Like most people my age, I grew up watching The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast on a loop. I loved the stories, I loved the characters, but most of all, I loved the songs. It wasn't until I was an adult that I learned about the creative duo behind the music: Howard Ashman and Alan Menken.
The four animated films Disney put out in the 80s (The Fox and The Hound, The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver & Company) had not been particularly successful at the box office and as the decade was coming to a close, the future of Disney Animation was uncertain.
Enter Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, a songwriting team who had previously collaborated on the stage musicals Little Shop of Horrors and Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. They were brought in to work on a new Disney film- The Little Mermaid. Howard wrote the lyrics, and Alan composed the score.
Howard had an incredible sense of drama, tension, wordplay, and humor. He wrote the lyrics to the passionate and tender "Part of Your World," the witty tour de force "Friend Like Me," the psychologically perceptive "Poor Unfortunate Souls," the enchanting "Beauty and the Beast," and much much more. (See Howard at work here).
Alan has an astonishing ability to make music sound like glitter and light. He breathes life, magic, and beauty into everything he writes. Many millennials know him as "the man who wrote our childhood" because he wrote such an astonishing amount of the most beloved music of the 90s.
Howard and Alan were an incredible team who brought their expertise in storytelling through song from the stage to the screen. Their work made The Little Mermaid a smash hit and launched Disney Animation into a decade-long string of films that would later be known as the Disney Renaissance.
The duo would go on to write the music for Beauty and the Beast, the only animated film to ever be nominated for Best Picture, and Aladdin. After Howard died tragically 6 months before the premiere of Beauty and the Beast, Alan went on to collaborate with other lyricists on Pocahontas, Hercules, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Tangled.
These two men taught me what yearning, love, loss, friendship, and laughter looked like when I was just learning what life was and, for that, they are my heroes. I am immeasurably grateful.
To learn more about Howard and Alan and about the Disney Renaissance, I recommend watching the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty.