Road to the Tonys: ‘Aladdin’ Brings Howard Ashman’s Legacy Full Circle

Howard Ashman may have died in 1991, but he left a musical theater legacy that endures across film and theater — stretching all the way into this year’s Tony’s race.

With composer Alan Menken, lyricist Ashman wrote the songs for the 1992 Disney animated film “Aladdin,” the Broadway musical version of which has earned five Tony nominations including one for new musical and one for the score by Menken, Ashman, Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin. The tuner, which has logged million-dollar weeks since it opened March 20, caps off a Broadway track record for Ashman that already includes one prior Tony nomination for score and another production that ran on the Rialto for 13 years. And all of that happened after he passed away.

In the 1980s Ashman, who died at 40 of complications from AIDS, and Menken transitioned from the Off Broadway success of “Little Shop of Horrors” to writing for Disney, where the duo combined the old-fashioned musical storytelling of Broadway’s golden age with a smartly comic modern-day sensibility that yielded three films — “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin” — that revitalized Disney’s animation activities.

Those cinematic hits went on to become the bedrock of Disney’s success on Broadway, where Disney Theatrical Prods.’ “Beauty and the Beast” opened in 1994 and ran 13 years. “The Little Mermaid,” which opened on Broadway in 2008, didn’t prove a triumph in New York but has gone on to be seen in productions all over the world. The third of the three films to make it to the Main Stem, “Aladdin,” premiered in a 2011 Seattle production prior to its Broadway incarnation, which tried out in Toronto last fall before starting Gotham performances in February.

The multiplatform longevity and popularity of Ashman and Menken’s movie work for Disney has had a major impact on musicals, not only on screen but also on Broadway. Whereas a previous generation knew “My Fair Lady” by heart, the musical theater kids of the 1990s and beyond grew up singing “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin.”

Some of those legit-loving youngsters grew into Tony and Oscar-winning songwriters, among them Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who scored an Academy Award for their songs for Disney megasmash “Frozen.”

“That whole chain of influence has come full circle,” Lopez said. “Their style has become the lingua franca of musicals.”

Ashman found posthumous Broadway success after being influenced himself by the legacy of Main Stem legends. “Broadway was where his heart was,” remembers William Lauch, who was Ashman’s partner until the writer-lyricist’s death. “All of his heroes and idols came from there, and everything he brought to film came from Broadway.”

Ashman’s first Tony nomination came for his book to “Smile,” the short-lived 1986 musical he wrote with Marvin Hamlisch. But the works that truly launched his career were his collaborations with Menken, with whom he penned a 1979 musical adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” as well as “Little Shop” in 1982 (which has since had a 2003 Broadway run).

Menken, whose work after Ashman’s death has included Broadway’s “Newsies” and “Sister Act” as well as film successes (“Enchanted”) and TV gigs (the upcoming ABC series “Galavant”), calls his relationship with Ashman one of the tentpoles of his life. According to Menken, Ashman’s particular talent stemmed from his deep knowledge of musical genres and the ease with which he could write in the individual vocabulary of each.  “Howard was so great at understanding musical styles and how they work dramatically,” he said.

“Those Disney films took musical theater and comedy and pop music and mixed it all in a bowl together,” Anderson-Lopez echoed. “Ashman knew storytelling in the post-television, post-golden age of Hollywood era, and now most of us tell stories that way.”

Examples of Ashman’s genre-hopping skill range from the big be-bop voice of Audrey II from “Little Shop” to the calypso flair of Sebastian in “Little Mermaid” (for which Ashman received his first Tony nom for score) to the genie of “Aladdin,” initially imagined, Lauch recalled, as a Cab Callaway-style bandleader of the jazz age. Robin Williams took the genie in a different direction in the film version of “Aladdin,” but the jazzy original concept makes a return in the stage production, in which the genie is played by James Monroe Igleheart in a Tony-nominated turn.

Restoring songs that were cut from the movie, the stage version of “Aladdin” is much closer to Ashman and Menken’s original idea for the tale, which marks Ashman’s third and final Broadway-via-Disney appearance.

“The animated film was an adventure story, but the stage musical is much more of a musical comedy,” Menken said. “It’s a wink to a kind of show and to an era that Howard and I had initially intended it to be.”

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