The following is a guest post from Music Division Archivist Janet McKinney. To watch Janet discuss Howard Ashman’s influence on “The Little Mermaid,” check out this video on the Library of Congress’s YouTube channel.
The recent live-action remake of the Disney classic The Little Mermaid (1989) inspires those of us who preserve our cultural history to look back at the documentation of the original film and its creation that is found our collections. We can do so in the papers of the lyricist, playwright, and director Howard Ashman (1950-1991). Lyricist Ashman collaborated with composer Alan Menken (born 1949) to create the film’s celebrated soundtrack. But it was also Ashman who was responsible for bringing the conventions of musical theater to the creation of The Little Mermaid animated film; one of the most important musical theater elements was that the music should be dramatically integrated into the story, and not simply incidental to the action. I believe this made Ashman one of the most influential figures in the Disney Renaissance—a period from the late 1980s to the late 1990s when Walt Disney Productions created a series of critically and commercially successful animated films, similar to those that the studio had produced from the 1930s until the early 1960s. Ashman’s papers contain script and lyric drafts for The Little Mermaid along with storyboards, notes, photographs, promotional materials and clippings, correspondence, and more. One of the most significant items is the original treatment for the film written by Ron Clements and John Musker in 1986. This six-page typescript was sent to Ashman for his input, and it records his extensive annotations regarding musical and dramatic suggestions to enhance the story. We see that it was Ashman who suggested that Clarence (the original name for Sebastian the crab) hail from the Caribbean, specifically in order to bring reggae and calypso music into the soundscape of the film.
The typescript also has Ashman’s red markings indicating song placement—where he thought the songs would work best to drive the story forward. He suggested a musical number about the “virtues of fish life…we got da good life under da sea.” When mermaid Ariel sneaks off to her secret collection of human artifacts, Ashman suggested this as the perfect moment for “Ariel’s motivation number, If I could be, part of your world, her motivation, ‘humans’ are her hobby—the drylands, her ‘I want’ song.”
It is fascinating to see how integral Ashman’s role was—well beyond that of lyricist—and how many of his suggestions became key components in the final outcome of the film. The original treatment is just one document from the Ashman Papers that reveal the talent and vision of Howard Ashman.
To learn more about what can be found in this collection, see the Howard Ashman Papers finding aid.