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Darling, It’s Better Down Where It’s Wetter: “The Little Mermaid” Gets Legacy Collection Expansion

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Little Mermaid - Legacy Collection

When God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater opened in May 1979 at New York’s small WPA Theatre on the Bowery, it heralded the birth of a promising new songwriting team: Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. Ten years later, the team would forever alter the course of one of the most venerable institutions in entertainment history: The Walt Disney Company. Their score to The Little Mermaid, which Ashman also produced and contributed to the story of, ushered in a new golden age for a studio which many had written off. On November 24, Walt Disney Records will celebrate Ashman and Menken’s music with the release of a Legacy Collection expanded edition of their score to The Little Mermaid.  It follows previous Legacy Collection releases of The Lion King, Mary Poppins and Sleeping Beauty.

Introduced by Lehman Engel, legendary Broadway musical director and founder of the BMI Workshop for songwriters, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were off to a promising start when Mr. Rosewater, based on the Kurt Vonnegut novel, opened to stellar reviews and transferred to off-Broadway’s Entermedia Theatre. Three years later, though, the team had their breakthrough. Their Little Shop of Horrors opened at the WPA in the spring of 1982 and was an instant sensation. The musical moved that summer to the East Village’s Orpheum Theatre under the aegis of Cameron Mackintosh and David Geffen, and went on to spawn a major motion picture along with countless revivals on both the professional and amateur levels. (The original production ran over 2,200 performances in New York.) Following Little Shop, Ashman and Menken pursued various projects together and separately, but later in the decade, Ashman found himself working for The Walt Disney Company. The lyricist had teamed with composer Barry Mann to pen a song for 1988’s animated film Oliver and Company, but took a bigger role in the production of the studio’s next planned movie, a musical version of The Little Mermaid. And he called his friend and collaborator Alan Menken to join him as composer.

Ashman and Menken brought their stage experience to The Little Mermaid. Disney chief of music Chris Montan observed in 1994 that “most songwriters don’t have the experience of solving dramatic lines and storytelling. That’s the advantage Howard and Alan brought in.” Little Shop had proved that the team knew the ins and outs of effective musical theatre writing, but as Montan further opined, “they were old enough to have solved those problems for twenty years but young enough to have been brought up with The Beatles.” Musicals have always reflected a melting pot of influences, and true to form, Little Shop brought in a variety of influences from classic Broadway to doo-wop, R&B, and rock-and-roll. The team’s music for The Little Mermaid would find inspiration in calypso, chansons, theatre and vintage Disney. Ashman and Menken had the know-how to bring the best of the musical theatre form into the cinematic landscape, and Disney’s gamble on their talents paid off when Mermaid – the studio’s first feature-length fairy tale since 1959 and Sleeping Beauty – soared at the box office.

During its original 1989 release, Mermaid scored $84,355,863 in North America, and earned three Oscar nominations, the first Disney animated film to be recognized by the Academy since 1977’s The Rescuers. Ashman and Menken took a statuette home for the joyful production number “Under the Sea,” and Menken took a second home that night for the orchestral score, his very first attempt at film scoring. As chronicled in the documentary film Waking Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid brought luster back to The Walt Disney Company, and that was in no small part due to Ashman and Menken.

The team went on to fully complete one more picture, the even more successful Beauty and the Beast, before Ashman’s tragic death at the age of 40 in March 1991 from AIDS. Tim Rice stepped in to complete the lyrics for Aladdin, though not before Ashman had left behind such future classics as the manic showstopper “Friend Like Me.” Howard Ashman’s impact is still felt on Disney films today, including 2013’s Frozen, which also embraced the Broadway aesthetic he and Menken brought to the studio. Ironically, Ashman had written a children’s musical in college based on original Little Mermaid author Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, the same source material as Frozen! Menken, of course, has continued to write on stage and screen over the years, and has amassed eight Academy Awards for his work. He has also carried Ashman’s vision out in stage productions of all three of their animated classics.

After the jump: what will you find on Disney’s new Legacy Collection release of The Little Mermaid? Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

October 13, 2014 at 10:10