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Broadway Bound 'Mermaid': Alan Menken, Part 3: Remembering Howard Ashman

This is the fourth installment in the “Broadway Bound” series looking at “The Little Mermaid.” Taking “The Little Mermaid” -- which he had written with Howard Ashman -- back to the stage, where he and Ashman first collaborated, was not strange, composer Alan Menken says.

“It was sad. We’ve all lost people in our lives and especially people who’ve been ongoing in things we’ve been doing. It’s sad, difficult, challenging.”

Still, Menken says he feels Ashman is still with him in a way.

“I gave an interview recently where I talked about how Howard has literally been an active part of my life since his death. I’ve been in dreams and I have moments where I’ve actually felt his presence. So, of course, the interview became ‘Menken Channeling Ashman…’” he says with a howl.

“But truth be told, Howard is probably still one of the closest people in my life,” he says.

Menken is still in awe of Ashman’s talent, his ability to distill information into stage moments.

“There was a musical I had written twice, based on a Damon Runyon story called ‘Little Pinks,’” he recalls. “Howard and I were going to do this -- and I don’t know if I knew he was sick at the time, but it was a tough time. And the rights were not available.

“And after he died, I really wanted to finish it and I took two attempts at writing this very difficult, dark Runyon story.

“I loved the score that I wrote and the people I was working with were wonderful people, but we couldn’t pull off something that would be successful on stage.

“But I’m haunted by ‘What would Howard have done?’ Howard would have found an interesting twist on this. He obviously had something in mind and I don’t know what he had in mind.”

When they worked together, Menken sat at the piano, Ashman at a table, and suggested things back and forth, seeking a spark of inspiration.

When Ashman didn’t like something, he wasn’t shy, Menken recalls.

“He’d say ‘I HATE THAT!’” Menken recalls, smiling. “Howard was a very powerful individual.”

His collaborator is gone, but his influence is still felt.

“I may think I make smart decisions and occasionally I do make smart decisions and come in with the fix on something,” Menken says. “And I know a lot of my current collaborators have a great deal of regard for my gut instincts.

“When I was working with Howard, it didn’t matter what my gut told me, I’d come in and Howard would have a better idea. And I never knew what it was going to be. That’s how smart he was. That’s how in touch he was.

“I’d like to think that in the years working with him that my gut honed itself and maybe, in a way, I adopted some part of Howard’s being and got a little smarter.

They won the Oscar for “The Little Mermaid” -- best score for Menken, and best song for “Under the Sea,” with the award going to Ashman and Menken -- and, 51 weeks later, on March 14, 1991, Ashman died.

Menken says he had no idea of the extent of Ashman’s illness (it was AIDS) until just before they picked up their Oscars.

“It started with just before the night of the Oscars (on March 26, 1990), where Howard was in doubt and, unbeknownst to us, he was heavily medicated to make it to the Oscars. It was very clear he was ill at the Oscars.”

As Ashman’s condition deteriorated, his emotions took over.

“We couldn’t get a mic to work properly on a Walkman pro. Remember those things? They cost nearly $500? Well, a mic having an intermittent signal was not necessarily the cause for that thing to get hurled into a wall. He was having emotional explosions.

“Once I knew (that Ashman had AIDS), we had to keep it quiet. Back then, it was a death sentence physically, but before that it was a death sentence to your career.”

Menken was impressed with how the studio handled Ashman’s illness.

“Disney was bending over backwards to cooperate with Howard,” he says. “It was really quite wonderful.”

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