"Alan [Menken] and I have been working together for almost twenty years. We've done several Disney movies, stage shows and television series," says Slater. "We've probably written in the hundreds of songs together." The duo's earlier works include The Little Mermaid, Sister Act and "Tangled."
"We've found that we have an interesting way of relating to each other," he continues. "Alan deals with everything intuitively from the heart. He has a gut feeling of how the music should sound; what characters should sound like; what's called for dramatically; and how to make sure the score sounds varied and different so that it holds together. It's all from the gut."
"I'm more from the head," he says. "I overthink and then overthink again. I'm constantly looking at the themes. How do the characters relate to that theme? What are the connections? It's a heart-and-head combination when we get together."
Most recently, the two have been reunited to work on the world premiere musical stage adaptation of Chazz Palminteri's "A Bronx Tale." Set against the backdrop of racial divide and organized crime in the 1960s, the largely autobiographical story follows the journey of an Italian-American teenager and the difficult choices he must make concerning love, family and community. The production is co-directed by Oscar winner Robert De Niro, who helmed the film adaptation, and Tony winner Jerry Zaks, who directed the one-man play on Broadway.
Menken began discussing the idea of A Bronx Tale musical with Palminteri almost a decade ago. When they invited Slater to join the creative team, the two had already begun working on the music and the development of the show.
"They felt like they had found a style that worked for the piece and made it feel authentic to the period," explains Slater. "Then they brought me in…I work as the liaison between the book writer and the composer. What I do is turn Chazz's dialogue into bite-sized concepts; then Alan takes my bite-sized concepts and turns them into music."
Being the middleman in a trio of creative minds isn't always smooth sailing, and, tellingly, Slater likens it to going into battle. "When you start writing a musical it's like going to war," he says. "You know there are going to be casualties along the way and you know that it's going to be a long, hard struggle."
"But you've got your platoon mates with you," he continues. "You've got your squad and you've got to make sure that you've got each other's backs and you're holding it together," he says. "You also know that at some point, one guy's going to blow up at the other two. Everybody has a breaking point, but you know that you're on each other's sides. Every blow up is just a way to get it to the next step."
"We usually work in the room all three of us, so that Chazz is always in the loop," he continues. "He can say to us: 'We wouldn't be listening to that in the Bronx. That's something you'd hear in Brooklyn.'" Slater says that spending time with Palminteri, whose life provides the basis for the musical, has played an integral part in helping him access the heart of A Bronx Tale. Slater recounts how he, Menken and Palminteri would go out to dinner in Italian restaurants and watch the writer "hold court" amongst the other locals. "You get a sense of the world and a sense of Chazz's routes," he says, "which is so key to the whole piece."
The new musical, which began previews Feb. 4 at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse, will officially open Feb. 14 — marking yet another successful collaboration between Slater and Menken. Still, Slater says the crux of their relationship has been maintaining opposite approaches.
"We fight each other — not in a 'fight' way, but in a way in which the struggle is to get both sides through to get something that embodies the best of both," says Slater. "It's a wonderful thing to have…Our voices compliment each other really well."
For more information and to purchase tickets to A Bronx Tale, visit PaperMill.org.