After facing allegations of child abuse, Michael Jackson sought to rehabilitate his image by recording songs for the soundtrack to 1996’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Apparently Disney’s response was less “God Help the Outcasts” and more “Hellfire”; in fact, according to legendary songwriter Alan Menken, the House of Mouse ghosted the King of Pop.
Menken told this tale in a new Hunchback oral history at Slash Film. He said he first crossed paths with Jackson while working on 1992’s Aladdin, when they were looking for someone to sing “A Whole New World”. “Michael wanted to co-write the song,” Menken recalled. “I could get a sense of who Michael was. He was a very unique, interesting individual…in his own world.”
But that collaboration never took place, and Menken forgot about Jackson after the child abuse allegations surfaced in 1993. However, Jackson hadn’t forgotten about Menken.
“I get a call out of nowhere from Michael’s assistant, when Michael was at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York,” Menken said. “He had to [deal with] allegations about inappropriate behavior with underage kids, and the breakup with Lisa Marie Presley. He’s looking to change the subject. And he obviously loves Disney so much. So I mentioned Hunchback. He said he’d love to come to my studio, watch the movie and talk about it. So we got in touch with Disney Animation. They said, ‘Meet with him! If he likes it…well, see what he says.'”
Menken played Jackson three songs. “One was ‘Out There’, one was ‘God Help the Outcasts’, one was ‘Someday”’ Michael said, ‘I would like to produce the songs and record some of them.’ Wow. Okay. What do we do now? Michael left. We got in touch with Disney. It was like somebody dropped a hot poker into a fragile bowl with explosives. ‘Uh, we’ll get back to you about that.’
It took ages for Disney execs to make up their minds. “Finally, predictably, the word came back, ‘Disney doesn’t want to do this with Michael Jackson.’ I go, ‘OK, could someone tell him this?’ You can hear a pin drop, no response, and nobody did [tell him].”
Eventually, Menken felt responsible for passing along the bad news — though he didn’t do it himself. “It fell to my late manager, Scott Shukat, to tell Michael or Michael’s attorney.”
Ultimately, Menken thinks Disney chose wisely, though he wonders about what might have been. “In retrospect, it was the right decision. [But] Quasimodo is a character…if you look at his relationships with his family and his father, I would think there’s a lot of identification there.”
Since then, Menken has been collaborating with less controversial stars. Next, he’ll be writing music for Josh Gad’s Beauty and the Beast prequel series.