Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!

Disney Composer Alan Menken Plays Not My Job

Alan Menken i i
Valerie Macon/Getty Images
Alan Menken
Valerie Macon/Getty Images

Who is the person with more Academy Awards than anybody else now living? It's not James Cameron, or Hillary Swank, or any writer or director or actor ... it's composer Alan Menken, who has eight Oscars for the songs and scores he wrote for Disney classics such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and Pocahontas.

We've invited Menken to play a gamed called "You shoudn't have. No, seriously, you shouldn't have" — three questions about terrible toys you should never give to any child you love.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

PETER SAGAL, host:

And now for the game where somebody who has won just about every accolade you can comes on to try for one more.

Mr. ALAN MENKEN (Composer): And makes a total fool of himself.

SAGAL: Well, we'll see. Who is the person with more Academy Awards than anyone else now living? It's not James Cameron, it's not Hillary Swank, it's not any writer or director or actor, it's composer Alan Menken. He's got eight Oscars for his songs and scores, for movies like "The Little Mermaid", "Beauty and the Beast", "Aladdin", and "Pocahontas." He joins us now. Alan Menken, welcome to WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME!

Mr. MENKEN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

SAGAL: So got to ask you about the Oscars. You've won more than anybody else now living, which is pretty impressive.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. MENKEN: Thank you.

SAGAL: First question, of course, where do you keep them?

Mr. MENKEN: I have them in my studio in an awards cabinet.

SAGAL: Right, okay, so you're not one of those people: "oh, I just leave it in the bathroom" You actually take it seriously, you put it in the glass.

Mr. MENKEN: I do take it seriously.

SAGAL: All right.

Mr. MENKEN: Yeah. I have them all set up, you know, waiting for two more so I could have a bowling alley.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SAGAL: It occurs to me, you have enough that you could actually create little scenarios. You could have little dinner parties where Oscars could meet.

Mr. MENKEN: Yeah. And also have the Oscars like maybe face off against the Golden Globes and then the Grammys (inaudible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

SAGAL: It's amazing you ever leave your house with all that play time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SAGAL: As I understand the story, you grew up around New York, a huge fan of musical theater, became a composer yourself. You were working off Broadway. You had a big hit in the 80s with "Little Shop of Horrors." And then Disney calls.

Mr. MENKEN: Actually, you know, what was really exciting is Howard called, my late collaborator, a brilliant collaborator, Howard Ashman.

SAGAL: Howard Ashman.

Mr. MENKEN: He had been contacted by Disney about a number of projects and he said, you know, animation really interests me, and "Little Mermaid" was a great project. And Howard got in touch with me and what was really exciting to me was that this was going to be Howard's and my follow-up to "Little Shop of Horrors." I mean, Disney at that point hadn't had much going on for a while. So I didn't know what I was getting into except, of course I loved Disney growing up.

SAGAL: I mean, "Little Shop of Horrors," for those who haven't been lucky enough to see it, there's a really good movie version of it, but it is a musical version of that cheap horror movie from the 60s and involves a horrible man-eating plant.

Mr. MENKEN: The Roger Corman movie, yeah.

SAGAL: Exactly. It's very wry. It's kind of black-humored. Disney, did they want that? Did you go in and pitch that and say, "And then Ariel gets eaten by an enormous."

Mr. MENKEN: No, I think they just wanted the technique that we had for writing shows. They wanted us to devote it to creating some new titles that could sit alongside "Snow White" and "Cinderella" and "Sleeping Beauty."

SAGAL: Well, you did that.

Mr. MENKEN: Yeah, it worked out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SAGAL: One of the things that we noticed when we looked into your resume was prior to your huge success with Disney, you did some interesting musical adaptations. You did a musical adaptation, before "Little Shop of Horrors," which itself was pretty unusual. You did "Weird Romance." You did a musical adaptation of "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz."

Mr. MENKEN: Yes, we did.

SAGAL: Which was an early obscure Richard Dreyfuss movie.

Mr. MENKEN: Well, it was a Mordecai Richler novel which is very, very popular in Canada. And I think we're going to have a production of that next year in Canada.

SAGAL: All right, popular in Canada. Well lord knows those are the three words that mean musical comedy success.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SAGAL: One of the big numbers in "Little Shop of Horrors" is sung by the maniac dentist, played by Steve Martin in the movie version. We were interested to find out that you actually came from a family of dentists.

Mr. MENKEN: Ah, yes. Lots of Menkens were dentists.

SAGAL: Really?

Mr. MENKEN: Okay, my dad, who at the age of 89 just retired recently.

SAGAL: Oh really?

Mr. MENKEN: Is a dentist. My father's brother is a dentist. My father's father was a dentist. My mother's sister's husband was a dentist. My father's sister's husband is a dentist.

SAGAL: What's wrong with you?

Mr. MENKEN: I failed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SAGAL: You're a little bit of a disappointment to the family I would think.

Mr. MENKEN: But I did, in fact, contribute to dentistry by creating the dentist in "Little Shop of Horrors." And I did have the idea that the dentist should laugh himself to death on nitrous oxide, which when we conceived it, my dad actually was president of the New York chapter of the American Analgesia Society.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MENKEN: A dentist that promoted the use of nitrous oxide as safe. I thought they'd find - my dad would find it funny. So as I always do, I sent a tape to my parents, a little cassette tape and my mother would leave a message on the machine. And she says, "okay, honey, we heard the show. Okay."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MENKEN: And I said, oh, that's weird. And Janice said, oh no, I think your mother is just so moved. I said I don't know. So I called them up. They said, how would you feel if you had devoted yourself to promoting the use of nitrous oxide as safe and your son wrote a musical in which this dentist laughed himself to death.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MENKEN: And then after the show was successful, my dad actually provided all the slides of teeth that we used in the show.

SAGAL: I have two thoughts. First of all, that is a first world problem.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SAGAL: Secondly, that is a musical, what you just described. Son of a family of dentists rebels. Leaves the house, writes a musical, slanders dentistry. Just think of the big ballots. Just think of the numbers.

Mr. MENKEN: Yeah.

Mr. PETER GROSZ (Comedy Writer/Performer): And I want to add thirdly that I've never met the woman but it sounds to me like you do a dead-on impression of your mother.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MENKEN: You got that.

SAGAL: Is it weird to have so much of your music so much a part of the popular imagination? I mean, have you ever, like, gotten into an elevator and heard one of your songs?

Mr. MENKEN: Yeah, it is strange. Because I'll hear a song and it'll sound familiar and I'll go, "Is that mine?"

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MENKEN: And I'll go oh yes, it is. But it's great. I mean, it is one of the great blessings of my life is that I'll sit down sometimes and play a concert or something and I'll find people singing along with me. It's just amazing. I literally find myself crying on stage because it's so special.

Mr. GROSZ: You could be speaker of the house.

SAGAL: Yeah, I know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

SAGAL: Well, Alan Menken, we're delighted to have you with us. We have asked you here to play a game we're calling?

CARL KASELL, host:

You shouldn't have.

Mr. MENKEN: Okay.

KASELL: No, seriously, you shouldn't have.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SAGAL: Every year about this time, we do a WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME! gift guide. It's really more of a warning than a guide. We're going to ask you three questions about terrible toys you should never give to any child you love. If you get two questions right, you'll win a prize for one of our listeners, Carl's voice on their home answering machine. The prize that anybody would like. Carl, who is Alan Menken playing for?

KASELL: Alan is playing for Tim Garrett from Monet, Missouri.

SAGAL: All right, the first toy. Most kids can't wait to grow up, and toy makers have taken advantage of that desire with which of these toys? One of these really exists. Is it A, a "Mad Men" brand toy liquor cabinet?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SAGAL: B, a child-sized temporary lower back tattoo, also know as a baby tramp stamp?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SAGAL: Or C, the computer game, Turbo Tax for Kids?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MENKEN: Oh my god. I'm going to go for A.

SAGAL: The "Mad Men" brand toy liquor cabinet.

Mr. MENKEN: I would think. I think that's (inaudible).

SAGAL: For your own little Don Draper.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SAGAL: They should do that, but actually it's the tramp stamp, the little baby tramp stamp temporary tattoos.

Mr. GROSZ: Oh no.

Mr. MENKEN: It goes on the lower back?

SAGAL: Yeah, on the lower back. You know, just above the...

Mr. GROSZ: That is so - that is distasteful.

SAGAL: I know.

Mr. GROSZ: The baby drinking set would be very classy.

SAGAL: You think so?

Mr. GROSZ: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GROSZ: A little milk. You know, two fingers of milk. What can I pour you?

Mr. MENKEN: Emulate daddy.

Mr. ADAM FELBER (Writer, "Real Time with Bill Maher"): It'd be four fingers of milk then.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SAGAL: You have two more chances. Here is a great present for a girl you would never actually want to buy for any girl you liked. A, the Girls Only Cleaning Trolley; B, the Hooters Waitress of the Year 2018 baby onesie; or C, the Wait for Prince Charming game?

Mr. MENKEN: I'm going to say C, Wait for Prince Charming game.

SAGAL: Really? The game when you sit around and just do nothing, you just keep rolling the dice and hoping.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SAGAL: That eventually the prince will show up.

Mr. MENKEN: Well what was the second one?

SAGAL: The second one was the Hooters Waitress of the Year 2018 baby onesie.

Mr. MENKEN: Okay, could I change my choice?

SAGAL: You may.

Mr. MENKEN: I'm going to go to A.

SAGAL: You're going to go to A?

Mr. MENKEN: The cleaning trolley.

SAGAL: You're right. Very good.

(Soundbite of bell)

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. KYRIE O'CONNOR (Deputy Editor/Blogger, Houston Chronicle): I was hoping it'd be that Hooters outfit.

SAGAL: It's pink, of course, the little cleaning trolley. And it comes with a little mop and a broom and a bucket. Like the grownup version, it does not come with a living wage.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SAGAL: All right, you've got one right, you've got one wrong. Get this right, you win. You know, it's the dramatic tension, third act of the musical. Here we go. Last question: kids like plush toys, right, so they'll love this special line of stuffed friends. Is it A, the road kill line of stuff animals?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SAGAL: B, stuffed Larry King?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SAGAL: Or C, cuddle a banker line of stuffed financiers?

Mr. MENKEN: Oh god. I think the only one I'd find palatable is C, stuffed financiers?

Mr. FELBER: That's slightly more gross than road kill, isn't it?

SAGAL: Really? It's slightly more gross. You'd bring them home and you'd give them little bonuses?

Ms. O'CONNOR: I think you would ride your tricycle over them.

Mr. MENKEN: They're already stuffed I think.

SAGAL: They're already stuffed.

Mr. MENKEN: Okay, I'm saying C.

SAGAL: You're saying C? I'm afraid it was A. It was, in fact, the road kill line. They do come with little tire tracks.

Ms. O'CONNOR: Wow.

SAGAL: Bulgy eyes, tasteful guts. Sorry about that.

Mr. MENKEN: Oh my god.

SAGAL: You know kids...

Mr. FELBER: Kids would rather play with dead animals than bankers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. MENKEN: Oh no, I failed. I apologize.

SAGAL: At least when you save a run-over animal, it's grateful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

SAGAL: Carl, how did Alan Menken do on our quiz?

KASELL: Well Alan had one correct answer, but he needed at least two correct answers to win for Tim Garret.

Mr. MENKEN: Oh Tim, I'm sorry.

SAGAL: It's all right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SAGAL: It's all right.

Mr. GROSZ: You've given the world so much. You're allowed to mess this one thing up.

SAGAL: Yeah. I think you're going to be - perhaps you'll find some comfort in your shelf full of Oscars.

Ms. O'CONNOR: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

SAGAL: Alan Menken has just been nominated for yet another award. In this case, the Golden Globe for his song, "I See the Light" in the Disney film "Tangled." He has composed pretty much every great animated movie musical you've seen in the last 20 years. Alan Menken, thank you so much for being with us.

Mr. MENKEN: Thank you, it's been a pleasure.

(Soundbite of applause)

SAGAL: Great fun to have you. Bye-bye.

Mr. MENKEN: Bye-bye.

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