A Friend Like Me — Aladdin's Alan Menken On the Legacy of Howard Ashman

By Robert Simonson
02 Mar 2014

Howard Ashman

Ashman had been diagnosed with HIV in the mid-'80s. He died on March 14, 1991. To complete the score to "Aladdin," lyricist Tim Rice was brought in. For the stage production, which expands the 90-minute film into a two-act format, a book and additional lyrics has been furnished by Chad Beguelin, a writer whose credits include the musicals The Wedding Singer and Elf. Nicholaw, whose credits include The Book of Mormon and The Drowsy Chaperone, worked with Beguelin on Elf.

Menken still recalls the mechanics of working with Ashman. "I've always loved collaborating in the same room. I started that with Howard and pretty much have done the same with every collaborator. Howard always came in thinking of what the assignment was and asking a lot of questions. From that point on, it could be title first, lyric first or chorus without a lyric first."

For Ashman's most famous contribution to the score, the comic anthem of genie servitude, "Friend Like Me," Menken recalled being informed that the wish-giver—memorably voiced by Robin Williams in the movie — was to be a kind of fast-talking hipster. "I grew up in a household [that] loved Fats Waller," remembered Menken. "I loved that stride piano and that kind of playing. So that was the model of 'Friend Like Me.' I gave Howard a piece of music and he went away and wrote the lyric.

"The highlight of my life was looking at a new Howard Ashman lyric," Menken said. "Songs like 'Friend Like Me' and 'Arabian Nights.'"

Menken underwent that familiar sensation recently when he was asked to perform at Disneyland. Marvin Hamlisch had recently passed away, so he decided to play a song from the 1986 Hamlisch musical Smile called, appropriately, "Disneyland." Hamlisch's writing partner on that show was Howard Ashman.

"I sat down with the lyric," Menken recalled, "and it was just that experience of sitting in front of a Ashman lyric for the first time. I was emotionally overcome."