Music Review: The Music Behind the Magic – The Musical Artistry of Alan Menken, Howard Ashman & Tim Rice
After going to see Beauty and the Beast last weekend in 3D, it made me a little sad at the end to remember the passing of one of Disney’s “legends”: Howard Ashman.
After working with Composer/song writer Alan Menken on Little Shop of Horrors, Ashman came to Disney, where he was offered several projects to work on. Out of all of these, he set his sights on the upcoming animated feature, The Little Mermaid. However, Howard saw the film as a way for Disney to return to its roots, where music often helped tell part of the story and moved the plot along. Reteaming with Alan Menken, the two embarked on a collaboration that would carry them through 3 films, and very soon, make the two as synonymous with the Disney company’s music as Richard and Robert Sherman (the brothers who are best known for their work on Mary Poppins and Winnie the Pooh).
While the dynamic duo of Menken and Ashman made The Little Mermaid a highly-entertaining film, it still feels to me that Beauty and the Beast was the pair’s zenith while working for Disney. Every song is so memorable, and the lyrics include some really interesting words (how many other songs have you heard that use the word expectorating?), not to mention a Macbeth reference. Plus, there’s the one moment where Belle (Paige O’Hara) channels Streisand.
After Menken and Ashman won Academy Awards for their work on The Little Mermaid, Ashman revealed to his musical collaborator that he had been diagnosed with AIDS. Howard worked as best as he could, helping to shape and finish his work on Beauty and the Beast, and still trying to do what he could regarding Disney’s next film, Aladdin. Sadly, less than a year later (on March 24, 1991), Howard Ashman passed away at the age of 40. In tribute to the contributions he made, a tag was added to the end of Beauty and the Beast when it was released that fall, saying how grateful the filmmakers were for him giving a mermaid her voice, and a beast his soul. With Howard’s passing, Tim Rice joined the crew of Aladdin, and helped to finish the final songs.
Back in 1994, The Walt Disney Company released The Music Behind the Magic – The Musical Artistry of Alan Menken, Howard Ashman & Tim Rice, chronicling the music of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, & Aladdin. The release served as the equivalent of both a behind-the-scenes music set, and a tribute to the three films that were graced with Ashman’s presence. As the world of aural stimulation was still at a crossroads, one could obtain the set in two forms: as a 3-audio cassette release, or a 4-CD set.
Each boxed set came with a ‘companion booklet’ that told about the making of the films, as well as notes and remembrances from the times gone past. Along with story sketches from the animators, the booklet also contains notes from Alan Menken regarding various pieces of music. What’s funny is one story where Alan Menken in his younger years questioned if he’d want to actually become a serious composer. The other alternative? Dentistry, which almost every single male in his family pursued. Surely this possible career choice was what inspired Orin Scrivello’s ‘psychotically happy’ song about his profession in Little Shop of Horrors.
Even with the 50+ page booklet, the highlights of this boxset are the songs. The set contains almost all the music we had come to find from the original motion picture soundtracks, but with some added goodies.
We hear original worktapes and demo tracks, several with added lyrics we haven’t heard before. The evolution of some songs is also interesting to note, such as how there was an attempt to give Jafar his own song in Aladdin. Ashman and Menken originally considered a song where Aladdin is exposed in a humiliating way (Humiliate the Boy), before Tim Rice and Menken tried a song that starts as a lament, and builds to a triumph (Why Me). In the end, they settled on a reprise of Prince Ali, which worked as Jafar exposes Ali’s true identity.
If there are downsides, to this set, it’s the following:
1) There are a couple songs where we start with 1-2 minutes of a demo-track, and then segue into the final music piece. One can’t help but want to hear those complete pieces as separate entities, instead of a mish-mash.
2) When Aladdin originally came out in theaters, there were a couple lyrics that were frowned on by several groups, and later soundtrack and home video releases included rewritten lyrics. Sadly, the original, uncut track is not included here, with the only trace of it being a small blurb telling of its omission from the boxset release.
When it comes to singing on the temp-tracks they worked on, Menken and Ashman were almost like a straight-man/funny-man double-act. Menken’s voice rarely changes whether singing as Ariel or Aladdin, but it’s Ashman who really gets into his character roles. His voice oozes machismo while singing Gaston, pitches higher and Jamaican as Sebastian, and (my favorite) sounds fiendishly slick as Ursula trying to pursuade Ariel in Poor Unfortunate Souls.
By now, some of you may be wondering why a set chronicling these three films has 4 CD’s. Well, that fourth CD contains 10 tracks to what was the original concept that Menken and Ashman envisioned for Aladdin. In it, Aladdin was a poor kid who wanted to make his poor Mother proud of her son. As well, he often hung around with three friends named Babkak, Omar, and Kassim. By the sound of the tracks, the original concept strayed a bit from the regular boy-meets-girl storyline, and focused more on Aladdin’s family and friends. However, after a story meeting, it was felt that the concept wasn’t working out, and a major overhaul took place.
At this point in the review, it should come as no surprise that I’m a big fan of both this set and Howard Ashman. Some claimed in various making-of documentaries, that working with Howard was probably the closest to working with Walt Disney: both were men of vision, and much like Walt would push his artists to make meaningful art, Ashman would often push his collaborators to make meaningful songs that weren’t just ‘filler.’ As an aside, if you want to see a bit more of Howard Ashman at work, I recommend the film Waking Sleeping Beauty, where we see him working with Jodi Benson (the voice of Ariel), along with snippets of a lecture he gave to the artists at Disney about musical theater and Disney musicals of the past.
In 2006, the title The Music Behind the Magic reappeared again as a music compilation. This time however, it was to celebrate 50 years of Walt Disney Records. While that release acts as a spiffy best of regarding Disney’s musical heritage, I still prefer The Music Behind the Magic from 1994: a reminder of a period that helped revitalize animation, with music that is still remembered fondly 2 decades later, and shows no signs of being forgotten.