The audiences attending the upcoming Patel Conservatory productions of The Little Mermaid Jr. likely will include many youngsters already familiar with the story, either from Hans Christian Andersen’s book or from the beloved 1989 animated Disney film.
Disney’s had a good deal of success with stage adaptations of hit animated films such as Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. (The “Jr.” designation indicates the original has been modified, trimmed to roughly an hour’s running time to accommodate young and potentially restless audiences.)
The success of these transitions owes a lot to the memorable songs from these films. Those songs were the work of lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken. The pair had created a hit with their reimagining of an odd little horror flick, Little Shop of Horrors, as an off-Broadway musical comedy and then a hit movie.
The Little Mermaid would take the opposite trek, but in truth Broadway was baked into the film from the start.
The songs – “Under the Sea,” “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” “Part of Your World” – were woven into the storyline. The songs tell the audience who these characters are, how they live, what they want and how they try get it. And they are told with lyrics as charming and clever as any to grace a Disney musical before or since.
Tragically, Howard Ashman died less than two years after The Little Mermaid opened. He and Menken had completed songs for Disney’s next animated musical, Beauty and the Beast, another smash hit that also made a successful move to Broadway.
Ashman had a rare gift for writing lyrics that entertained adults while still being kid-friendly. Lyrics, though, are at the mercy of the music, which must be subtle enough to not overshadow the lyrics, but powerful enough to plant indelible hooks in the listeners’ minds.
Menken, who turns 74 on Saturday (July 22), provided Ashman’s lyrics with the melodies that stamped those songs into our collective movie memory bank. If you hear “Under the Sea” or “Be Our Guest” (from Beauty and the Beast) just once, the likelihood is strong that you’ll catch yourself humming or singing it later on.
Ashman and Menken had begun work on a third Disney musical, Aladdin, when Howard passed. Tim Rice, best known as composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s lyric partner, worked with Menken to complete the film’s songs.
Menken is an EGOT winner, with two Emmys®, 11 Grammys®, eight Oscars® and a Tony®. The Oscars®, incidentally are Best Original Song and Best Original Score for Mermaid, Beauty, Aladdin and Pocahontas.
Menken has continued composing and writing songs for film and television. Although indelibly tied to Disney, he’s worked on non-Disney projects such as A Bronx Tale: The Musical and, ahem, Sausage Party.
He scored Disney’s 2017 live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, as well as composing new songs for it with Rice. He scored this summer’s live-action remake of The Little Mermaid as well as writing new songs for it with a lyricist he’d met years ago — a classmate of his daughter who was obsessed with the music of Mermaid: Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Menken. Here’s to many more years of your memorable melodies.