A True Musical Genius: Howard Ashman

Producer and lyricist Howard Ashman made a huge splash in the world of Disney animation in 1989 with “The Little Mermaid,” which he co-produced with John Musker, while the song “Under the Sea,” co-written with composer Alan Menken, won an Oscar for Best Song. We all know of that infectious piece when, Sebastian advises Ariel to stay in her home under water, because the seaweed isn’t necessarily greener “undah somebody else’s lake.” Continue after the page break for a glance at one of Disney’s finest legends, Howard Ashman…

Howard and Alan Menken

Howard’s lyrics, as Menken recalled, “would wink at the adults and say something to the kids at exactly the same time.” Whether Howard envisioned a hip genie in “Aladdin” performing the flamboyant Oscar-nominated song “Friend Like Me,” or the roll-off-the-tongue candlestick in “Beauty and the Beast” oozing with charm while singing the lively Oscar-nominated “Be Our Guest,” he imbued Disney characters with his own sense of emotional realism. In fact, “Beauty and the Beast,” which he executive produced, was the first animated movie ever nominated for an Academy Award for Best Motion Picture, a category typically reserved for live-action films, while its title song won the songwriters yet another Oscar. Subsequently, the motion picture was dedicated to Howard, “who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul” after his untimely death on March 14, 1991, prior to the film’s release that year.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, on May 17, 1950, the successful lyricist, librettist, playwright, and director received his MFA from Indiana University. In 1974, he moved to New York and became an editor at Grosset & Dunlap, while writing plays including “Dreamstuff,” a musical version of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” which marked the beginning of his association with Off-Off-Broadway WPA Theatre in 1977. Two years later, Howard teamed with Menken for the first time creating a musical version of Kurt Vonnegut’s “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.” They went on to write the musical version of Roger Corman’s 1960 cult film “Little Shop of Horrors” and won critical raves and awards including the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical of 1982-83. The off-beat show was transformed into a motion picture by Frank Oz in 1986, subsequently winning the musical duo their first Academy Award nominations.

That same year, Howard penned the wistful ballad “Disneyland” for the Broadway production of “Smile,” written with Marvin Hamlisch, depicting utopia as a Disney theme park, and soon after signed a contract with The Walt Disney Company to write lyrics and dialogue for its animated features. In 1994, “Beauty and the Beast” moved to the New York stage, and has since become Broadway’s 10th longest-running musical. The production features “Human Again,” a chorus number by Howard and Menken that was storyboarded for the animated motion picture, but never completed. The nearly 10-minute sequence, however, has been newly-animated and added to “Beauty and the Beast,” which was re-released on IMAX screens across the nation on January 1, 2002.

At the 1989 Oscars for Little Mermaid Ashman told Menken they needed to talk when they got home to New York City about something important that couldn’t be mentioned at the Oscars. When they got back to Ashman’s house in New York Ashman told Menken that he was sick and was HIV positive and revealed during the production of Beauty and the Beast that he had been diagnosed with AIDS which made him weaker everyday but never stopped him from writing songs.  On March 14 1991 Howard Asham died at a Hospital in New York City at the age of 40. He was survived by his life partner Bill Lauch, his sister Sarah Ashman-Gillespie, and his mom Shirley Ashman. Below are a couple of clips from the fantastically informative and entertaining Waking Sleeping Beauty documentary featuring Howard.
Waking Sleeping Beauty Bonus Feature on Howard Ashman:
Howard directing Jodi Benson during the recording of “Part Of Your World”:
  

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