Alan Menken, the songwriter behind Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast — to name just a few — has given Entertainment Weekly the story behind a number of his most famous songs. Some are pretty basic, some are funny, and some tell of frustrating directors. But the one that is a laser-guided missile right into the feels is the one for "Bell" from Beauty and the Beast.
Beauty and the Beast is dedicated to lyricist Howard Ashman, who wrote the songs with Menken and served as executive producer on it, and who died eight months before it was released. The dedication reads, "To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful. Howard Ashman 1950–1991."
Now, Menken tells the specific story behind the opening number to Beauty and the Beast, which the sick Ashman was worried would never make the final cut:
The story behind this is that Howard Ashman was HIV-positive and wasn't telling anybody—he had been very quiet. And here we had written this crazy seven-minute opening number that was much more ambitious than anybody had asked for, and I remember his fear [about everything] in that moment. I remember Howard was very, very reluctant to send it out, thinking that we were going to be laughed at. He delayed sending it for two days. Finally, of course, we sent it, and Disney loved it. You didn't open an animated movie with a seven-minute number, but it redefined the form. We wanted to keep it very classical Mozart, very She Loves Me, with a quiet opening—'Little town, it's a quiet village…' And then it explodes. 'Bonjour!'
Watch it for yourself:
Menken and Ashman also worked together on Little Shop of Horrors, which he explains influenced The Little Mermaid's "Part of Your World" and established the "I Want" as a vital component to the Disney Renaissance:
There had never really been an 'I want' number before in a Disney film. Subsequently everybody at Disney would ask, 'Where's our "I want" moment?!' But it's that important moment where you engage the audience in the quest of the central character so you know what you're rooting for. We jokingly used to call this one 'Somewhere That's Wet,' like 'Somewhere That's Green' [from Little Shop of Horrors] but underwater. My favorite part is that motif [that sounds like] water flowing, which beautifully set up the tone and became the central theme. We knew the whole score was going to a Caribbean place, so we toyed with the idea of reggae [for the rest], but we landed on calypso because it's poppier and more interesting. Sebastian is more of a Trinidadian crab than Jamaican, certainly more of a Harry Belafonte type.
Go and read the full Entertainment Weekly piece for the stories behind songs from Little Shop of Horrors, Aladdin, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Enchanted, and ABC's Galavant. [Entertainment Weekly]