Anatomy of a Disney musical: Composer reveals process of creating iconic songs

You probably don't know Alan Menken's name, but you do know his songs.

The acclaimed composer and songwriter is the hidden face behind some of Disney's most iconic musicals, including Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin.

His body of work has earned him eight Oscars and 16 Golden Globes, and he's not done yet.

Mr Menken is currently in Australia for the premiere of the stage musical of Aladdin and will head home soon to work on the upcoming live action film version of the story.

So how does he create a Disney song? And what is the process for bringing a fledgling idea all the way to the big screen?

The music comes before anything else

The first thing to know is that for most Disney animations the musical dramatists — aka the songwriters — are brought in by the studio first.

"That's something people don't know," Mr Menken told ABC News Breakfast.

"Disney will say, 'We want to tell this story' and then we say, 'OK, how do we do it?'.

"Generally you go from the basic story, to the basic structure of telling the story, to what musical style you're going to use to tell the story with, where the songs lie in that structure, then one by one tackle those songs."

Once the musical dramatists have those key song ideas in place, then the script and the story board is put together.

Then it's up to Mr Menken and the songwriters to work with the animation team to bring the songs to life.

The musical number A Whole New World was a hit on the 1992 Aladdin cartoon and went on to win the Academy Award for best original song as well as the Grammy for song of the year.

When it came to creating that song, Mr Menken said the music came first, then the lyrics, and then finally a discussion was had about the visuals.

"We ask: Is it going to be a montage? Are they going to sing to each other? What are we seeing visually in it?"

"And it's a collaboration again with the animators about what is actually happening [on screen]."

How important are the visuals?

According to Mr Menken, a good song should combine with good visuals to hold the film together.

He said that while the composer and animators almost always collaborated well, sometimes their focus would be in different areas.

"In animation sometimes they'll be concentrating on a visual they really want to do and we'll be concentrating on a plot point we really want to push forward in order to support a song and there can be a little bit of creative collaboration.

"It's almost never contentious.

"There are also times when I'll say, 'You know what? We need this score and this project needs this kind of song'.

"And then we'll say, 'OK we're going to write that song and then once that's done … you look at that and come back about how you're going to alter the visuals'."

A range of live action musical remakes of the original films have been coming out in recent years — and include some of the original songs — and many more are due for release, including Aladdin and The Lion King.

But after 50 years in the business Mr Menken has learnt a key lesson:

Don't get attached to a song

Having written more than 40 musicals Mr Menken has developed a pretty good feel for the business.

"I invite opinions but … I have a pretty good sense of when it's right," he said.

"But I learnt a long time ago never to get invested in any song that I write.

"Because it's not a matter of the quality, it's simply about the nature of the song and whether it really hits the sweet spot for the people you're collaborating with."

This professional distance means that despite the awards, Mr Menken tries not to celebrate or mourn any of his songs too much.

"For me, you just keep writing new ones and when people like it, hey be grateful for it," he said.

And when it comes to seeing his musical numbers on the big screen for the first time?

"I feel good. I feel like I've done my job."

So how do you create new Disney hits?

It's all about hitting that sweet spot, according to Mr Menken, even if he can't always predict what that will be.

"I've had songs that I thought were kind of a dumb song, but it just hit the sweet spot," he said.

"Like there was a song in [2010 animated film] Tangled called I Got A Dream.

"People love that song, but to me it's like, 'Oh my God it's a dumb song, but it works'."

More recently, Mr Menken has been tasked with writing new songs for classic Disney stories.

He collaborated on this year's live action Beauty and the Beast and wrote three new songs that fleshed out the new adaptation.

He said he wasn't upset if some fans of the original didn't immediately warm to the additions.

"I know that it will grow over time and the movie holds together," he said.

"And if the movie holds together the songs are doing their job.

"I liken myself to being an architect. I design structures that others will build and live in."