On June 8, 1990, musicians gathered in New York City to record the tracks for “Beauty and the Beast.” A year earlier, “The Little Mermaid,” Disney’s first fairy tale in 30 years, proved a smashing success for the studio and marked the return of animated musicals.
While under immense pressure to repeat the accolades, Disney felt confident with composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman onboard. “We knew something really special was happening that day,” recalls former “Beauty” producer Don Hahn, “But what we didn’t know, was that in nine months, Howard would be gone.”
It’s a odd, somber feeling watching the opening sequence of “Howard,” as Ashman’s subtle vocal coaching of the exceptional Paige O’Hara (Belle), transitions into the stark realization that unlike “The Little Mermaid, “Beauty and the Beast,” or “Aladdin,” this film will not have a happy ending.
Although “Howard” originally premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2018, the documentary only enjoyed a limited run in theaters. Now, through Disney Plus, viewers have a chance to gain further appreciation for one of the driving forces behind some of the greatest animated films ever made. Using archival footage, rarely seen interviews, and audio recordings, director and writer Don Hahn weaves a sincere and poignant retelling Ashman’s life, complete with its failures, successes, and the bittersweet conclusion of Ashman’s death from AIDS at age 40.
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“Howard” isn’t Hahn’s first foray into the documentary genre. Indeed, much of the film feels like an extended chapter of Hahn’s “Waking Sleeping Beauty,” which, in 2009, explored Disney Animation’s quest to return to the glory days of its namesake. With “Howard,” however, the focus is square with Howard Ashman, and deservedly so.
The opening half of the documentary covers the first 35 years of Ashman’s life, with his humble beginnings in a thin house in Baltimore, to his discovery of his love for music and theater, to his first taste of success with “Little Shop of Horrors.” Yet it’s the second half of “Howard” where the documentary begins to soar.
The Force Behind the Disney Renaissance
Following years of pursuit by Jeffrey Katzenberg, then head of Walt Disney Studios, Ashman signs the deal that brings him to Burbank, California. After initially meeting with live-action directors, Ashman and the studio realize that it was in the animation department that his lyrical gifts could truly flourish.
Unbelievably, because we now know what was in store for the Disney universe, at the time of Ashman’s arrival the animation side of Disney lay in complete disarray, having been moved off the lot and relegated to an industrial park. But it’s here, working out of a trailer, that Ashman’s genius led the Disney Renaissance.
As Hahn relays, “Howard sat down when he first got there, and using ‘The Little Mermaid,’ he literally taught us how to tell a story with songs.” Ashman conveyed to the studio that no matter how beautiful animation could be, art alone couldn’t drive a film or make it genuinely resonate with an audience. Characters needed to be real. Protagonists had to have a major “want”; then, they had to sincerely convey their deepest longings to the viewers with an “I want” song.
Ashman believed every song in a musical should help drive the story forward. There were no “placeholder” or empty “set piece” numbers for Ashman — if a song didn’t advance the plot or develop character (ideally, it should do both) why was it there?
No better example of this was Ashman’s advocacy for “Part of Your World,” the iconic “I want” song for Ariel, the 16-year-old heroine of “The Little Mermaid.” For Ashman, the song was essential to the film and anchored everything that comes afterward. He poured his soul into the piece, and it shows. It’s been 31 years, and young female performers would be hard-pressed to find a better audition piece. Ashman’s lyrics, combined with Menken’s music, still pack a weighty punch whether you are 16 or 61.
“Great artists give you a way of looking at the world that you never saw before,” explains Peter Schneider, a former president of Disney Animation. “The only way they can do that is to show you their world.”
Sarah Gillespie, Ashman’s surviving younger sister, believes “what there really was with Howard was great empathy, which means that he could put himself in the other person’s place. It’s not that he really wanted to be a mermaid who got legs. But he put himself in Ariel’s position, in Ariel’s life, that’s empathy.”
A Generational Talent
It becomes apparent early in the documentary what a supremely unique talent Ashman was. Although typically billed as a lyricist, Ashman was an invaluable, multitalented asset for Disney. He was, “Howard” explains, the deciding factor in the design for Ursula the sea witch as well as Sebastian the crab’s Jamaican flavor, a request Howard made to enable the inclusion of pop-style numbers “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl.”
Some of the best moments of “Howard” are watching Ashman work as a director. His intimate dramatic and vocal coaching of Jodi Benson, who Ashman previously cast in his musical “Smile,” offers a great deal of insight into his ability to get the best out of everyone he worked with.
“He was such a perfectionist about a monologue that just happened to be put to pitch, which is what ‘Part of Your World’ is,” recalls Benson. “I would get to the point after I’d do it like, 25 or 30 times, I’d say, ‘Howard, can you please just give me the line reading? If I could just imitate you…’”
“You could bring any creative problem to him,” says former Disney executive Chris Montan, “I would still say, to this day, he’s probably the only person I’ve ever met that, I think, 90 percent of the time, if I went to him with something I was puzzling over, he would have a take, it would be concise, and probably right.”
The Tip of the Iceberg
For his work during a span of under three years, Ashman won a remarkable array of awards including two Oscars, two Golden Globes, and four Grammys. More remarkable is how most of his work between “Mermaid” and “Aladdin” was done while he was dying of AIDS, a topic the film handles with equal parts compassion and honesty.
Nancy Parent, one of Ashman’s closest friends and colleagues, explains, “He would go to the Disney offices, do what he had to do that day, and then he would come home and he would be hooked up to intravenous medical equipment to give him fluids and medicine.” Ashman put on a brave face and pushed through 5 to 6 hours a day — the usual 8 to 10 hours, however, was out of the question.
While “Howard” uses a fair amount of archival video footage, it relies heavily on voice-overs of audio from its interviewees rather than the typical “talking head” format we’re accustomed to seeing in most documentaries. It allows for photos and animations to be showcased, but there are times, especially during the discussion of Ashman’s illness, where in-person interview footage would have been even more powerful.
Eight months before its scheduled U.S. release, it was apparent to Disney that “Beauty and the Beast” would be both a critical and box-office hit. Hahn relays a memory of delivering the news to Ashman, who was now a captive of his hospital bed, blind, 80 pounds, with barely a whisper of a voice left. “I bent over to say my goodbyes, and tell him what he meant to us, and I said, ‘Howard, you wouldn’t believe it…People love this movie, who would’ve thought?’ And Howard said, ‘I would’ve.’”
With Ashman’s death on the morning of March 14, 1991, America lost one of its greatest musical talents even as Ashman’s abilities and output continued to rise to ever-greater heights. “The stuff that was coming out of Howard’s pen, lyrically, it was just unbelievable,” says Menken, the composer who put the music to Ashman’s powerful words. As Ashman’s sister Sarah puts it, “What we got was the tip of the iceberg. God knows what he would’ve done, but it would’ve been spectacular.”