Home > Reviews > BEAUTY AND THE BEAST – Alan Menken

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST – Alan Menken

November 4, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

When looking back at the period now, considering their enormous success and influence, it’s easy to forget that Disney was a film studio in trouble in the 1980s. Their first four animated films during the decade – The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, and Oliver & Company – had not been particularly well-received, while the success of the fifth, The Little Mermaid in 1989, was certainly not seen as a guarantor of future achievement. Everything changed with the 1991 release of Beauty and the Beast, which became the first animated film ever to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, and subsequently set in motion a decade of almost unparalleled cinematic dominance for the house that Walt built.

The film is based on the classic French fairytale La Belle et la Bête written by novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740. It tells the story of a beautiful young woman, Belle, who is taken prisoner by a mysterious and terrifying beast who lives in an enchanted castle near her village; initially scared of the monster, Belle gradually grows to love him, especially when she learns that he is actually a handsome prince who was cursed by an enchantress years previously. The Beast and all the castle’s inhabitants – who now comprise a candelabra, a clock, and a teapot, among others – are cursed to remain in their enchanted state until someone falls in love with him. Meanwhile, Belle’s boorish and narcissistic suitor Gaston is manipulating Belle’s kindly father in order to win her hand in marriage, and will stop at nothing to bag his ‘trophy’ wife. The film was directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, and features the voices of Paige O’Hara as Belle, Robby Benson as the Beast, and Richard White as Gaston, plus Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, and Angela Lansbury as members of the Beast’s household.

The film was an enormous critical and commercial success, and quickly became something of a cultural touchstone. A significant contributor to that success was composer Alan Menken, whose now iconic songs and score for the film quickly cemented themselves into public consciousness. The contributions made by him and the late, great lyricist Howard Ashman are among the greatest songs ever written for cinema, but they were ironically conceived under the most tragic circumstances. Ashman was initially reluctant to work on Beauty and the Beast because he had just recently been diagnosed with AIDS, and because he had already begun work on the songs for Aladdin, which would eventually be released in 1992. Eventually he agreed to work on Beauty and the Beast too, but his illness was compounded by this additional workload, to such an extent that Ashman was essentially unable to leave his New York apartment during production, requiring Menken to travel frequently from California to the East Coast to write with him. Ashman wrote the majority of the song’s lyrics from his deathbed, and died on March 14th, 1991, seven months before the film opened.

Despite this tragedy, the songs and score for Beauty and the Beast are timeless, and were the darlings of the 1991 awards season. Eventually Menken and Ashman won two Oscars for Best Score and Best Original Song for “Beauty and the Beast”, two Golden Globes for the same, and three Grammy Awards, including Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals for the Céline Dion/Peabo Bryson pop duet version. The songs “Belle” and “Be Our Guest” were also nominated for Oscars, much to the dismay of basically anyone else who wrote an original song in 1991 – essentially, you couldn’t escape singing candelabras or dancing clocks anywhere in the winter of that year.

What made Beauty and the Beast so special, for me, is that the whole thing was conceived with music in mind. In the previous decade or so, the music in Disney movies became less of a focal point, and as such many of the songs in them became sort of perfunctory afterthoughts, almost feeling shoehorned in because convention dictated that Disney animated films needed songs. Beauty and the Beast was not like that at all; building on the ideas from The Little Mermaid, Menken and Ashman made the songs integral parts of the story, moving the plot forward, revealing character motivations, and more. It was closer in style to classical opera or Broadway than anything Disney had done since… well… almost forever. Tonally, it also abandoned much of the light jazz and rock music that had been prevalent in Disney films since the mid-1960s, and embraced a richer orchestral sound, something which was at that time actually a departure for Menken – his previous work on Little Shop of Horrors had a 1950s doo-wop sound, while a lot of The Little Mermaid was rooted in calypso music.

So; to the music. The soundtrack opens with the “Prologue,” which features David Ogden Stiers portentously narrating in flashback how the Beast comes to be, and why his arrogance and cruelty needs to be redeemed by love. Menken introduces one of the score’s primary identities here, the Rose theme, a glittery, magical-sounding seven-note motif that works as a recurring marker for the curse that the Enchantress places on the inhabitants of the castle, and the iconic rose that counts down the days in which the Beast has to both find, and receive, genuine love. Menken says its sound was inspired by the classic ‘Aquarium’ piece from Camille Saint-Saëns’s The Carnival of the Animals, and the parallels are clearly evident, but Menken makes it his own enough for it not to be concerning. Cleverly, Menken hints at several song melodies during this opening piece too, somehow turning this 2½ minute cue into a full on overture.

“Belle” is the film’s traditional ‘I Want’ song, and features excellent performances by Paige O’Hara as Belle and Richard White as her conceited suitor Gaston. Menken says he based the song on the narrative style of a traditional operetta, and it is a perfect encapsulation of the hustle and bustle of French provincial life, as the villagers go about their daily routines, passing comment on Belle and her peculiar predilection for bibliophilia. Belle herself dreams about escaping from her dull existence and seeing the world she only knows from her books; the exhilarating rush of emotion that comes with the sweep of the orchestra at 0:35 in the “Reprise” is spine-tingling, while the constant switching of the character focus, the different vocal harmonies, and the split-second layering of melodies that foreshadow songs later in the score is brilliant.

“Gaston” is a wonderfully entertaining, magnificently boorish Teutonic drinking song, performed again by Richard White with prominent support from Jesse Corti as his sycophantic toady Le Fou. It’s a brilliant send-up of unchecked toxic masculinity, and has a wonderfully subversive and clever sense of humor, while the orchestrations are an Oktoberfest-lover’s dream, a carnival of accordions and oompah brasses. “Be Our Guest” is the film’s enormous showstopper, as Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach sing and wine and dine Belle with a gastronomical feast, hoping they can convince her to stay and break the spell that has kept them transformed into kitchen utensils. Lansbury is channeling her own Cockney-accented Mrs. Lovett from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, and Jerry Orbach out-Frenches Maurice Chevalier from Gigi, but the whole thing is so delightful, and the classic Hollywood Busby Berkeley vibe that runs through the entire song is so much fun. Try the gray stuff, it’s delicious!

I always felt that “Something There” was the weakest of the songs, but it’s still playful and charming, as the kitchen staff comment on the budding relationship developing between the two protagonists. Interestingly, this song features the only prominent sung performance by Robby Benson as the gruff-voiced Beast; the lack of an original song specifically speaking to him and his inner monologue was one of the film’s only odd omissions. Nevertheless, his interactions with Belle are sweet, and her responses – singing in the same leitmotif melody from the “Belle” song – are lovely, especially when she sings with a little giggle in her voice (“true, that he’s no prince charming”). Furthermore, Menken’s orchestrations have a Christmassy vibe, with prominent performances for harpsichords and sleigh bells, which gives the whole thing a delightful wintry feel.

“The Mob Song” is led by Richard White as Gaston, and is described by Menken as ‘macho adventure underscore’. It leads the scene where the townspeople, having been goaded into action by Gaston’s misinformation, prepare to storm the castle with torches and pitchforks, ostensibly to rescue Belle, but really to kill the beast. The song has the same complicated vocal layering as “Belle,” but with a more militaristic and robust orchestral thrust. I’ve noticed that Menken seems to be especially adept at tailoring his music to massed bass voices – this song sits alongside things like “Savages” from Pocahontas and “Hellfire” from The Hunchback of Notre Dame for thunderous intent – and the swirling orchestral accompaniment gives the whole thing a rousing, if a little dark, feel.

Finally, the title song “Beauty and the Beast” is performed with touching intimacy by Angela Lansbury, as Belle and her captor/suitor finally fall in love, and waltz together in the castle’s ballroom. Menken said he crafted the song to be a lullaby, but in fact it drips with heartfelt romance and classic fairytale iconography. The lush orchestrations are gorgeous – warm strings, solo pianos, intimate woodwinds – and its no surprise that the song quickly became a Disney standard, one of the most popular elements of their modern repertoire. The pop version, performed as a duet by Céline Dion and Peabo Bryson, has the usual mainstream affectations, including a boom-tish percussion beat and some more noticeable electronic glitter, but it’s still nice.

The five original score tracks are grouped together in the middle of the album, and mostly build upon melodies from the songs in a more dramatic setting. “To the Fair” is a frenetic scherzo based on the melody of “Belle,” a whirligig trip around the orchestra full of dancing and prancing strings, leaping and flourishing woodwinds, and moments of scatterbrained comedy, although the occasional interpolations of Belle’s more sweeping romantic theme do give it a wistful, nostalgic quality that is very compelling. “West Wing” opens with a slightly bittersweet deconstructed variation of “Be Our Guest” for low brasses, but quickly adopts a tone of mystery and magic, following Belle around as she explores the castle, into places she should not go. Allusions to the Rose theme from the Prologue abound, clearly enunciating the origins of the Beast’s curse, but there are also moody and brooding statements of what will eventually become the Beauty and the Beast love theme. The whole thing ends with the first significant action moment in the score, a flurry of vibrant strings, dominant thrusting cellos, snare drum riffs, and powerful brass outbursts, as the Beast angrily chases Belle around the castle, enraged by her invasion of his privacy.

“The Beast Lets Belle Go” is a despondent, resigned version of the “Beauty and the Beast” love theme, underpinned with regret. Menken’s orchestrations tread just the right line between romance and tragedy, while the bold interpolations of both Belle’s personal theme and the ‘Something There’ love theme around the 1:00 mark is beauty and heartbreak combined, and sees the strings weeping along with the character. “Battle on the Tower” is the score’s rousing finale, and was the cue which really cemented Menken’s prowess at large-scale action, something he would explore later (and perhaps better) in Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and especially Enchanted. The piece begins with an extended circus-like version of ‘Be Our Guest,’ flamboyant and eccentric, as the kitchen utensils get the upper hand over the inept villagers, but it also cross-cuts with Gaston and the Beast fighting to the death on the castle’s parapets, and soon becomes much more serious. The last two minutes or so of the cue is filled with rich and exciting combat music, as the themes for both Gaston’s and the Beast come together, strings rushing, horns blaring, drums rattling. It’s quite exhilarating, and when Menken breaks to quote both the Rose theme and the love theme, you realize what the stakes are.

The conclusive “Transformation” is the score’s soaring emotional finale, where the Beast – having been mortally wounded by Gaston – dies, but is then resurrected and transformed back into his human form, as a result of his ultimate sacrifice to save Belle’s life. The love theme and the Beauty and the Beast waltz are quoted prominently, before the whole thing culminates in a majestic, spine-tingling crescendo of the Rose theme at the pivotal moment of redemption. A final outburst of the “Beauty and the Beast” song – complete with angelic chorus – ends the piece on a glorious high.

The original soundtrack release of Beauty and the Beast was a touch over 50 minutes in length, and contained just 22 minutes of score alongside all the original songs, including the Prologue. A more complete and comprehensive version of the score was released in 2018 with the Legacy Collection album, which expanded the score’s running time to over 120 minutes with the addition of several previously un-released score tracks, song variations, and synth demos that Menken and Ashman put together during pre-production on the film. It also re-sequences the songs and score into strict chronological order, making the album a true dramatic presentation of the film’s musical content.

Looking back with thirty years of hindsight, you can point at Beauty and the Beast as being a turning point in the history of Disney as a film studio, and a major contributor to world culture. The enormous global success of the film, and of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s music, rejuvenated the brand entirely, and ushered in a period of sustained growth and influence that shows no sign of abating, all these decades later. This music became the template on which modern Disney is built; it’s no surprise that its stage shows, firework displays, and other events, in theme parks and elsewhere, have the same sort of magical sound, with sweeping orchestrations and prominent themes. Alan Menken did that. The score and songs in Beauty and the Beast are now considered timeless classics, and rightly so; the creativity, wit, intelligence, emotional power, and technical musicality on display here is outstanding, and it deserved every accolade it received. This is perhaps the quintessential Disney score, and is one of the most important works of the 1990s. It’s just a shame that Howard Ashman didn’t live to see it.

Buy the Beauty and the Beast soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • 1991 ORIGINAL RELEASE
  • Prologue (2:26)
  • Belle (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Paige O’Hara and Richard White) (5:09)
  • Belle – Reprise (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Paige O’Hara) (1:05)
  • Gaston (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Richard White and Jesse Corti) (3:40)
  • Gaston – Reprise (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Richard White and Jesse Corti) (2:04)
  • Be Our Guest (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach) (3:44)
  • Something There (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Angela Lansbury, David Ogden Stiers, Jerry Orbach, Paige O’Hara, and Robby Benson) (2:19)
  • The Mob Song (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Richard White) (3:30)
  • Beauty and the Beast (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Angela Lansbury) (2:46)
  • To the Fair (1:58)
  • West Wing (4:24)
  • The Beast Lets Belle Go (2:22)
  • Battle on the Tower (5:29)
  • Transformation (5:47)
  • Beauty and the Beast – Duet (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Céline Dion and Peabo Bryson) (4:04)
  • 2018 LEGACY COLLECTION
  • Main Title – Prologue (2:27)
  • Belle (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Paige O’Hara and Richard White) (5:06)
  • Little Town (2:50)
  • Journey to the Castle (4:54)
  • Maurice Taken/Gaston Rejected (3:04)
  • Belle – Reprise (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Paige O’Hara) (1:03)
  • Belle Enters the Beast’s World (5:59)
  • Gaston (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Richard White and Jesse Corti) (3:36)
  • Gaston – Reprise (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Richard White and Jesse Corti) (2:01)
  • Enchanted Objects (6:48)
  • Be Our Guest (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach) (3:44)
  • Be Our Guest – Playoff (0:56)
  • Escape from the West Wing/Wolf Attack (5:41)
  • Coming Together (5:11)
  • Something There (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Angela Lansbury, David Ogden Stiers, Jerry Orbach, Paige O’Hara, and Robby Benson) (2:18)
  • Human Again (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, and Jo Anne Worley) (4:53)
  • Tonight’s the Night (1:01)
  • Beauty and the Beast (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Angela Lansbury) (2:42)
  • Beast Lets Go (5:35)
  • The Mob Song (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Richard White) (3:27)
  • Battle in the Castle (2:27)
  • Death of the Beast (4:38)
  • Transformation (4:13)
  • Beauty and the Beast – Single (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Céline Dion and Peabo Bryson) (4:03)
  • Belle – For Linda Worthington [Demo] (written and performed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken) (4:45)
  • Belle [Demo] (written and performed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken) (4:50)
  • Gaston [Demo] (written and performed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken) (3:42)
  • Gaston – Reprise [Demo] (written and performed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken) (2:30)
  • Be Our Guest [Demo] (written and performed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken) (3:28)
  • Human Again [Demo] (written and performed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken) (9:13)
  • Beauty and the Beast [Demo] (written and performed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken) (3:55)

Running Time: 50 minutes 12 seconds – Original
Running Time: 120 minutes 47 seconds – Legacy Collection

Walt Disney Records 60618-2 (1991) – Original
Walt Disney Records 050087373610 (1991/2018) – Legacy Collection

Music composed by Alan Menken. Conducted by David Friedman. Orchestrations by Danny Troob and Michael Starobin. Recorded and mixed by John Richards and Michael Farrow. Edited by Kathy Bennett. Album produced by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, Walter Afanasieff and Robert Buchanan.

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: