Songwriters Hall of Fame Honors Composer


By Masha Leon

Published September 11, 2008, issue of September 19, 2008.
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So how did singer and songwriter-composer Alan Menken go from writing the music and lyrics for the 1960s musical “Dear Worthy Editor” (based on the Forverts’s A Bintel Brief column) to penning Academy Award-winning scores for the animated Walt Disney films “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin” and others? I met Menken’s kvelling parents this past June at the Songwriters Hall of Fame Awards ceremony, where Menken was an inductee. Fellow inductee Loretta Lynn wowed the crowd with “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” which is also the title of her biographical film, and Paul Anka, also an inductee, got a standing ovation for his rendition of “My Way.”

In writing “Dear Worthy Editor,” Menken’s father, piano-playing dentist Norman Menken, and mother, actress-singer-writer Judith Menken, were inspired by the “Bintel Brief” column. Not until this past week, when I caught up with the Menkens on their boat, “Juno,” did I get the full story. “Alan needed money for college, so what do you do?” Judith said. “We decided to do a show.” Sounds like a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movie, I joshed. “So we began with a concert version of ‘A Bintel Brief,’ she explained. Alan wrote the music and lyrics, I wrote the book.… It was a tribute to the courageous immigrants who came to this country at the turn of the century. Their strength… determination… hopes… dreams.… It evolved into a full production, and we performed it all over.”

Explaining the family’s musical provenance, she recalled: “During World War II, Norman, Alan’s father, played piano in the Aleutians and never had to pay for a drink. My mother was an opera singer and was offered a place with the Metropolitan. My grandfather took her to the Met for an audition before a man named Klobensky, who so loved her voice, he wanted to take her on tour to Europe. Our cantor told my grandfather: ‘If it were my daughter, I’d rather give her poison.’ So much for her opera career.” Though Alan planned to follow in the family’s dentist chair tradition, music won out. He wrote jingles for the PBS children’s show “Sesame Street” and songs for the rock opera “Atina: Evil Queen of the Galaxy” and the film “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.” With songwriter Howard Ashman, Menken collaborated on the 1982 musical “Little Shop of Horrors,” on the strength of which he was hired by Disney to write songs for “The Little Mermaid.” The result was an Academy Award for “Under the Sea” and an Academy Award for best score; two more Oscars for “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin,” and more. There was “Pocahontas,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (with lyrics by Stephen Schwartz) and “Hercules.” Worth noting: In 1999, a stage adaptation of “The Hunchback” opened in Berlin as “Der Glockner von Notre Dame” — that city’s longest running musical to date.

What else is new? Coming next year are two musicals: “Sister Act” (based on the two movies that starred Whoopi Goldberg as a lounge singer masquerading as a nun) opening in London, and “Leap of Faith,” opening on Broadway in the 2009-2010 season. Had it not been for the Forverts’s “A Bintel Brief” and his mother’s inspiration to write a show about this beloved column, it is quite possible that Alan Menken might have ended up pulling teeth and doing dental implants for singers. Just joking.


At the heart of Claude Miller’s riveting film “A Secret” is Hannah (Ludivine Sagnier), a Jewish mother who, during the German occupation of France, knowingly — or was it by mistake? — condemns herself and her 7-year-old son, Simon, to death. In “Memory,” the autobiographical novel by Philippe Grimbert on which the film is based, the author writes: “Timid, shy Hannah, the perfect mother… suddenly became a Medea, sacrificing her child and her own life on the altar of her wounded heart.” The “wounded heart” was Hannah’s realization that her husband, Maxime (Patrick Bruel), lusted for her sister-in-law, Tania (Cecile de France), an athletic beauty whom he met at his and Hannah’s wedding. How better to wreak revenge than to take away from him his golden son, Simon.

François, the son that Tania and Maxime later have, is a fragile shadow of his half-brother, about whom there was an iron curtain of silence. The narrative careens forward and back — 1962, 1942, 1985, 1944, 1936. Superbly acted, enhanced with bits of French-Jewish life and peppered with Yiddishisms, “A Secret” assumes that the viewer is knowledgeable about Vichy France, knows who Leon Blum (France’s first Jewish prime minister) was and — not to unequivocally impugn all the French — is familiar with the overzealousness of the French police .

Maxime refuses to wear a yellow star on his clothing and feels certain that his athleticism and French-ness will protect him and separate him from the other “Yids.” His father, born in Romania, sees the warning signs — Kristallnacht, the rise of Hitler and Mussolini — but Maxime assures his father: “This is France, the land of the free!” Through his childhood and into adulthood, frail, un-athletic François is haunted by the specter of a phantom boy who attacks him some nights. Postwar, Maxime, who has changed the orthography of the family name Grinberg to the more French Grimbert, goes so far as to have his 7-year-old François baptized!

At the end of his search, François meets Serge Klarsfeld, author of “French Children of the Holocaust: A Memorial” (originally published in France in 1995 and in English by New York University Press) and is finally able to establish the fate of Hannah and his half-brother, Simon. In the novel, Philippe Grimbert (François) describes sitting at his dying father Maxime’s side: “I was proud of what I had inherited… proud of my name, so proud I would like to re-establish the original spelling.” On the dust jacket of “Memory,” the name of author Grimbert, a psychiatrist who portrays a smuggler in the film, remains unchanged — Grimbert, not Grinberg.

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