Ashman, Howard (b. Baltimore, Md., May 17, 1950; d. N.Y., March 14, 1990) and Menkin, Allan (b. 1949, New Rochelle, N.Y.), the songwriters who “gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul.”
Howard Ashman’s father made ice cream cones, and, in a way, Ashman followed in his father’s footsteps, creating musical confections that delighted both children and adults.
In his early twenties, Howard Ashman came to N.Y. and found a job editing books, but his heart was in the theater. In his off-time, he wrote plays, getting ’Cause Maggie’s Afraid of the Dark produced in 1976. Within a year, he became the artistic director of the Off-Off-Broadway WPA Theater. In 1979, WPA took on the challenge of creating a musical out of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel God Bless You Mr. Rosewater. Ashman cowrote the book and created all the lyrics for the compositions of Allan Menkin, beginning one of the most fruitful song-writing relationships of the late 20th century.
Menkin had grown up in New Rochelle, and studied piano and violin. After graduating from N.Y.U., he focused on music. He mostly wrote jingles, occasionally performing his own songs at local clubs. Attending a theater workshop at BMI helped him develop a deep affection for musicals. He met Ashman through the workshop.
Ashman next brought Roger Corman’s 1960 B-movie Little Shop of Horrors to Menkin’s attention. Together, they turned it into a musical for which Ashman wrote the lyrics and libretto. He also directed the play. It ran for over a decade at the Off-Broadway Orpheum Theater. Ashman also wrote the lyrics and book, and directed Smile, which opened on Broadway on the strength of a score by composer Marvin Hamlish, but it ran for only 40 performances.
Ashman didn’t have time to be disappointed, however. Soon after Smile closed, the film version of Little Shop of Horrors opened. Disney soon came calling. They asked Ashman to pen some lyrics for their all-star animation Oliver and Company. While the film wasn’t one of the studio’s instant classics, Disney asked Ashman and Menkin to collaborate on a new animation. The result was The Little Mermaid, which Ashman co-produced in addition to writing the lyrics. The duo won an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a Grammy for “Under the Sea,” and another Grammy for the soundtrack album as Best Recording for Children. Menkin also wrote outside of the partnership, crafting a song for Home Alone 2 and tunes for the less-successful Disney musical Newsies. He collaborated with David Spencer on a musical version of The Apprenticeship of Buddy Kravitz. They also wrote the Off-Broadway WPA production of Weird Romance.
Menkin and Ashman’s work together was so successful that they were asked to collaborate again on another Disney feature, Beauty and the Beast. Again, the duo won a pair of Grammy’s, a Golden Globe, and an Oscar for the music. The film also won a Best Picture Oscar for Ashman, who was the executive producer. Unfortunately, Ashman had succumbed to AIDS a year earlier and had not even seen the finished film.
Ashman had been able, however, to write several lyrics for the movie Aladdin; Tim Rice helped Menkin finish the job. This started a frequent collaboration between Rice and the composer.
Menkin teamed up with another theatrical legend, Steven Schwartz, for two more Disney films. With Pocahontas, they won a Best Song Oscar for “Colors of the Wind” and another for Menkin’s score. They also wrote the songs for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Menkin’s music was also integral to the film Hercules, written with lyricist David Zippel. He wrote the score for the ABC miniseries Lincoln and the theme for Rocky V, “Measure of a Man,” recorded by Elton John.
Menkin went back to the stage, creating a musical version of Dickens’s Christmas Carol with lyricist Lynn Ahrens and librettists Michael Ockrent. The show has become an annual fixture at the theater at Madison Square Garden. He as also worked with Tim Rice on the musical King David and with Tom Eyen on Kicks: The Showgirl Musical.