By ALBERT EVANS, Artistic and Education Associate
Fairy tales might seem like effortless magic—all you need is a storyteller and an audience—but bringing the magic to life on stage and screen requires the combined efforts of a small army of artists and craftspeople.
Look at the credits of a Disney animated classic like The Little Mermaid and you’ll see the names of hundreds of folks who labor, sometimes for years, to create all of the elements of a fantasy world.
When a film is brought to life on the stage, dozens more people are enlisted to re-imagine the story and make it work with live actors wearing real costumes on physical sets—creating that classic Disney magic before your eyes.
One of the elements the audience remembers vividly long after they leave the theater is the music and lyrics.
The enchanting Little Mermaid songs were written by two very talented men: Howard Ashman, who penned the lyrics, and Alan Menken, who handled the music.
THE BEGINNING OF A BEAUTIFUL FRIENDSHIP…
In the late 1980s, Menken and Ashman were young musical theater collaborators with one big credit: Little Shop of Horrors, the hilarious sci-fi/horror spoof that opened off-Broadway in 1979 and was made into a feature film seven years later.
Alan Menken and Howard Ashman had met through a mutual friend—Maury Yeston, another young theater songwriter who would go on to write Nine and Titanic.
Menken was working as a lyricist-composer, fresh from the Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) Musical Theatre Workshop for aspiring theater writers, ready to conquer the world with a sheaf of funny revue songs in his portfolio.
Ashman was a bookwriter-lyricist and the artistic director of the adventurous off-Broadway playhouse, the WPA Theatre. He was looking for a composer to work with on his stage adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.
Although reluctant to give up the lyric-writing job, Menken agreed to collaborate.
The partnership was more successful than the musical: Rosewater got excellent reviews but ran for a scant 49 performances. But the team got along well and immediately began work on their breakthrough show, Little Shop of Horrors.
While in Hollywood working on the Little Shop movie, Ashman was invited to a brainstorming session at the Disney studio. At the time, Disney was concentrating more and more on live action movies, and there was talk that animation—long at the heart of the Disney enterprise—might be dropped entirely.
Then the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit—the live action/animation hybrid produced in collaboration with Steven Spielberg—renewed interest in the cartoon form.
The studio decided to produce one more animated fairy tale, a form they had neglected for the past thirty years. They chose Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Little Mermaid.” Ashman convinced the Disney team to adapt it as a “Broadway-style” film musical.
For his leadership and vision, Ashman was named co-producer, and he brought on board his writing partner Alan Menken to score the music.
The Ashman-Menken songs helped make The Little Mermaid an enormous success, igniting a 10-year, 10-film creative explosion known as the Disney Renaissance.
Howard Ashman played a key role in two more Disney films, writing all the lyrics for Beauty and the Beast and much of Aladdin before his tragic and untimely death in 1991 at the age of 40.
Alan Menken finished the Aladdin score with lyricist Tim Rice, then continued to work for Disney, collaborating with Stephen Schwartz on Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and with David Zippel on Hercules.
Menken credits much of his success to an ability to improvise at the piano in almost any style—a gift he had from an early age.
ALAN MENKEN: FROM CHILDHOOD TO CAREER IMPROVISATION
When his parents were in the room Menken would dutifully
practice his Beethoven sonatas. When they left he’d
improvise his own “Beethoven.” From the next room they
couldn’t tell the difference.
When his piano teacher learned the secret, he told
Menken’s parents, “Perhaps this is something we should
encourage Alan to do.”
In composing for film and theater, Menken uses this skill to give
each score a unique musical palette: calypso, Kurt Weill and sea
chanteys for The Little Mermaid; 19th century operetta for Beauty
and the Beast; 40s jazz and Arabic music for Aladdin.
After Howard’s death, Alan grieved. “It really was like a marriage,”
But he rebounded and built a show-business career second
to none, with nine Oscars, 11 Grammys and a Tony. Menken’s
post-Renaissance films include Newsies, The Hunchback of Notre
Dame, Hercules, Enchanted and Tangled. For the theater, he
scored A Christmas Carol, Leap of Faith and Sister Act.
The stage adaptations of his films Beauty and the Beast, The Little
Mermaid, Newsies and Aladdin have made Disney Theatricals
a mighty presence on Broadway and spurred the clean-up of
the once tawdry Times Square area.
Most recently has been the adaptation of The Hunchback of
Notre Dame: The Musical, with lyrics by Menken’s frequent
partner Glenn Slater—who also wrote the lyrics for the new
songs in The Little Mermaid.
THE SONGS OF A GENERATION
Thanks largely to the Disney Renaissance, a generation of
kids—and now their kids—have grown up loving classic
Broadway musical style songs, which in turn has led them to
participate in school musicals in ever greater numbers.
When you ask young performers which songs made them fall
in love with musical theater, their answers are likely to include
“Somewhere That’s Green,” “Part of Your World,” “Under the
Sea,” “Be Our Guest” and “Beauty and the Beast”—songs that
will never die. Songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken.