There was a person missing at the interview. And it was precisely the person who, more than anyone, should have been there to talk about how Walt Disney Studios’ “Beauty and the Beast” became a musical.
Absent was the man credited by both the composer and the screenwriter for making the movie work as a musical. He’s the person to whom the animated feature film is dedicated--who is described in the film’s closing credits as “our friend, Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice, and a beast his soul.”
The reference is to lyricist Howard Ashman, who died on March 14, at age 40, of AIDS-related causes.
When he died, few newspapers outside Los Angeles and New York marked the loss of the man who had written lyrics for “The Little Shop of Horrors” and took home an Oscar and Grammy Awards for “Under the Sea” in Disney’s popular “The Little Mermaid.”
Ashman and his partner, composer Alan Menken, had seemed to many critics the most promising writing team to emerge in the last decade, demonstrating the ability to adapt familiar styles while infusing the idiom with a revitalizing freshness.
Although they had never teamed to write a Broadway musical, they found success Off-Broadway and in movies, and it seemed that the team was finally getting recognition.
Just before Ashman began to lose his eyesight and suffer from dementia as a result of his AIDS condition, the collaborators completed songs for yet another Disney animated musical, “Aladdin,” which should arrive in theaters in November, 1992.
“Aladdin” was the score Menken was working on just before he took a break to talk about his collaboration with Ashman. Only moments before, the cavernous Burbank soundstage was filled with the full orchestral treatment of parts of the score. But now Menken’s mood was as quiet as the huge darkened room.
“Winning the Oscar for ‘Little Mermaid’ was extremely thrilling and very poignant for us,” he said, recalling the irony of that sublime evening. “I didn’t really know that Howard was ill then. But I knew that something was wrong.
“When we were sitting at the banquet after the awards, he said we should talk. ‘I don’t want to talk about it now,’ he said, ‘but we should talk.’
“He also went to great pains that night to say to me that ‘I want you to know that I’m very happy.’ Which, for Howard, was quite a concession because he was hard to please . . . it was a very fulfilling thing for him.
“And then, two days later in New York, I went to his house and I had this impending feeling of dread, but it didn’t sink in until he literally told me he (had tested) HIV positive and he was sick . . . And then the world kind of crumbled.”
The next year was enormously difficult, Menken recalled, with all the work on “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin” before them. “But it was a year in which we grew even closer.”
Ashman and Menken met in 1978 through the legendary Broadway conductor Lehman Engel, who offered classes for aspiring musical theater writers. Menken recalled how Engel kept pounding into his students’ heads the tried-and-true techniques that served the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe so well. “The same techniques that are so true, whether on stage or screen,” Menken said.
Ashman suggested they team up to write a musical version of Kurt Vonnegut’s “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” which was staged at the Off Off Broadway WPA Theatre.
For their second show, Ashman wanted to write a musical version of Roger Corman’s cult film “The Little Shop of Horrors.” The zany show became a surprise hit--and the only commercially successful “small-scale musical” of the 1980s, according to critic Martin Gottfried in his new book “More Broadway Musicals.”
“Little Shop” ran for years Off Broadway and was produced by major bankrollers, including the Shubert Organization and David Geffen. Later, Geffen produced the movie version, released in 1986 to modest success and generally good notices.
Menken believes it was the “Little Shop” movie that brought Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg to offer the team a writing deal. “He showed Howard a whole list of projects that they were considering. And I think Katzenberg was kind of surprised when Howard said he wanted to write the animation project as a musical.”
That project turned out to be 1989’s “The Little Mermaid,” which the public and most reviewers embraced. When Ashman died, they had finished the score to “Aladdin,” but because of story line changes, Menken is now writing some new songs with lyricist Tim Rice (“Evita,” “Jesus Christ Superstar”).
“Howard always pointed the way stylistically, and suggested ideas for musicals and points in the story to musicalize,” Menken said.
“In approaching the animated musicals, we did everything as if we were writing a stage show. You still have to stage these characters. They have to be able to hold the moment, whether animated or live. And just because people have gotten away with throwing a song under a scene . . . that doesn’t mean that the song is really working theatrically.”
In a separate interview, “Beauty and the Beast’s” first-time screenwriter Linda Woolverton said Ashman taught her what songs could do for a story. “They can take the moment to tell you the interior of a character that you wouldn’t sit still for if it was dialogue.”
For Woolverton, who had previously taught children’s theater in Long Beach, meeting Ashman was “intimidating.” It was right after his “Little Mermaid” success and she had never written a musical. “To throw out everything I had written, and start over to write a musical was very difficult. But he was a creative genius and he was there to help me.”
Both Menken and Woolverton are proud of the way the songs in “Beauty and the Beast” help tell the story. By the end of the opening number, “Belle,” audiences will know the leading lady, what people think of her, where she’s coming from and her aspirations.
Not bad for one song. But as Menken noted, that’s what they’d have done if they were writing for the stage.
But writing musicals for the stage is almost a contradiction in terms these days, he said, since few new shows are produced due to huge production costs.
As one who has been spending more time in Hollywood--away from his New York home where he lives with his wife and two children--Menken said he’s not so sure where he belongs anymore.
“People aren’t doing for stage what we’re doing for film now. We might start considering the concept that the musical has moved to film now. I never received the kind of support from (stage) producers that I received from the people at Disney.
“They are the most supportive of dramatic truth--the story told through the songs. And Katzenberg understands that if we can get a hit single, that’s just fine. But we don’t have to sacrifice the integrity of the movie just for a hit single.”
Concurrently with “Aladdin,” Menken is finishing the score for the live-action Disney musical “Newsies,” which he wrote with lyricist Jack Feldman, for release next spring. He’s got an Off-Broadway project called “Weird Romance” coming up and then--"finally,” he said--there’s renewed interest in a show called “Kicks: The Showgirl Musical,” which he wrote many years ago with another partner, the late Tom Eyen (the lyricist and book writer for “Dreamgirls”).
“I look around and say, ‘How did things get to this point? I’m really on a roll.’ ” And the reason, he knows, is really not that difficult to understand.
It’s where his heart is, in the musicals he admires most, such as “West Side Story” and “A Chorus Line,” shows that are unforgettable, that move people.
“I got to write one of those: ‘Little Shop.’ ” he said. “If I hadn’t written ‘Little Shop,’ I’d be very jealous of whoever wrote it. Because it is to me a very successful musical . . . And removing myself from the project, (the credit goes to) Howard. Howard Ashman was such an inspiring talent.”