Ashman's words were music to his ears

November 25, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Yes, it's lonely without Howard.

"I can't help but wonder where we'd be now," says four-time Oscar winner Alan Menken, the surviving member of the legendary Howard Ashman/Alan Menken songwriting team that produced "Little Shop of Horrors" off-Broadway and the songs and music for the brilliant Disney animated features "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and substantial portions of the new "Aladdin."

Ashman, the lyricist, died in March of last year of AIDS, leaving behind a devastated Baltimore family, a devastated New York theater community, a devastated Hollywood film world and a devastated partner.

"You don't want to dwell on what might have been," says Menken, sitting somewhat disconsolately in a Washington hotel room. "But the process of working with him looms larger and richer in my memory every day. And I still talk to him, if only silently. 'Hey, we did it again,' I wanted to tell him. 'Maslin gave usa great review in the [New York] Times.' "

"It was completely unique," he recalls. "Now I'm just left with a feeling of loss and a sense of having to compete with a ghost. We had 'chemistry,' which I define as his ability to support my strengths and my ability to support his. I don't see how it can happen again."

"Aladdin" will have to remain as Ashman's last work. He conceived it, sold Menken and Disney on it, and pushed for its making even before "Beauty and the Beast" got into full gear. He suffered its disappointments when it was pulled out of production and went into "development" -- i.e., rewrites -- when Disney balked at the original idea.

"I think they were originally threatened by the acerbic nature of Howard's wit," recalls Menken. "Howard had absolute originality blended with complete facility. He was hilariously hip and totally compassionate at the same time, a rare combination."

As the completed film now stands, three of its five songs are pure Menken/Ashman -- "Arabian Nights," "Friends Like Me" and "Prince Ali." The others feature Menken's music and lyrics by Tim Rice.

Menken recalls that with Ashman, the partnership had produced to such a pitch of compatibility that the work was almost easy.

"Mainly, I struggled to keep the music simple, so it was just a clear bed for the lyrics to be mounted upon."

Typically, the team tried to write by "rules," which kept the music focused on the story.

"In the broadest sense, you have to move the story forward. You have to have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish and you have to visualize the peak emotional moments. You also don't want to write a song that you can't see being staged.

"Then you start with the questions: What kind of song? Does the character start it or does he respond to other people's cues? You make a stylistic decision. You look at other, similar songs and see what they can provide. Then you sit down and . . . that's where the talent takes over."

Now embarked on fresh sets of partnership -- with Rice and with Stephen Scwhartz, who wrote lyrics for "Pippin" and "Godspell" and with whom he is working on the songs for Disney's next big animated project, "Pocahontas" -- Menken is trying to face the future squarely.

But he can't seem to stop looking back. "There is no replacing him," he says.

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