A Friend Like Me — Aladdin's Alan Menken On the Legacy of Howard Ashman
By Robert Simonson
Alan Menken, longtime collaborator of the late Howard Ashman, discusses bringing Ashman's work to Broadway 25 years after his death.
Aladdin, the new Disney musical based on the 1992 animated film, which arrives on Broadway this month, brings a great many magical things to the New Amsterdam Theatre, including a genie and a flying carpet. But, to the diehard musical theatre fan, perhaps, the most fantastic aspect of the production may be a collection of new tunes by the legendary songwriting team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.
They are, of course, not exactly new. Menken, 64, and Ashman, who died in 1991, wrote a batch of tunes for the Disney film, which tells of the love story between a penniless street urchin and a beautiful princess, and the various sultans, grand viziers and parrots that get between them. But only three of those songs — including "Prince Ali" and "Friend Like Me" — were used in the movie; the movie's additional numbers were written by Menken and Tim Rice. The other compositions got a brief airing on the 1994 album "The Music Behind the Magic: The Musical Artistry of Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice." But otherwise they have gathered dust on the shelf, unheard by the public. When it became clear a few years ago that Disney wanted to bring "Aladdin" to the stage, Menken saw an opportunity to finally bring his and Ashman's old work to light.
Menken said he wanted to resurrect the songs for a variety of reasons, "some of them sentimental." Since a few of the numbers were connected to characters who were cut from the movie, those figures, too, were brought back to life. Director-choreographer "Casey Nicholaw was accommodating to that," said the composer.
Howard Ashman has had one of the most remarkable posthumous careers in theatre history. Since his death at the age of 40 following complications from AIDS, he has amassed four Broadway credits, three of them drawn from the Disney films he scored with Menken toward the end of his life. Beauty and the Beast came first and was the most successful to date, running on Broadway from 1994 to 2007. It was followed by The Little Mermaid in 2008 and now by Aladdin.
"Part of it is the popularity of the Disney movies," said Menken, trying to explain his former partner's abundant artistic afterlife. "Part of it was that Howard was so hip and had such an incredible sense of craft. There're still more songs in the trunk. There are unfinished shows."
The idea of Aladdin as a film was, in fact, pitched by Ashman himself. Though the film was released after the successes of "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast," Menken pointed out that, "The genesis of 'Aladdin' was right at the beginning of when we went to Disney. 'Little Mermaid' was first, but 'Aladdin' was around the same time. Then 'Aladdin' got shelved. We had the original score. There were a lot of twists and turns in terms of material and sensitivity to the world that it was depicting. After 'Mermaid,' we wrote 'Beauty,' and then we got back to 'Aladdin.' This was a time when Howard was increasingly ill from AIDS."
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."
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