Defying Gravity: How Broadway Took Disney to New Heights

The fascinating story of a dynamic duo – Howard Ashman & Alan Menken – whose experience in Broadway musical theater forever changed Disney Animation!

Have you heard of The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), or Aladdin (1992)? Of course you have! 30+ years after their release, they remain some of the most beloved and celebrated animated musicals ever made. Well, those three films have one thing in common: lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken wrote their renowned musical scores.

Ashman & Menken started their songwriting careers in Broadway musical theater independently, but eventually met and collaborated on Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1979) and Little Shop of Horrors (1982). On the strength and success of Little Shop of Horrors, Disney hired Ashman & Menken to write the music for The Little Mermaid (1989) – and this is when the famed Disney magic started to happen! Ashman & Menken introduced Broadway-style structure and musical showstoppers to the animated film, which instantly resonated with critics and audiences alike. Their music for The Little Mermaid earned universal acclaim, not to mention two Academy Awards, two Golden Globes, and a Grammy Award!

Moreover, Ashman brought in Jodi Benson – then a relatively unknown Broadway actress and singer – to voice Ariel (Ashman and Benson had worked together on the 1986 Broadway musical Smile). Samuel E. Wright (the voice of Sebastian) and Pat Carroll (the voice of Ursula) – you guessed it – were also Broadway veterans!

Ashman & Menken would continue their Broadway-inspired songwriting in Beauty and the Beast (1991). Menken once noted in an interview that Beauty and the Beast was “conceived almost to exist as a stage musical.” And the voice of Belle – that’s right – came from a Broadway actress and singer (Paige O’Hara). Angela Lansbury (the voice of Mrs. Potts), Robby Benson (the voice of Beast), and David Ogden Stiers (the voice of Cogsworth) were also Broadway pros. Sadly, Ashman died from heart failure caused by HIV/AIDS in 1991, though he had already written several songs for Aladdin (1992).

Ashman & Menken are credited with initiating the “Disney Renaissance” – just like Rodgers & Hammerstein initiated the “golden age” of musical theater. Ashman, in particular, was the driving force behind what worked so well for Disney and its animated musicals of the 1990s. Then Disney studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg once said there were two guardian angels that put their magic touch on every Disney film made: Walt Disney and Howard Ashman (watch the below YouTube clip, starting at 2:19).

Ashman was afforded far more creative input than your standard lyricist – even pitching the idea of Aladdin to Disney. And he became something of a shadow director on the Disney projects he undertook (he was executive producer of Beauty and the Beast). He was also known to hold seminars for Disney animation, where he would talk about the history of Broadway musicals and storytelling, how Broadway musical theater and animated musicals were two American art forms that developed on similar tracks, and how a Broadway style could positively influence animated films. Kirk Wise (who directed Disney animated films such as Beauty and the BeastThe Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Atlantis: The Lost Empire) once said in an interview, “If you had to point to one person responsible for the Disney renaissance, I would say it was Howard.”

Even though Howard Ashman passed away in 1991, the use of Broadway-inspired songwriting was forever imprinted on Disney’s animated musicals – especially because Alan Menken wrote the music for many of them, including Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules (1997), Home on the Range (2004), Enchanted (2007), and Tangled (2010).

To bring this story full circle, thirty years later the importance of Ashman & Menken is still felt today as their Broadway-based playbook continues to inspire Disney blockbusters. Robert Lopez – co-songwriter behind the hits of Frozen (2013) and Frozen 2 (2019) – once said in an interview: “I just wrote a thank you letter to Alan Menken telling him that he created the architecture and we’re just living in it. He and Howard really created this form and brought it to where it is now – all we did was try and write one of those.” Wife and co-songwriter Kristen Anderson-Lopez added, “The entire time we were working, we had the creed: ‘What would Ashman do?'”

And you’re familiar with Elsa from Frozen and Frozen 2, right? (I’ve written about Elsa before – see here). Well, Idina Menzel – the voice of Elsa – is (yes, you guessed it again!) a Broadway actress and singer! And that’s putting it mildly – she’s really one of the most successful Broadway performers of our generation, having starred in favorites such as Rent (1996) and Wicked (2003). Beyond the Frozen franchise, the songwriter behind Disney’s animated musicals Moana (2016) and Encanto (2021) is Lin-Manuel Miranda. And yes, he too started his career on Broadway – creating and starring in the Broadway musicals In the Heights (2008) and Hamilton (2015).

So the next time you watch a Disney animated musical, you can be sure that it was strongly influenced by Broadway musical theater. And it’s all due to the unique and inimitable duo of Ashman & Menken. To this day, they’re still defying gravity and taking Disney to new heights!

What’s your favorite Disney animated musical? Favorite Broadway musical? Do you know of any other Disney-Broadway connections? Let me know in the comments below!

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