“It was early in our collaboration,” composer Alan Menken says of writing the songs for Disney’s animated feature Aladdin with the late Howard Ashman. “Our very first show was God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, then Little Shop of Horrors, and then it was a very quick transition into the Disney material.”
When Menken and Ashman began writing songs for what would later become the animated classic Aladdin, they were trying to convince the studio to make the movie in the first place. “Aladdin and [The Little] Mermaid were both developing at a similar time. Mermaid was definitely first, but Aladdin was Howard’s passion,” Menken reminisces.
The big band, show-stopping, over-the-top razzle-dazzler “Friend Like Me” was one of the first songs written for the movie—and later adapted for the Broadway version from Disney Theatrical Group. “The first songs we wrote were opening, big production number, and ballad,” says Menken. “It was probably ‘Arabian Nights,’ ‘Friend Like Me,’ and ‘Proud of Your Boy”—the latter which was cut from the animated film and reinstated for the stage.
But Menken had been itching to write a bold, jazzy score—inspired by Fats Waller mixed with Hollywood sparkle. The Genie, his characterization, and his giant solo emerged from those larger-than-life musicians and glamour. “We married Hollywood and Harlem jazz and it also harkened back to the Fleischer cartoons,” he says. “It was just that palette mixed with Middle Eastern colors—that is the palette of Aladdin.”
That jazzy sensibility propelled Menken’s melody for “Friend Like Me” (starting with the opening wail of a human trumpet) and catapulted Broadway’s James Monroe Iglehart to a Tony win for his performance in the role—which includes the routine that regularly earned him a mid-show standing ovation.
“It’s just full of joy, and you get the sense that this Genie is an entertainer and he’s just big and warm,” Menken gushes. “That whole Harlem jazz stride piano style is so much fun. It was a blast to write that song.”
Watch Menken explain the full genesis of the song from Aladdin on the screen to Broadway in the video above.