Alan Menken and Howard Ashman
Beauty and the Beast is a musical, which means the soundtrack has to do more than just give us some melodies to listen to in between dialogue. The songs basically tell us the whole stinkin' story.
The format was pretty new for Disney in 1991. Sure, they had had characters bursting into song for no apparent reason on numerous occasions before, but they usually did it without the kind of show-stopping musical numbers you'd see in a big Broadway production. For example, Snow White sang "Someday My Prince Will Come," and Jiminy Cricket knocked us dead with "When You Wish Upon a Star." But random passersby didn't suddenly break out in elaborately choreographed dance numbers the way they would on Broadway.
Or, you know, at Shmoop HQ.
That changed with the Disney renaissance, staring with The Little Mermaid. Disney took the format of the Broadway musical and applied it to their animated features: breaking the fourth wall and dropping all pretense of realism for all-singing, all-dancing musical numbers. That didn't happen in many Disney films before Ariel and her friends showed everyone how it was done.
And that's where our two composers come in.
Beauty and the Beat
Alan Menken (music) and Howard Ashman (lyrics) had been staples in the theater, most notably with the off-Broadway hit Little Shop of Horrors, which earned them the attention of the House of Mouse. The duo worked together on The Little Mermaid, then repeated the feat for Beauty and the Beast, and at least partially on its follow-up, Aladdin.
In fact, they were all set to do Aladdin before being tasked to handle Beauty and the Beast, which was having story problems that Disney's movers and shakers needed them to straighten out. Ashman wasn't thrilled with the idea, but he saluted and followed orders…and the rest is Oscar-winning history.
You can see the two men's fingerprints all over the soundtrack, and not just in the way it followed their Broadway playbook. Ashman, for example, was a big believer in the "I Want" song, in which the hero or heroine spells out early in the proceedings what he or she will go after. (Head over to our "Symbols and Tropes" section for more on that.) It also had a huge impact on how casting worked. Remember, animated films were kind of meh for actors in those days. Big stars never came near them, thinking that they were beneath their notice, a perception that didn't change until Robin Williams played the genie in Aladdin a year later.
Instead, they hired Broadway actors: people without a lot of name recognition but who knew their way around a song-and-dance routine. Paige O'Hara had made waves with a stage production of Showboat, while Robby Benson had appeared in productions of The Rothschilds and The Pirates of Penzance. They were there because they could handle the material—not because Disney thought they'd attract an audience.
This is the soundtrack formula that Disney would apply for the next decade. The songs move the story forward, delivering little nuggets of emotional development that show us how the characters are growing and changing. There are eight songs in Beauty and the Beast, all of which either talk directly about a specific character (or characters) or their feelings and motivations. The elegance of the lyrics (and they're beautiful, aren't they?) covers up the fact that they're front-loading character development into toe-tapping chunks. It follows the theatrical traditions that the composers knew well and gets us into the story with a minimum of fuss.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences agreed.
Three of the five songs nominated that year for Best Original Song came from the film, including the title song that ultimately took the prize. The film nabbed the Oscar for Best Soundtrack, too. Oh, and it also took home two Golden Globes and five Grammys, all for the soundtrack alone. Whatever these guys were doing, it worked.
Sadly, Ashman wasn't there to enjoy it. In fact, one of the reasons he wasn't keen on signing up for the film was because he had been diagnosed with AIDS, and he wanted to focus all of his energies on Aladdin. The disease—and indeed, the simple fact that he was gay—wasn't widely accepted at the time, and he wanted to keep it all a secret. The production for Beauty and the Beast moved to New York (where he lived) to let him finish, but he was too ill to leave his bed when he wrote most of the songs. He died on March 14, 1991, eight months before the movie hit theaters.
He and Menken had made their mark, though. Not only did their soundtrack cover the whole emotional core of the movie, but it cemented the formula that they started with The Little Mermaid. We see its influence in Disney movies today. The music proved so successful that Disney adapted the film into a Broadway musical, which turned into yet another cash cow for them. Talk to the folks at the House of Mouse, and they speak of Ashman in terms only slightly less reverential than that of Big Walt himself. He may be gone, but his shadow looms large, and listening to the music here, it's not hard to see why.