When Aladdin was released in November 1992 it became an instant classic and box office smash, quickly becoming the highest-grossing film of the year and – until it was surpassed by another Disney film, 1994’s The Lion King – the highest-grossing animated film of all time. Aladdin was based on an Arabic folk tale from One Thousand And One Nights; featured dazzling animation and star vocal turns (in particular the irrepressible Robin Williams as The Genie); and boasted a stunning score and soundtrack, with original songs that won hearts and minds the world over.
The Aladdin story is not all happy, however. The writer who suggested that Disney adapt the much-loved tale never saw the finished film. Lyricist and playwright Howard Ashman pitched the idea for Aladdin back in 1988, while he and his musical partner, composer and songwriter Alan Menken, were working on The Little Mermaid, the film that would restore Disney’s fortunes upon its 1989 release.
Ashman and Aladdin went way back – the writer had played the lead part in a Children’s Theatre Association production back in 1965 – and he put together a musical treatment that was faithful to the original story. After The Little Mermaid wrapped, work began in earnest on Aladdin, with Ashman and Menken writing several songs around the concept. But early previews left Disney bosses cold, and the project went on the back burner, leaving Howard and Menken to work on songs for Beauty & The Beast, Disney’s next animated feature film.
The enormous success of Beauty & The Beast and its soundtrack revived the studio’s interest in Aladdin. The original treatment was revived, and a script was drafted and adapted several times until Disney gave the green light. Tragically, the go-ahead came too late for Howard to finish the project he’d started. Ashman had discovered that he was infected with HIV during the production of The Little Mermaid and his health had deteriorated badly by the time work resumed on Aladdin. Ashman died of AIDS-related complications in 1991, shortly before the release of Beauty & The Beast.
Changes to Aladdin’s plot meant that only three of Ashman and Menkin’s original songs – “Friend Like Me,” “Prince Ali,” and “Arabian Nights” remained in the film and additional songs were written to fit the new storyline by Menken and the experienced lyricist Sir Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Chess). In a 2019 interview with Screenrant, Menken reflected on the experience, “The animated movie was done, was complete. It was great. I was just so happy that I was able to somehow write through the death of my great collaborator Howard Ashman, start a new collaboration with Tim Rice, and have it feel like one movie. That was hard enough right there.”
Despite the circumstances, the songs in the finished movie sparkled. “Arabian Nights” made for an unforgettable opener. “Friend Like Me” was an absolute blast, with Robin Williams delivering an appropriately animated performance to a finger-clicking, cabaret backing complete with fantastically raunchy horn parts. It was nominated in the Best Original Song category at both the Oscars and Golden Globes in 1993. “Prince Ali” was another bravura performance by Williams for a storming showtune that uses Arabian musical motifs to great effect.
The first song that Menken and Rice wrote together became one of Disney’s most beloved songs, the show-stopping ballad “A Whole New World.” It was the song that made Menken believe he could go on without Ashman, as he remembered in an interview with Disney Untold in 2020, “I had just lost my collaborator and was going, ‘What happens now?’ and it sort of was a very important moment of my life where I’d be able to go on.” “A Whole New World” went one better than “Friend Like Me,” winning the Oscar for Best Original Song and it even scooped the Song Of The Year award at the 1993 Grammys. Menken and Rice’s other original song was “One Jump Ahead,” a witty romp that details Aladdin’s street urchin lifestyle before his dalliance with royalty.
The huge success of Aladdin has resulted in a stage show and a live action remake, and the songs remain pivotal to its appeal. After winning the Oscar for “A Whole New World,” Sir Tim Rice wrote to Harold Ashman’s sister to pay tribute to his fellow lyricist, acknowledging that, “without the great talent and inspiration of Howard I would not have been thus honored.” Rice went on to say, “his work will never die.”