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Howard Ashman and Alan Menken are the two men behind Little Shop of Horrors, the breakthrough hit for the pair who would go on to be at the forefront of the “Disney Renaissance” of the early 1990s. But they’ve both had very fascinating careers before and after Little Shop. Here’s our quick fact sheet of everything you need to know about these two extraordinary men of musical theatre. ashmanmenken200

• Although Little Shop of Horrors was the breakthrough hit for Ashman and Menken (Ashman wrote the lyrics and the book, adapted from the 1960 black comedy film of the same name, and Menken wrote the score) both had been creating theatre for many years: Ashman had been working predominately as a playwright and was artistic director of the WPA Theater, while Menken had been writing music for revues and small-scale musicals for a decade before Little Shop. The pair finally worked together in 1979 on a musical adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. The musical wasn’t a massive success and only ran off Broadway for a few years, but it’s had several revivals since.

• Menken wanted to be a rock star as a young man, and his father was, according to Menken’s website, a “boogie-woogie piano-playing dentist”. You can clearly hear those early musical influences in the score of Little Shop.

• When it opened, Little Shop was a bona fide hit. It played a short season of just one month at Ashman’s WPA Theater in 1982, but less than two months later found a new home at the Off Broadway Orpheum Theatre, where it played for an extraordinary five years. At the time, it was the highest grossing Off Broadway show ever and it picked up a number of awards, including the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical.

• In 1986, Little Shop was turned into a musical film, directed by Frank Oz. Apart from a few changed songs, the film was relatively faithful to the stage version with one major difference. The film originally adhered to the tragic ending of the stage version, but after test screenings it was considered too much of a downer. According to Oz, the test screenings were disasters — audiences had fallen too deeply for Seymour and Audrey to accept the final outcome, so a happier ending was quickly shot and cut. For many years, the original ending was only available as a black-and-white workprint, but it was restored for a 2012 directors cut, now available on Blu-Ray.

• A Broadway transfer was proposed for the musical soon after its premiere, but Ashman wouldn’t allow the show to move to a bigger theatre for fear that it would lose its “heart and soul”. It wasn’t until 2003 that the show finally made it to Broadway in a production which proved to be quite controversial. A pre-Broadway production was staged in Florida, directed by Connie Grappo, who was Ashman’s assistant on the original production. It received a mixed response from critics, so the producers brought in veteran Broadway director Jerry Zaks, initially against the wishes of the Ashman estate. Zaks wanted to ensure the show retained its intimacy and down-to-earth quality. He fired the cast, with the exception of one actor, and started from scratch for the Broadway production, throwing out all of Grappo’s work. That production was a moderate success.

• Last year, the original Audrey, Ellen Greene (who also played Audrey on the West End and immortalised the role on film) reprised her role for an Encores! concert version of the musical, opposite Jake Gyllenhaal. The event won rave reviews, with Ben Brantley writing in the New York Times: “It was one of those nights that show queens, of all persuasions and sexes, will be talking about for as long as there are theater chat rooms on the Internet. Those who were there have gloating rights for the ages. Those who weren’t will pretend that they were.”

• The success of Little Shop led Disney to invite Menken and Ashman to write the music for a new movie musical project in the late ‘80s, The Little Mermaid. They were challenged to write a musical version of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale which had the same spirit as Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella. The resulting film was a critical and box office success and won Ashman and Menken their first Oscar for Best Original Song for Under the Sea.

• Both Menken and Ashman had been working with different collaborators in the years between Little Shop and Little Mermaid — Menken contributed songs to successful revues Diamonds and Personals and wrote Kicks with Tom Eyen (Dreamgirls), a musical that was workshopped and workshopped but never performed (although it did spawn the hit I Wanna Be a Rockette). Meanwhile, Ashman teamed up with Marvin Hamlisch to write the musical Smile.

The Little Mermaid was the beginning of what was called the “Disney Renaissance” — a return to the roots of the film studio, with glossy animated feature-length musical films. Ashman and Menken were immediately invited to write the next film in this line, Beauty and the Beast. New York Times film critic called Beauty and the Beast “the best Broadway musical of the year”, even though it was years before it actually made it to Broadway.

• During the making of Beauty and the Beast, Ashman became seriously ill from HIV/AIDS-related complications. Animators had to be flown to Ashman’s home to work with the lyrics in Fishkill, New York, as he was too unwell to fly, but continued to work on the film. He died on March 14, 1991 at the age of 40, just four days after the first screening of Beauty and the Beast.

• Disney dedicated the film Beauty and the Beast to Ashman’s memory: "To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful. Howard Ashman 1950–1991.”

• Ashman and Menken had started work together on their third Disney movie Aladdin before Ashman’s death. Menken completed the film with lyricist Tim Rice.

• Following Ashman’s death, Menken has continued to have a huge career as a composer for film and theatre. He wrote music for Disney films Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Newsies, Hercules, Home on the Range, Tangled and Enchanted, and most recently wrote the score for musical TV series Galavant. He’s also written new music for the stage versions of Menken-Ashman films Beauty and the Beast,The Little Mermaid and Aladdin (which will open in Sydney in August this year).