Sadness at the Heart of a Hit

updated 12/16/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/16/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

NO CALYPSO-CROONING CRAB OR TALKING teapot enlivens the stone Cotswold cottage in Westchester County, N.Y., where composer Alan Menken, 42, lives with his wife, Janis, and their daughters, Anna, 6, and Nora, 3. Still, there is something enchanted about the property: This is a house paid for by The Little Mermaid and renovated courtesy of Beauty and the Beast. As half of the songwriting team for both those films, Menken is shrouded in some of the Disney magic—and dollars.

As sometimes happens in fables, though, the good fortune comes with an emotional price tag. Last March 14, Menken's songwriting and Oscar-winning partner, lyricist Howard Ashman, died at age 40 in a Manhattan hospital of complications from AIDS, ending one of entertainment's most productive musical pairings.

In 1982 the duo crafted the off-Broadway hit Little Shop of Horrors, which became an equally successful movie in 1986; this year, Beauty has taken its place beside 1989's Mermaid as an instant classic, in great measure because of its critically acclaimed music.

The tall, gregarious Ashman and the diminutive, shy Menken were very much in tune with each oilier. Though Ashman wrote the lyrics and Menken the music, "They worked together hand in glove," says Angela Lansbury, who provides the voice for Beauty's anthropomorphic teapot, Mrs. Potts. "They worked as one."

As little Nora bangs away on the upright piano in their living room, Menken tries to explain the chemistry. "We had a kind of shorthand," he says, describing how they both recognized "moments" where they felt it would be natural for the characters to burst into song. "Howard would have the basic idea of the number," Menken says. "Then he would ask what the music might sound like."

Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, who hired Menken and Ashman on the advice of mutual friend David Geffen, supported their approach—even when it meant revamping characters. It was Ashman's notion, for instance, that household objects should come alive in Beauty, and that Mermaid's crab, Sebastian, should have a Jamaican accent. Sebastian's ensuing calypso song, "Under the Sea," won the 1989 Oscar for Best Original Song.

But the award carries a horrible memory for Menken. Three days after the ceremony, in the Beacon, N.Y., stucco cottage that Ashman shared with his lover, architect William Lauch, he told Menken that he was HIV positive. Over the next year, the collaborators raced to finish Beauty and the Beast, a task made all the more difficult by Ashman's request that Menken tell nobody about his condition. "It was like holding the atomic bomb in your brain," says Menken, who kept the secret from everyone but Janis.

"Pretty soon, though," says Menken, "it became apparent that everyone knew." When Ashman's eyesight began to fail, Disney hired somebody to read for him. Toward the end, the studio had a speakerphone hooked up next to his bed. "We got through it," says Menken. "We wrote the songs."

On the day that Ashman died, Menken put money down for a new, gray Mercedes-Benz. When he got home, there were 10 messages on his answering machine with the grim news. "Janis and I went in to sec Howard a couple of days before he died," says Menken. "He was asleep. I never said goodbye. I just couldn't."

Twelve years earlier, seasoned playwright Ashman (The Confirmation, Dreamstuff) gave fledgling composer Menken his break. Ashman picked him over a number of others who had auditioned to write the music for an ill-fated off-Broadway musical, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. "With Howard, I realized I was dealing with somebody monumentally talented," says Menken. "I knew great things were going to come."

He had been waiting his whole life. The second of three children of Norman Menken, a New Rochelle dentist, and Judith, a housewife, Menken began playing the piano at age 6. "I was very small and a late developer," Alan says. "I would yearn and dream at the piano. I would go off to other worlds." After graduating from New York University, where he majored in music, Menken performed in Manhattan clubs, sometimes playing his own tunes, such as "Pink Fish," about a Texan's experience with bagels and lox. Sometimes to earn a few more dollars he played his original compositions to accompany the ballerinas practicing at the Hebrew Arts Center. One of them was Janis.

"I remember listening to this music," says Janis, who no longer dances professionally, "and saying, I can't believe someone wrote this.' I remember thinking, 'Now, don't fall in love with him.' " They married in 1972.

Professionally, Menken is pushing on. He wrote the tunes for Newsies, Disney's first live-action musical since 1968, due next spring, and is finishing work on the studio's next animated feature, Aladdin, coming in November 1992, a project he began with Ashman. Now Menken has found a new collaborator, Andrew Lloyd Webber's former partner Tim (Evita) Rice, who is writing the lyrics for three remaining Aladdin songs. But the transition is not without pain. "I never thought there could lie anyone better suited than Howard to be my collaborator," he says with tears in his eyes. "I loved Howard." For this moment, the composer can't compose himself.

ELIZABETH SPORKIN
SUE CARSWELL in Westchester County

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