A few years ago, when Beauty and the Beast was re-released in 3D, I had the great fortune of speaking with one of Disney’s most notable modern composers: the great Alan Menken. His work is the cornerstone of some of Disney’s best musicals, from The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Enchanted, to Tangled, and of course, Beauty and the Beast.
At the time, my phone connection was so poor that I ended up cutting Menken off because I could hardly hear him at times, but I was lucky to get some real insight into how Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman worked together creating Beauty and the Beast. Their story ends with the beautiful work you can hear in the original Beauty and the Beast, and in the new live-action film opening this week, but the story of the film’s music unfortunately has a tragic side as well, that Menken explained to me as we discussed the original animated film.
“Well, it’s a classic fairy-tale story,” Menken said, “so there were certain elements that came with [the project]. We had to start with a sense of Operetta, and an [homage to] French musicals for the very Maurice Chevalier-influenced character of Lumière. And it was a real return to the very classically-based Disney animated film. The Little Mermaid clearly kicked that off,” Menken said, “but it really reached full flowering in Beauty and the Beast.”
“Creatively, the work flowed very naturally,” Menken said. “Howard [Ashman] and I had a… well, I was going to say a long collaboration, but we never had a chance to have that, but we had written two stage musicals and a movie before we got to Beauty and the Beast, so we certainly had a shorthand and a real vocabulary. The most difficult part was Howard’s health issues and the fact that he died during the process of making Beauty and the Beast, and was in fact failing pretty dramatically during the process.”
Ashman passed away in 1991 in the midst of film production after battling AIDS, and as Vanity Fair points out in a recent story, Ashman wrote some of the lyrics to address how he was feeling, according to director Bill Condon: cursed.
“It was very difficult, and tragic,” Menken said during our call, “but I think some of that difficulty found its way into the beauty of the score we created. It was only in the intangible that you could say it affected the project, but a song like “Beauty and the Beast” itself, I’ll never forget the hours that Howard and I worked on it. A very unforgettable time, and difficult time. Very difficult time.”
EW has a powerful account from producer Don Hahn about Ashman’s legacy, and what Ashman put into the story, and the eventual Oscar wins for best original score and best original song.
While Menken suggested that The Hunchback of Notre-Dame was his most ambitious project over the years with Disney, he admits that based on the response and subsequent performances, Beauty and the Beast stands as his most successful collaboration. Now it will play out in front of a whole new generation of audiences starting tomorrow, and Ashman and Menken’s beautiful work together will have a new chance to shine.
Perhaps it’s also fitting that, while the role of LeFou, played by Josh Gad, is a small part, Vanity Fair also points out that the role, and the moment at the end, could be a kind of tribute to Ashman.