By Rachelle Hughes
In 1979 the art director of the off-off Broadway WPA theatre, lyricist, and playwright Howard Ashman teamed up with budding composer Alan Menken, who was working as a commercial jingle writer and songwriter in local New York City clubs. The success of their first collaboration, the production of the musical God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, cemented the groundwork for musical collaborations that would span a decade and take them from off-Broadway to Disney animated films such as The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.
Their first staggering success came from their work on the musical version of Roger Corman’s film Little Shop of Horrors. Written for the stage of the WPA Theatre, Little Shop of Horrors became the third longest running musical in off-Broadway history, as well as the highest grossing off-Broadway production in history. The musical won the 1982-1983 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical. It continued to scoop up coveted awards such as the Drama Desk Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award and the London Evening Standard Award for Best Musical. The musical has been performed all over the world including productions in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Hungary, Spain, and Germany.
Menken and Ashman wrote two additional songs for the film version of Little Shop of Horrors and received their first Oscar nomination for best song for “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space.”
Their “horrorific” musical antics and ’60s do-bops snagged the attention of Disney, and Ashman and Menken’s creative talent was used for a string of Disney animated film blockbusters. The composer and the lyricist received two Academy Awards and two Golden Globe Awards for Best Song (“Beauty and the Beast” and “Under the Sea”) and four Grammy Awards. Ashman also served as the producer for Little Mermaid and the executive producer on Beauty and the Beast. He and Menken also received an Academy Award nomination for “Friend Like Me” from Aladdin. Unfortunately, Menken had to finish his work on Aladdin with another collaborator. Ashman died from complications due to AIDS during the making of Aladdin.
“In animation we have two guardian angels. One is Walt Disney, who continues to touch every frame of our movies. The other is Howard Ashman, who continues to touch every note of our movies,” said a spokesman from the Disney Corporation.
Ashman was a man of diverse talents and unending creativity. His lyrics have become catchphrases for two generations of music lovers. Born in Baltimore, Ashman received his education from Goddard College and Boston University and earned an M.F.A. from Indiana University. After moving to New York in 1974 he started his career in the writing world as an editor at Grosset & Dunlap. During this time he wrote plays on the side including, Cause Maggie’s Afraid of the Dark, The Confirmation, and, Dreamstuff, a musical version of the The Tempest. Ashman was the author, lyricist, and director of the Broadway production of Smile, for which he received a Tony nomination for best book.
Born on July 22, 1949 in New Rochelle, New York, Menken’s love of music was fostered by a family who loved Broadway musicals. His first efforts at composing began in high school where he studied piano and violin. He loved to play the piano, but he hated practicing. He says that when his mother left the room he would create his own versions of his practice songs. After graduating from New York University with a liberal arts degree he attended the Lehman Engel Musical Theatre workshop at BMI.
His musical accomplishments have garnered him numerous awards, especially his work with Disney where he has teamed up with lyricists such as Stephen Schwartz, David Zippel and Tim Rice. He has composed the songs and scores for Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pocahontas (Best Song Oscar for “Colors of the Wind”), Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Hercules. His work in Aladdin received two Academy Awards, for best original score and best song (with Tim Rice) for that film’s “A Whole New World,” as well as four Grammy Awards. He is currently working on the summer 2004 Disney feature film, Home on the Range.
In 1983 the composer received the BMI Career Achievement Award for a body of work for the musical theatre, including his work for Little Shop of Horrors; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; Real Life Funnies; and Patch, Patch, Patch and contributions to several revues. The composer’s credits also include scores and music for several television features and films, including the purely orchestral score for the 1992 ABC miniseries, Lincoln, and music and lyrics for the Rocky V theme song, “The Measure of a Man,” recorded by Elton John. With lyricist Jack Feldman he wrote “My Christmas Tree” for Home Alone 2 and the songs for the musical Newsies. In 1994, Menken, along with Lynn Ahrens and Mike Ockrent, produced a stage musical based on the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol. An instant hit at the Madison Square Garden’s Paramount Theatre, the show has become a perennial New York holiday event.
Menken and his wife Janis, a former professional ballet dancer, have two children.