Once upon a time, Disney handed Howard Ashman and Alan Menken an amazing — and terrifying — opportunity.
“We were hired basically to help reinvent animation,” Menken tells The Post of that offer, made in the mid-’80s. “Our assignment was to create works that could sit on the shelf with the classics.”
Chances are the movies they scored during their five years with Disney not only sit on your shelf or in your iTunes library, but remain in your brain: “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin.”
Their partnership was an artistic fairy tale, one that ended in tragedy when Ashman, who was gay, died of complications from AIDS in 1991. He was 40 years old.
But the lyrics he wrote for Menken’s music left an indelible stamp on film and musical theater and countless childhoods. As told in the documentary “Howard,” premiering Sunday at the Tribeca Film Festival, it all began downtown.
Ashman, then artistic director of the now-defunct WPA Theater on 23rd Street, was seeking a collaborator on a musical version of Kurt Vonnegut’s “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.” After “Nine” composer Maury Yeston warmly recommended Menken, Ashman hopped on a train to meet the composer at his Manhattan Plaza apartment.
At first, Menken didn’t know what to make of his future collaborator. “He was smoking, and he was in his bomber jacket with a fur collar and a crew-neck shirt, probably with a couple of holes,” he says.
Nevertheless, they hit it off, though they sometimes butted heads.
“Howard was impatient,” says Menken, whose early work with synthesizers sometimes irritated his lyricist. “Depending on the sound, Howard would say, ‘It sounds like we’re in a skating rink!’”
After “Rosewater,” they started working on a musical about Babe Ruth, only to get sidetracked by a houseplant with blood lust — a stage adaptation of the 1960 film “The Little Shop of Horrors.”
As Menken tells it, Ashman had an idea: “‘I think [the show] should be the dark side of “Grease,” and we should tell it through Phil Spector rock ’n’ roll, bubblegum rock ’n’ roll and Howlin’ Wolf.’ And all of it,” Menken says, “totally came together.”
“Little Shop” ran off-Broadway for five years, after which one of its producers, David Geffen, set them up with Disney’s Michael Eisner in 1986. Solo, Ashman wrote some lyrics for the studio’s “Oliver & Company.” Together, they began writing music for 1989’s “The Little Mermaid,” followed by 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin” the year after. Says Menken: “We were fresh from off-Broadway, and there we were, kind of running Disney animation.
In 1990, on the night they won Oscars for Best Original Song and Best Original Score for “Little Mermaid,” Ashman told Menken he needed to speak to him when they returned to New York. “Literally two days later, I went to his house upstate,” Menken say. There, Ashman, who had earlier told him he had a hiatal hernia, revealed he was in fact HIV positive.
They wrote the “Aladdin” song “Prince Ali” in Ashman’s St. Vincent’s Hospital room.
“In those days, there was a feeling of people don’t want to be in a room with somebody who’s sick with AIDS,” Menken says. But he felt otherwise, bringing his children — then ages 2 and 5 — to the hospital with him, to see his writing partner. “The gift was for them to know Howard at all,” he says.
He himself will never forget Ashman.“I still have dreams where we get together and he says, ‘Hey, let’s do something new.’”
“Howard” screening times are at tribecafilm.com/filmguide/howard-2018