(July 29, 2007)

Good-bye, “Beast”; Hello, “Mermaid”

This is the first installment in the “Broadway Bound” series looking at “The Little Mermaid.”

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

Composer Alan Menken has had busy weeks before, but this one has to be right up there with his busiest.

On Sunday, the New Rochelle native and eight-time Oscar-winner turned 58.

Last night, previews began in Denver for his Broadway-bound adaptation of “The Little Mermaid.”

And Sunday night, his first Broadway composition, “Beauty and the Beast” closes at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, after 5,464 performances.

“I have a lot of full weeks; that, I’ve gotten very used to,” Menken says in an interview in his Northern Westchester studio. “The birthday party I don’t have to do anything for. I just have to show up.

“With the previews, getting there is half the battle and this one, technically, is so complicated. But it’s going to be beautiful.

“And closing ‘Beauty’ is going to be tough. How do you celebrate? You celebrate the life of the show. It’s going to be hard to say good-bye to it.

“It feels like a child that often I’ve taken for granted over the years. It’s been there,” he says, then, pretending to cry, adds: “I didn’t visit you enough.”

Sunday’s closing comes in the midst of a prolific year for the composer.

He’s working on stage adaptations of “Sister Act” (from the Whoopi Goldberg films) and “Leap of Faith” (from a Steve Martin film).

And there’s “Enchanted,” a Disney animation-live-action hybrid film opening in November, for which he composed five songs with lyricist Stephen Schwartz. Menken and Schwartz won the Oscar for best song – “Colors of the Wind” – from “Pocahontas.”

And there’s that little mermaid, Ariel, who has to make her way from Denver to Broadway, for an opening slated for Dec. 6. Previews begin Nov. 3 at the Lunt-Fontanne, where Sunday, for the final time, a beauty finds her beast.

Menken concedes he had his doubts back in 1991 when he was first approached about bringing “Beauty and the Beast” to Broadway.

He had worked in New York theater. It’s where he met longtime collaborator Howard Ashman, with whom he wrote “Little Shop of Horrors,” a job that brought him to the attention of Disney.

They wrote “The Little Mermaid” in 1989, sparking the renaissance of Disney animation. Menken won the Oscar for his score and he and Ashman won the Oscar for the song “Under the Sea.”

They parlayed that into the film “Beauty and the Beast” in 1991, with two more Oscar wins: Menken for score and Menken and Ashman for the title song.

Ashman died of AIDS on March 14, 1991.

“Beauty and the Beast” also won the distinction of being the first and only animated feature to be nominated for the best-picture Oscar. (The Oscar went to “The Silence of the Lambs.”)

Still, even with instant-classic status of the film, Menken was dubious about its prospects on Broadway.

“I was afraid it was going to be one of these park shows with the foam heads and the camp music,” he recalls with a laugh.

“But when I saw what (director) Rob Roth and (choreographer) Matt West and (set designer) Stan Meyer – this young, unknown team – had in mind, I was blown away. … It was so well-conceived.”

The success of “Beauty and the Beast” paved the way for “The Lion King,” (1994); “Tarzan” (2006); “Mary Poppins” (2006); and, soon, a little mermaid named Ariel.

It spawned a whole new branch at Disney: Disney Theatricals, headed by Thomas Schumacher.

“I think Disney Theatricals owes Rob Roth a major debt of thanks for having shown them that they can do this,” Menken says.

“Beauty” has had its critics.

“People have carped about ‘Should it have been further from the sensibility of the picture?’ or ‘Should it have been less stage effects and more theatrical magic?’

“Perhaps there’s validity here and there,” he says. “But in general, I was really proud of that work.

“That first presentation – where Rob showed how he had conceived the set and the way it would move, and the costumes – everything was so well put together. I suppose my greatest memory is how it got kicked off and how it so exceeded my expectations.

“It’s been an amazing experience,” Menken says. “I’m going to miss it and it’s sad. But I’m glad that something new is coming in.”

One door closes, another opens.