In the lead-up to the release of the live-action The Little Mermaid, Consequence is taking a look back at the Disney Renaissance and how it shaped our culture. This time, we’re exploring the legacy of its two pioneering contributors, composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman.
At the end of 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, a message appears onscreen that reads: “To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful.” Beauty and the Beast premiered in November of that year, just months after the film’s lyricist Howard Ashman passed away at the age of 40. The dedication is apt — it doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say that Alan Menken and Howard Ashman were once-in-a-generation collaborators. While remarkably talented individuals, lightning struck when the composer and lyricist worked together.
In the late ’80s, Disney Animation Studios fell in a major slump. 1985’s dark, moody The Black Cauldron received largely unfavorable reactions from critics and bombed at the box office, while rival studios made their mark with commercially successful alternatives like The Land Before Time. So, as the Mouse House sought a way to reinvigorate their primary product, a project that had been floated for decades resurfaced.
The Little Mermaid became a turning point for Disney. For its first fairytale project in over 30 years, the team behind the movie imagined a headstrong, curious heroine more independent than any of her predecessors. At the time, then-head of Walt Disney Studios Jeffrey Katzenberg had his eye on Menken, a Broadway composer who had scored a home run with Ashman already on Little Shop of Horrors, but faced a setback with his follow-up, 1986’s widely-panned Smile. Willing to take a break from the New York theater scene, Menken signed on to the project.
Meanwhile, Disney had already enlisted Ashman to provide lyrics for Oliver & Company. Reuniting for The Little Mermaid allowed the two theater experts to center Ariel’s emotional journey on one of the most time-honored traditions of the stage: The great “I want” song, in which a character expresses their goals or desires for the sake of the audience.
Menken and Ashman’s impact on the film cannot be overstated. Ashman first pitched the idea that Sebastian be Jamaican, opening up a world of steel drums and vibrant energy in other parts of the film — but their touch extends directly to Ariel’s characterization. While directors Ron Clements and John Musker envisioned a song in which the mermaid expresses her romantic feelings for Prince Eric, Menken and Ashman turned in a tune about leaving the safety of home, wanting to explore, and an insatiable interest in all things new.