The heartbreaking story behind Disney’s ‘Aladdin’

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Once upon a time, Disney handed Howard Ashman and Alan Menken an amazing and terrifying opportunity.

“We were hired basically to help reinvent animation,” Menken tells The Post of that offer, made in the mid-’80s. “Our assignment was to create works that could sit on the shelf with the classics.”

Chances are the movies they scored during their five years with Disney not only sit on your shelf or in your iTunes library, but remain in your brain: “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin.”

Their partnership was an artistic fairy tale, one that ended in tragedy when Ashman, who was gay, died of complications from AIDS in 1991. He was 40 years old.

But the lyrics he wrote for Menken’s music left an indelible stamp on film and musical theater and countless childhoods. As told in the documentary “Howard,” premiering Sunday at the Tribeca Film Festival, it all began downtown.

Ashman, then artistic director of the now-defunct WPA Theater on 23rd Street, was seeking a collaborator on a musical version of Kurt Vonnegut’s “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.” After “Nine” composer Maury Yeston warmly recommended Menken, Ashman hopped on a train to meet the composer at his Manhattan Plaza apartment.

At first, Menken didn’t know what to make of his future collaborator. “He was smoking, and he was in his bomber jacket with a fur collar and a crew-neck shirt, probably with a couple of holes,” he says.

Nevertheless, they hit it off, though they sometimes butted heads.

“Howard was impatient,” says Menken, whose early work with synthesizers sometimes irritated his lyricist. “Depending on the sound, Howard would say, ‘It sounds like we’re in a skating rink!’”

After “Rosewater,” they started working on a musical about Babe Ruth, only to get sidetracked by a houseplant with blood lust  a stage adaptation of the 1960 film “The Little Shop of Horrors.”

As Menken tells it, Ashman had an idea: “‘I think [the show] should be the dark side of “Grease,” and we should tell it through Phil Spector rock ’n’ roll, bubblegum rock ’n’ roll and Howlin’ Wolf.’ And all of it,” Menken says, “totally came together.”

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