After they took us under the sea with The Little Mermaid, composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman returned to Disney to bring some musical-theater flair to Beauty and the Beast. In Entertainment Weekly’s special issue The Ultimate Guide to Beauty and the Beast, on sale now, Menken walks us through how the songs came to be.
The first song in the movie is the first one Menken and Ashman wrote. With dialogue sprinkled between the verses, this operetta-style prologue establishes the provincial French setting and introduces the bibliophilic heroine Belle (Paige O’Hara), who longs to escape its bounds. Its length and multitude of singing characters was unusual for a cartoon musical, which made Ashman nervous. “Howard was very reluctant to have us send it on to Disney,” Menken says. “Basically he was saying, ‘Who asked us for a seven-minute opening number? This is crazy. What are we thinking?'” But in the end, Disney execs were thrilled — and more than happy to say “bonjour” to “Belle.”
"Be Our Guest"
Beauty and the Beast‘s biggest number started as a placeholder. When it came time to write the showstopper sung by Jerry Orbach, Angela Lansbury and the household staff chorus, Menken told Ashman. “‘Okay, I’ll give you a dumb piece of music that we’ll throw out.’ It was, to my mind, the most predictable, simple piece of music I could ever give him,” he recalls. But once Ashman returned with lyrics, Menken realized he couldn’t get that initial melody out of his head: “l simply could not improve upon that thing I had just thrown at him.”
The man who musically boasts “l use antlers in all of my decorating!” got a number that’s part drinking song, part Sigmund Romberg waltz. Menken compares Ashman’s swaggering “Gaston” words to those he wrote for the sadistic dentist in Little Shop of Horrors. “When that [‘Gaston’] lyric was in front of me, I was just cracking up,” Menken says. “It was so funny I could not get through it.” Apparently no one makes Oscar-winning composers laugh like Gaston.
By the time Paige O’Hara and Robby Benson recorded the love song “Something There,” Ashman had almost entirely lost his voice to complications from AIDS, but that didn’t stop him from perfecting every musical moment. When O’Hara kept singing a sweet, slightly dreamy version of the line “New and a bit alarming,” Ashman whispered a message to Menken: Tell Paige on that line: Streisand. “And she got it,” Menken says. “‘New and a bit a-LAR-ming.’ That’s exactly the performance she gave, and it gave exactly the sense of irony on that line.”
"The Mob Song"
The final number is perhaps the darkest moment in the entire film, as Gaston (Richard White) leads the frantic villagers to the Beast’s castle with torches and pitchforks. It’s a grim theatrical sequence that Menken describes as “pure operetta.” “In general,” he says, “the tone of Beauty and the Beast, like Little Mermaid, was designed to capture the musical equivalent of the early Walt Disney movies, which were very European, very classic.”
"Beauty and the Beast"
Menken and Ashman wrote two versions: a lullaby-like ballad for Angela Lansbury (with a demo by Ashman) and a poppier take for the radio (with a demo by Menken). But when Disney sent Lansbury the demo and invited her to play Mrs. Potts, she passed, saying the film didn’t feel like a good fit.”What occurred to me was, ‘That doesn’t make sense. We literally wrote it for her,'” Menken recalls. “And I said, ‘Well, which demo did you play for her?’ ‘Well, we sent her yours.’ I said, ‘Oh, no no no no no. Please, quick, send her Howard’s!’ I remember the sense of urgency!” After she heard the right demo, Lansbury immediately signed on — and recorded “Tale as Old as Time” in a single take.
Belle Is Back
Entertainment Weekly’s special issue The Ultimate Guide to Beauty and the Beast, featuring the casts and creators of the new film and the animated classic, is on sale now.