Richard Sherman and Alan Menken Talk D23 The Disney Songbook

Jasmine Reyes ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Writer

Disney is well known for bringing happiness and magic into the hearts and lives of people around the world. Much of that magic is found in the heart-warming and upbeat music of the animated films made by the Disney Studios composers.

For the first time ever, Academy Award®-winning composers and Disney Legends Richard M. Sherman and Alan Menken will be working together in a concert at the D23 Expo, a 3–day exposition “featuring live events, celebrity appearances, panels and presentations, sneak peeks, and unique, once-in-a-lifetime experiences that celebrate the past, present, and future of Disney”, this Saturday, August 10.

Alan Menken described the concert, titled The Disney Songbook, as a “potpourri of the well known songs and the lesser known songs.”

“I think people are going to be blown away by the fact that Alan is going to be playing these great songs that he’s written and I’m going to be playing the great songs that my brother Bob and I wrote,” Sherman elaborated on the song set and what Disney fans could expect from their concert. “And of course for the first time Alan and I are going to be conversing together. There’s a third section of this show where we’re going to be together and comparing our roots and where [the inspiration for the songs] came from, our histories, our favorites and the most endearing songs, and some of our favorites [Disney and non-Disney].”

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But within creating that song set came the difficult decision of what songs to include. Between Menken and Sherman, they have won a combined 10 Academy Awards for their work with Disney, and have composed music and songs for more than three-dozen Disney feature films, over two-dozen Disney Park attractions, and half a dozen Disney musicals on Broadway. With that many songs, it could be a daunting task to know exactly what songs to pick.

“It’s always a challenge to pick out songs for the current audience,” said Menken. “We did have some requests from our hosts… The biggest challenge was, you know how many of the unknown songs or the cut songs do we want to include and how to contextualize them so that it’s interesting for the audience.”

One thing that makes Disney songs stand out is the originality and relatability of the characters and the words they sing.

“I try to be original and catchy, “ said Sherman about his process when trying to write a song for a Disney film. “But my secret is that I have fun. I never feel like I’m working. It’s more like a hobby. My hobby is writing songs. I’m 85 but I don’t feel like it. We like writing for upbeat ideas. It’s a wonderful thing about being positive, not negative.  My gratification is that people get joy from my work.”

Menken’s process for composing Disney songs “is very much the process of writing a musical. The difference of Disney comes in in the sense of responsibility in terms of the message of the song and in the approach to storytelling. You know that this is an audience that will embrace what you do and take it to heart entirely. You really have to cherish the audience very much as you write the song and care about them. The Disney tradition is a great American classic tradition and you don’t want to go over certain lines. You want to poke fun, but you don’t want to poke fun where it’s hurtful.”

But in terms of determining what how songs fit in the grand scheme of the movie, Menken said, “The story doesn’t get written without us. We’re basically among the writers saying how are we going to write the story so that it will be driven by song. The songwriting is very influenced by the storytelling in making sure that the attitude is clear, the style is clear, the genre is clear, and people always have a moment like ‘Oh I get it. I get it.’ Once you make those decisions, then the music just flows.”

Menken and Sherman not only have a bond with their music, but with each other’s music. Sherman praised Menken’s work saying, “Alan is a great melody writer and wonderful harmonies. [He and Howard] wrote so many incredibly gorgeous songs. One of the songs that gets to me more than anything else I think is Part of Your World. Part of Your World just gets to me. It really just does it. I just love it. We’re both fans of each other.”

Alan Menken.
Alan Menken.

“[Richard has] Jungle book coming up and there’s some songs in there that are amazing,” said Menken. “You look at [Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious]. That’s so well known. There couldn’t have been an Under the Sea without [Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious]. It’s the combination of the exuberance, the rhythm, the cleverness of the lyrics, and the catchiness of it that gets into your system. It sets the standard and the bar for how things should be done… Richard has a unique voice that comes through his work and I think I come through in my work. Each song is just a manifestation of that voice.”

But outside of their professional admiration for each other, there lies a special type of camaraderie between the two Disney legends. “People don’t realize that Richard was such a supportive person to me when I first came to Disney,’ said Menken. “And we have a very warm relationship. People don’t know about our friendship… It’s a very exclusive club… We’re lucky to be involved with a studio that created such a supportive platform for non-cynical work.”

Sherman agreed, but also mentioned that their bond was, “not only a friendship… First of all we both have had long histories with the Disney organization. I had the great, superb honor of working with the genius himself, Walt Disney, and I always feel honored that I was working for his company and for him when he was with us. I know Alan feels the same about the company.

“Walt set a high standard for the both of us with the great songwriters of the past that wrote great scores for Pinocchio and all of these wonderful pictures that came before our time. It was kind of a high mark for us to work for. And I think that wholesome beautiful entertainment that uplifts the spirit is very special. They’re not depressing they’re uplifting. And we’re lucky to have done that kind of work… Everyone loves the Disney aura and what we’ve done and what we’ve created.”

Richard Sherman
Richard M. Sherman

The Disney Songbook concert will be at the D23 Arena in Anaheim and begins at 6.30 p.m. If you’re a Disney fan and are in the Anaheim area be sure to check it out.

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