When God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater opened in May 1979 at New York’s small WPA Theatre on the Bowery, it heralded the birth of a promising new songwriting team: Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. Ten years later, the team would forever alter the course of one of the most venerable institutions in entertainment history: The Walt Disney Company. Their score to The Little Mermaid, which Ashman also produced and contributed to the story of, ushered in a new golden age for a studio which many had written off. On November 24, Walt Disney Records will celebrate Ashman and Menken’s music with the release of a Legacy Collection expanded edition of their score to The Little Mermaid. It follows previous Legacy Collection releases of The Lion King, Mary Poppins and Sleeping Beauty.
Introduced by Lehman Engel, legendary Broadway musical director and founder of the BMI Workshop for songwriters, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were off to a promising start when Mr. Rosewater, based on the Kurt Vonnegut novel, opened to stellar reviews and transferred to off-Broadway’s Entermedia Theatre. Three years later, though, the team had their breakthrough. Their Little Shop of Horrors opened at the WPA in the spring of 1982 and was an instant sensation. The musical moved that summer to the East Village’s Orpheum Theatre under the aegis of Cameron Mackintosh and David Geffen, and went on to spawn a major motion picture along with countless revivals on both the professional and amateur levels. (The original production ran over 2,200 performances in New York.) Following Little Shop, Ashman and Menken pursued various projects together and separately, but later in the decade, Ashman found himself working for The Walt Disney Company. The lyricist had teamed with composer Barry Mann to pen a song for 1988’s animated film Oliver and Company, but took a bigger role in the production of the studio’s next planned movie, a musical version of The Little Mermaid. And he called his friend and collaborator Alan Menken to join him as composer.
Ashman and Menken brought their stage experience to The Little Mermaid. Disney chief of music Chris Montan observed in 1994 that “most songwriters don’t have the experience of solving dramatic lines and storytelling. That’s the advantage Howard and Alan brought in.” Little Shop had proved that the team knew the ins and outs of effective musical theatre writing, but as Montan further opined, “they were old enough to have solved those problems for twenty years but young enough to have been brought up with The Beatles.” Musicals have always reflected a melting pot of influences, and true to form, Little Shop brought in a variety of influences from classic Broadway to doo-wop, R&B, and rock-and-roll. The team’s music for The Little Mermaid would find inspiration in calypso, chansons, theatre and vintage Disney. Ashman and Menken had the know-how to bring the best of the musical theatre form into the cinematic landscape, and Disney’s gamble on their talents paid off when Mermaid – the studio’s first feature-length fairy tale since 1959 and Sleeping Beauty – soared at the box office.
During its original 1989 release, Mermaid scored $84,355,863 in North America, and earned three Oscar nominations, the first Disney animated film to be recognized by the Academy since 1977’s The Rescuers. Ashman and Menken took a statuette home for the joyful production number “Under the Sea,” and Menken took a second home that night for the orchestral score, his very first attempt at film scoring. As chronicled in the documentary film Waking Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid brought luster back to The Walt Disney Company, and that was in no small part due to Ashman and Menken.
The team went on to fully complete one more picture, the even more successful Beauty and the Beast, before Ashman’s tragic death at the age of 40 in March 1991 from AIDS. Tim Rice stepped in to complete the lyrics for Aladdin, though not before Ashman had left behind such future classics as the manic showstopper “Friend Like Me.” Howard Ashman’s impact is still felt on Disney films today, including 2013’s Frozen, which also embraced the Broadway aesthetic he and Menken brought to the studio. Ironically, Ashman had written a children’s musical in college based on original Little Mermaid author Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, the same source material as Frozen! Menken, of course, has continued to write on stage and screen over the years, and has amassed eight Academy Awards for his work. He has also carried Ashman’s vision out in stage productions of all three of their animated classics.
After the jump: what will you find on Disney’s new Legacy Collection release of The Little Mermaid?
As with past Legacy Collection releases, the first disc of the upcoming set greatly expands the original presentation of the film’s score and songs, going from 20 tracks to 32 and adding never-before-released cues and reprises. The second disc, of 12 tracks, is performed entirely by Ashman and Menken and drawn from the team’s work tapes, demos and mock-up recordings. The presentation here is different than that of The Music Behind the Magic, a 1994 box set dedicated to Ashman and Menken’s Disney collaborations. That landmark box featured one disc dedicated to Mermaid, one to Beauty and the Beast, and two to Aladdin; each blended work tape and demo recordings with the songs’ final versions performed by the cast of stage pros including Jodi Benson, Samuel E. Wright, Pat Carroll and Rene Auberjonois.
Here, you’ll hear the work tape of opener “Fathoms Below,” represented in demo form on the box. (For that collection, Menken defined “work tape” as “a recording made for writing purposes only” and a demo as “a recording used to demonstrate a song and/or arrangement.”) “Daughters of Triton” and the team’s beautiful “I want” song, “Part of Your World,” are both heard here in demo form, whereas the box set had only the final “Daughters” and part of a “World’ demo. Sebastian the crab’s ebullient “Under the Sea” is included in demo form, which may or may not be the same demo excerpted on the box set. “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” with Ashman deliciously embodying the villainous sea witch Ursula, is presented in two distinct forms on the Legacy edition; just one demo was included with the final on the box set. Of his performance on this song, Menken wrote in 1994 that his collaborator’s “ability to give characters life through his voice is unequalled in my experience.” Both the demo and work tape versions of the Gallic-flavored “Les Poissons” are included; one demo was on the box. The shimmering “Kiss the Girl” is included in demo form (“Synth Demo B”), similarly, a demo (Demo A?) was on the box set seguing into the final version. The Legacy Collection volume also boasts demos of Menken’s score tracks. The cut song “Silence is Golden” hasn’t been repeated here, but one thing is clear – there’s plenty of unheard Ashman and Menken music here.
The Legacy Collection: The Little Mermaid looks to be another worthy addition to Disney’s important archival series, not to mention a testament to the unparalleled partnership of the late Howard Ashman and the still-prolific Alan Menken. Lorelay Bove provides the new cover artwork. and both renowned engineer Bruce Botnick and film score restoration specialist Neil S. Bulk have confirmed their involvement with this project. It’s available November 24 at the links below!
- Fathoms Below – Performed by Ship’s Chorus
- Main Titles (Score)
- Fanfare (Score)
- Daughters of Triton – Performed by Daughters of Triton
- Intro Ariel (Score)
- Intro Ursula (Score)
- Triton Reprimands (Score)
- Sebastian’s Dilemma (Score)
- Part of Your World – Performed by Jodi Benson
- Fireworks (Score)
- The Storm (Score)
- Part of Your World (Reprise) / Ursula Plots – Performed by Jodi Benson
- Ariel in Love (Score)
- Under the Sea – Performed by Samuel E. Wright
- Sebastian and Triton (Score)
- Destroying the Grotto (Score)
- Flotsam and Jetsam (Score)
- Ursula’s Lair (Score)
- Poor Unfortunate Souls – Performed by Pat Carroll
- She’s Got Legs (Score)
- Sebastian Relents (Score)
- On Land (Score)
- Miss Manners (Score)
- Les Poissons – Performed by René Auberjonois
- Crab On a Plate / Bedtime (Score)
- Tour of the Kingdom (Score)
- Kiss the Girl – Performed by Samuel E. Wright
- Ariel Left Behind (Score)
- Poor Unfortunate Souls (Reprise) – Performed by Jodi Benson
- The Truth (Score)
- Interrupting the Wedding / Ursula’s Defeat (Score)
- Happy Ending – Performed by the Disney Chorus
- Fathoms Below (Work Tape) – Performed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken
- Daughters of Triton (Synth Demo) – Performed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken
- Part of Your World (Synth Demo) – Performed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken
- Fireworks / The Jig (Score) (Piano Demo) – Performed by Alan Menken
- The Storm (Score) (Piano Demo) – Performed by Alan Menken
- Under the Sea (Synth Demo) – Performed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken
- Poor Unfortunate Souls (Basic Synth Demo) – Performed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken
- Poor Unfortunate Souls (Final Synth Mockup) – Performed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken
- Les Poissons (Work Tape Demo) – Performed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken
- Les Poissons (Synth Demo) – Performed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken
- Kiss the Girl (Synth Demo B) – Performed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken
- Happy Ending (Score) Piano Demo – Performed by Alan Menken
CD 1, Tracks 1, 3, 4, 9, 10-11, 14, 16-17, 19, 24, 26-27, 32 & portion of 12 released on The Little Mermaid, Walt Disney Records CD 018, 1989 – other tracks included on that disc are presented here in altered and/or expanded form. (Score cues were given alternate titles for that truncated soundtrack presentation.)
CD 2, portions of Tracks 3, 6-8, 10, 11 may have been released on The Music Behind the Magic, Walt Disney Records 60014-7