The new Disney movie "Beauty and the Beast" becomes still more poignant when one realizes it contains the final completed score of Baltimore-born playwright and lyricist Howard Ashman, who died in March of AIDS at age 40.
Both Alan Menken, his collaborator on several scores, and Linda Woolverton, with whom he shaped the "Beauty and the Beast" screenplay, found it difficult to put into words their intense sorrow at his early death. "He was one of my closest, dearest friends," Mr. Menken said at a recent press conference.
Ashman shared an Academy Award for best song with composer Menken for "Under the Sea" from "The Little Mermaid." The duo also wrote the score for "Little Shop of Horrors," which became the highest-grossing musical in off-Broadway history (and was subsequently made into a film by director Frank Oz).
Ashman worked as a book editor before turning to playwriting in the 1970s. He collaborated with Marvin Hamlisch on the 1986 Broadway musical "Smile," for which he received a Tony nomination for best book.
Mr. Menken and Ashman completed the score for "Aladdin," Disney's next animated musical, before his death. However, the story subsequently has been revised, necessitating the writing of new songs, according to Mr. Menken.
Mr. Menken is collaborating on the new material with Tim Rice, who has written lyrics for a number of Andrew Lloyd Webber shows. The finished film will contain both Menken-Ashman and Menken-Rice songs, the composer said.
Mr. Menken said Ashman never wrote an anti-AIDS statement into his songs, but he said he sometimes hears echoes of his collaborator's struggles in his lyrics.
"The last song we wrote for 'Aladdin' is called 'Humiliate the Boy,' " he noted. "[The villain] is stripping the boy of all the powers that he had.
"At the time, Howard was being stripped of all his abilities," he said quietly.