Interview: Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken talks ‘Captain America’

There”s a moment in “Captain America” when the government decides that instead of sending the newly-hatched super hero Steve Rogers into combat, the best use of his powers would be to help build morale for the WW2 effort. In an upbeat montage, we see a cartoonishly-clad Rogers flanked by a chorus line and  traveling across the country as they dance and sing to a gloriously uncynical, patriotic march, “Star Spangled Man.”

The scene and song are pure cinema magic (or “brilliant,” as my colleague Drew McWeeny writes here in his review) and Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken tells Hitfix that it was as much fun to write as it is for us to watch. “To me, the [moment] screamed out for Irving Berlin, in the sense of ‘This Is The Army, Mr. Jones” or ‘God Bless America.” It should be patriotic and it should be fun. The goal was to come up with orchestration that felt authentic to the ’40s, USO [experience].”

While “Captain America” wasn”t one of his heroes-Menken grew up reading Classic Comics of literary works like “Ivanhoe”- Berlin is his “greatest songwriting hero,” so to write something in the style of the master pleased him no end. “Plus, one of my dreams is to do an RKO/MGM-type live action musical. That”s the aspect that really tickled me.”

Menken wrote the tune, which also appears over the end credits (some nice news we broke to him-he hadn”t seen the finished movie yet when we talked on July 19) with lyricist David Zippel. Because the scene was shot to the music, the pair wrote the tune before filming started, similar to an animated picture. Menken, of course, is the master of animation music, having won eight Oscars for his work on modern Disney classics like “The Little Mermaid” (best score), “Under The Sea” (best song) and “Beauty & The the Beast (best score and song).

In fact, Menken has the most Oscars of anyone living. The only folks with more are Walt Disney, who has 22, and fellow composer Alfred Newman, both of whom have died. He”s tied with the late legendary costume designer Edith Head.

Menken laughs that the “Captain America” situation “had the potential to be a disaster”: director Joe Johnston hadn”t worked with putting song performances in movies before, Menken and Zippel weren”t on site, Menken”s song needed to mesh with Alan Silvestri”s score. But it all worked perfectly “from our side and their side,” he says. “The result was a bit of a triumph. I think we were all very fortunate.”

Silvestri”s score hits all the right notes, although Menken says he wishes he”d gotten the shot to score the film as well. “Captain America” marks only the third time he”s dropped one song into a movie he didn”t score. The other two were “The Measure of a Man” for “Rocky V” and “My Christmas Tree” for “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.”

Menken”s schedule was so packed that the filmmakers were concerned about his time commitments: While he would need to be composing, “Sister Act,” which he wrote the music for,  was opening on Broadway;  a new production of “Aladdin” was opening in Seattle and he was working on the stage musical for “Newsies,” which goes into rehearsal next month.

“I threw my hat in the ring and said I”d kill myself to do this and they thought, unfortunately, given my schedule, that”s probably what it would have taken,” Menken says, adding that his lack of action film scores may have hurt him. “They [had] more security with Alan. Let”s face it, if you could get Alan, you do. He”s one of my favorite scorers.”

True enough, but there”s something topsy-turvy about a world where an eight-time Oscar winner has to prove himself in a different genre. “I can always hope I get one in the future. I”m known for a certain kind of thing,” he says, although he notes that many of his scores for the animated pictures include writing for action scenes. “People are very comfortable with you doing that kind of thing. I love the kind of thing I do. An action adventure film score would be a wonderful thing to do more of.”

While all eight Oscars are special, he says that two wins stand out: winning best score for “The Little Mermaid” because it was his first Oscar, and, bittersweetly, winning best song for “Aladdin”s”  “A Whole New World.” “That was a major shock,” he says. “First of all, [his longtime lyricist partner] Howard [Ashman] had passed away and I was very, very afraid that I wouldn”t be able to duplicate the success that I”d had with him. With ‘A Whole New World,” I was able to step out and do it on my own [with] Tim Rice. It was a big transition in my life. Also, it was a No. 1 single, Grammy song of the year. It was a crazy juggernaut. It just became a huge, huge thing.”

With 19 total nominations, he”s lost more Oscars than he”s won. When pushed, he admits that some losses were tougher to take than others.  The loss for the “Hunchback of Notre Dame” score in 1997 and this year”s loss in best original song for “I See the Light” from “Tangled” were “disappointing.” He laughs at the question, fully admitting he”s gathered more than his share: “I”ve won so many, it would be graceless to complain about losing.” And very un-Captain America.

“Captain America” opens July 22.