Darren Criss Serenades a Stunned Alan Menken at Billboard Film & TV Music Conference

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken, who wrote the scores for "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" and many more, once handed a hundred dollar tip to a college kid doing an acoustic medley of his songs at a coffee shop.

These days that "kid" is better known as Darren Criss from "Glee" -- and at the Billboard / Hollywood Reporter Film & TV Music Conference, he made a surprise appearance before participants, with his acoustic guitar in hand, and serenaded Menken once again.

"Just look at your songs / aren't they neat? Wouldn't you think your collection's complete?" Criss sang, reworking the lyrics to Menken's "Part of Your World" from "The Little Mermaid." "Wouldn't you think you're the guy, the guy who has everything?"

The medley concluded with an appearance from the voice of Jasmine herself, Lea Salonga.
"I used to play for pennies at a cafe at the University of Michigan," Criss explained from stage. "I was just ruining 'Part of Your World' when Alan comes in. I was just mortified!"
"He was playing all of these songs really, really beautifully," Menken countered, still recovering from his genuine surprise. "I was really impressed with his talent. Next thing I know, Darren's on 'Glee'! He's just doing incredible work."

Darren Criss sings as Alan Menken and Billboard editorial director Bill Werde look on (Photo: Arnold Turner)

To call Menken's own resume "incredible" would be a mammoth understatement. Billboard's own Editorial Director Bill Werde presented Menken with this year's Hollywood Reporter / Billboard Maestro Award after introducing him as "the Babe Ruth of composers."

"My favorite part about [his] career is that at some point in the '80s, BMI gave [him] a lifetime achievement award for his work on Broadway -- and then he went on to win eight Academy Awards," Werde marveled.

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In a lengthy and wisecrack-filled chat, the pair talked about Menken's early interest in songwriting (which eventually included inspiration from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan), about his transition from Broadway to Disney, his non-Disney work (his song in this summer's "Captain America: The First Avenger" was a "deliberately an homage to Irving Berlin") and his multiple Oscar wins.

Menken spoke fondly about his parents, both of whom are dentists, and their reaction to "Little Shop of Horrors" in particular. One of the film's villains, of course, is a murderous dentist who delights in inflicting pain. "As I always did in those days, I actually gave my parents a cassette tape of the score." His recounting of the answering-machine message left by how mother elicited some big laughs. "'Hi honey, it's mom. We heard the tape. OK.'" They eventually got behind it and even loaned some pictures of abscesses to the production.

During the wide-ranging conversation, Menken advised composers in the audience against getting too attached to their songs when working on musicals. "It's not about the song. It's about the song in context of the musical. Does it fit the character? Does it support the rest of the story? Does it work for an audience?" He said he's even exchanged better songs for lesser songs when it served the story.

He tends to write on a piano or keyboard, and said that when writing alone, he's much faster. "I've literally had times where I've written the structure of a song in the time it took my fingers to play it."

By contrast, "the song 'Beauty and the Beast' was hours of work, which is unusual for a simple ballad. We had a tape running the entire time of [cowriter] Howard [Ashman] and me working on it. Somehow I saved that tape and I still have it."

Menken received multiple standing ovations from the audience. Criss put it best: "How many Oscars can one bastard hold?" he sang to an eruption of laughter around the room. "He's got verses and bridges aplenty / Want an original song for your movie? He'll write 20."

Darren tweeted:

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