||July 22, 1949
||New Rochelle, New York
||the United States of America
||composer, singer-songwriter, musician
||stage, film, TV
||classical, jazz, rock, pop, latin, country, folk
Born in New York on July 22 in 1949, growing up in suburban New Rochelle, was a budding instrumental talent, developing an early interest in Beethoven and Brahms, later taken by the new folk movement, all the while adding rock'n'roll, and virtually anything else his ever-expanding musical universe.
"Growing up, I was surrounded by a family that loved Broadway musicals", says Menken, "Regularly, we gathered around my father at the piano, and as he played and we sang, the house was filled with the sounds of Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Frank Loesser, Lerner and Loewe, and all the other great Broadway songwriters. As a child, I was introduced to the power of the American musical through shows like My Fair Lady, Fiorello, and The Sound of Music".
"I showed an interest in piano at a very young age, but I hated to practice, so when my parents left the room I'd make up my own version of the piece. That's how I started composing", he says. He also took up violin and guitar, played in bands and "did the whole '60s experience, soup to nuts".
"I wanted to be a serious composer, but as a very early age really thought that I couldn't do that because who becomes a composer? Chances were I'd be what every other Menken male in sight was: a dentist. My father was a dentist, my father's father was a dentist, my father's brother was a dentist, my mother's sister's husband was a dentist, my father's sister's husbund was a dentist. I thought that I was my fate".
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After earning a degree in music from New York University, Menken worked under Lehman Ingram, the Music Director at the Musical Theater Workshop. He supported himself by writing jingles, accompanying ballet classes (he met his ballerina wife that way), and "musical directing" other people's shows. He also performed his own material in clubs, hoping to become "a singer-songwriter in the Peter Allen / Billy Joel / Elton John / James Taylor / Jackson Browne mode". Musical theater was not a priority. "I auditioned for the BMI workshop to please my parents", he says, referring to the innovative Manhattan-based program that has spawned so many gifted lyricists, composers and librettists. "Then I realized that I really like the challenge of writing for characters, adapting stories, being able to write an entire song score. I discovered I had a gift for writing accessible theatrical material that also had some kind of contemporary thing to it".
Before long, he met Howard Ashman in New York in 1979 when Ashman, artistic director of the small WPA Theater, was looking for a composer to work with him on a musical version of Kurt Vonnegot's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. A mutual friend, Lehman Engel, director of the BMI Workshops program, recommended Menken.
Then, in 1982, he and Ashman achieved great success with Little Shop of Horrors at the WPA Theater. He also wrote a new song "Mean Green Mother From Outter Space" for the "Little Shop" movie in 1986, and nominated for the Academy Awards® (best song).
Menken and his wife, Janis, a former professional ballet dancer, reside in upstate New York with their two young children, Anna and Nora.