Over the last thirty years, Alan Menken has been a major force behind some of the most successful Disney musicals of all time. The Little Mermaid was his first film at Disney in 1989, and since then, he has helped create at least a dozen Disney films, including The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pocahontas, and Beauty and the Beast.
Today, many critics and general audience members talk about how a few musical theatre writers helped change the Disney Animation format. The majority of the time, they only mention Menken. Disney Animation began to change in the late 1980s, and for over a decade, there was a creative explosion. This period was known as the Disney Renaissance. Alan Menken had a great effect on the Disney films of that time, but when talking about the Disney Renaissance, most people forget to mention a more important person for that time, Howard Ashman.
Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were a writing duo who came to Disney after having success in the theatre world. They were known for writing the Off-Broadway musical adaptation of Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors. Menken wrote the music, and Ashman wrote the lyrics and the book. When the musical was turned into the 1986 film starring Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene, Ashman also wrote the screenplay. Menken and Ashman would later receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song for a new song they added to the film.
After the release of Little Shop of Horrors, Ashman and Menken could have their choice of any Hollywood studio. When Disney asked them about working on a few projects, Ashman said he “leapt at the chance,” and he specifically asked to do something with animation. Ashman’s decision to come to Disney is one of the most important moments of the entire Disney Renaissance.
After both Walt Disney and his brother Roy O. Disney passed away, The Walt Disney Company was in financial trouble during the 1970s and 1980s. Walt and his fellow successors said that the heart of the company would always be animation. Well, during the post-Disney Brothers era, Disney Animation was in a massive rut. Many of the films during this time we consider underrated today (just check out our article about some of them), but they were not financially successful or well-received during their initial run.
Roy O. Disney’s son, Roy E. Disney, believed that the company needed a makeover. He was able to turn the Board of Directors against Walt’s son-in-law, Ron Miller, who served as the CEO and President of the Walt Disney Company. Miller was ousted from the company, but Roy chose to have other people to run the actual business. He brought in Michael Eisner from Paramount Pictures to serve as the CEO, and Frank Wells from Warner Bros. to serve as the President of the Walt Disney Company. With these two at the helm, The Walt Disney Company would be able to compete with the major Hollywood studios. It’s hard to imagine that in the 1980s, The Walt Disney Company was not considered a major studio.
Eisner brought in his Paramount associate, Jeffrey Katzenberg, to run the Motion Pictures Division. Katzenberg originally focused heavily on creating live-action films, and because of that, the animation department was forced off the main Disney studio lot in Burbank. They moved five miles away to Glendale, California, where the department worked out of various warehouses and trailers for over a decade. Disney Animation was being tossed out on the street to fend for themselves.
The Little Mermaid was a film that had been in the works for decades at Disney. Walt Disney began developing it as early as the 1930s, but he was never able to get off the ground. That all changed when Howard Ashman came on board. In the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, Don Hahn, the producer of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, said that “Ashman was an outsider who came into the company, and the animators did not have much in common with him…at first. Ashman was Jewish, gay, a Baltimore native, and a theatre person.” Hahn said that the animators were just a bunch of kids from Southern California, who hadn’t been to the theatre in years. However, they both had one thing in common. They loved animation.
Ashman brought in all of the Disney animators to a makeshift screening room in Glendale. He talked to them about the evolution of the American musical and the evolution of the Disney Animated films, and how they both intertwined. He told them that these two ways of storytelling were made to work together. After that meeting, the animators bought into his system, and it changed the way Disney made animated musicals forever.
Before Ashman worked on Disney films, the majority of the Disney animated musicals featured music and songs that were mostly incidental. They did not usually move the story forward or reveal anything about the characters. “When You Wish Upon a Star” is a beautiful song, but it was more of a theme song for Pinocchio. Ashman told the animators that their films needed songs that advanced the story, similar to set pieces in action films. The music needed to be integrated into the story. If you look at “Belle” or “Part of Your World,” you will notice the difference between the Ashman songs and the Disney songs before him. In Ashman’s songs, you find out something about these characters; something is revealed. They have humanity, good or bad.
When The Little Mermaid was released in 1989, it became the highest-grossing animated film of all-time. Ashman not only wrote the lyrics for the songs of the film, but he was one of the film’s two lead producers and worked on the script as well. His next project after The Little Mermaid was one of his passion projects: Aladdin. The majority of the creative team behind The Little Mermaid followed Ashman to Aladdin, including his writing partner Alan Menken and the directing duo of The Little Mermaid (Ron Clements and John Musker). Ashman and Menken, however, were quickly asked to come in and fix a failing animated Disney film that was on the verge of disaster.
Like The Little Mermaid, Walt Disney and his animators tried to make Beauty and the Beast multiple times, but they failed. Production for the newest version started in 1987, and it was going to be a non-musical. After seeing the first twenty minutes of Beauty and the Beast, Jeffrey Katzenberg scrapped the entire idea, telling the creative team to start from scratch. The film’s director later resigned due to the new creative directions.
Ashman was reluctant to join the film. Aladdin was a passion project and he didn’t want to give up on it. He was also losing a battle with AIDS, which he found out during the making of The Little Mermaid. Ashman, along with Menken, finally decided to join the film. Once they took the job, they were tasked with the difficult challenge of turning Beauty and the Beast into a musical. First-time feature directors, Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), were brought on to the project. Linda Woolverton was brought on to write the script, becoming the first female screenwriter to write an animated film for Disney. Along with the producer of the film, Don Hahn, the creative team met at a Residence Inn in Fishkill, New York, to develop and retool the entire film. They worked on the film near Ashman’s home to make it more convenient for him because of his failing health. Ashman and Menken would write “Belle”, “Be Our Guest”, “Gaston”, “Human Again” (which was later cut from the film), “The Mob Song”, and “Beauty and the Beast”, all while in Fishkill during the pre-production of the film.
Howard Ashman’s Demo for “Beauty and the Beast”
Between the beautiful animation from the Disney animators that were outcasts at their studio and the phenomenal music from the theatre artists, Beauty and the Beast became one of the biggest animated films of all-time. Like The Little Mermaid before it, the Disney Renaissance crew were able to complete a project that Walt Disney himself could not make. Beauty and the Beast became the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and it changed the trajectory of animation as an art form. The film is considered by many as a masterpiece. Howard Ashman, however, would never see the finished film. He died on March 14, 1991, at the age of 40 due to complications from AIDS, nine months before Beauty and the Beast was released.
Howard Ashman’s lyrics can only be heard in four Disney movies (one song in Oliver & Company, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin). He received a total of six Oscar nominations and two wins for the work he did with the company, including one win for Beauty and the Beast. Disney would continue on the production of Aladdin, but the majority of Ashman’s songs would be cut because of the creative directions they took on the film. However, three of Ashman’s songs, “Arabian Nights”, “Friend Like Me”, and “Prince Ali” ended up in the film. Menken would later include three of Ashman’s cut songs in the Broadway adaptation of Aladdin.
Roy E. Disney once said that Ashman was one of the closest things we had to a Walt Disney-type. Most of the animation department has said that Howard Ashman was the key to Disney’s success at that time. Even though Disney Animation continued the Disney Renaissance after his death, how many Disney animated films have better stories and better music than the films Ashman worked on? Very few. The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin was a trifecta of greatness.