the Arabian Nights. Because they created the world, and we said: “This is our tone. We wink at everything and laugh.” We were making fun of the genre, but making fun of the genre can obviously turn into making fun of people.
There’s always a lot of debate about stereotypes, whether it’s the right stereotype, whether it can be offensive or something like that. But this (text change) was the first place where we actually said, “OK, we have to change that.”
Specifically about making a film and working with actors: you have said earlier about what it was like working with the late Robin Williams. Any other memories you want to share?
Mencken: In the (recording) room, Robin (was) a serious artist. He wanted to learn every note of “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” so we rehearsed carefully. I think he was a little ill from being in the harness all day (Steven Spielberg’s 1991 film) The Hook.
Then, of course, when we started recording, and after he sincerely conveyed exactly what I wanted from the song – that style of singing Fats Waller’s songs – then everyone was like, “Okay, Robin, you can just go have fun.” ?
And… that’s where you went crazy, because Robin is “turned on”. And Robin “on” was incredible. Actually, Robin was a very sensitive, sweet and sweet person. It was amazing to work with him.
And what about Gilbert Gottfried, who died this year?
Mencken: Gilbert made no musical contributions (to the film). But from the press releases for the film over the past 28 or 29 years, Gilbert has always (said) “Where’s my song? You never gave me songs!
You know, there’s always a big gap between a person’s personality and who they are. He was a nice, sweet, unassuming guy, gentle, sensitive, fun to talk to, a little nerdy and all, and then when he’s “on”, you know, it’s all “blaaaaaa!!!” out of him. And there are many such experiences in animation. There are hilarious anecdotes about people when they are “on” and it’s just amazing.
As you mentioned, you started working on this film with your longtime collaborator-lyricist Howard Ashman, but then continued working on it with Tim Rice after Ashman’s death in March 1991. How do you remember that time now, working with Ashman?
Mencken: He was just brilliantly smart, intuitive, very understanding of how we mix styles and vocabulary from our culture, from other cultures, in a really trendy, exciting and fun way. And all the serious messages were, as it were, in the subtext, but brilliantly in the subtext. And that started with our stage productions, particularly Little Shop of Horrors.
And Howard was a very, very accomplished jack-of-all-trades – lyricist, book writer, director and producer. He really was just an amazing mixture of many gifts and talents.
And what about how the animated Aladdin served as the basis for many subsequent successful iterations, including a long-running Broadway show and a billion-dollar live-action film?
Mencken: Well, in case first (2017 live-action Beauty and the Beast), then Aladdin, and now Mermaids (released next year), it’s not really progress so much… as actually an animated film (film) is a Rosetta Stone and it’s just spokes on a wheel coming off of it – and it’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 more influence on how it differs from the animated (version).
On Broadway, I knew my goal was to include as many of the songs originally written by Howard as possible, and I relied heavily on everyone to make sure the storyline reflected that. And I think it was a smart move. It was not just a sentimental gesture towards my late co-author, but the mystique of Howard’s work and the magnificence of his work is one of the most attractive aspects of our projects.