With June now in season, it’s time to celebrate pride month with an overview on people that brought their talents to some of the most recognizable media in entertainment. One of these people is Howard Ashman. Alan Menken usually gets credit for the music in the Disney Renaissance movies, but it was Howard Ashman that was both the lyricist and drive behind many of the creative decisions on films like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin (No, not the live-action remakes).
Growing up in Baltimore, Maryland in the 1950’s, Howard adored theater, and was already writing, starring, and directing in his own backyard musicals at age 10. Four years earlier, he joined the Children’s Theatre’s Association where he was able to showcase both his passion and talents related to the art. After studying at Goddard College, Howard went on to earn his maters degree at Indiana University, followed by a move to New York in 1974. He had a brief stint as a publisher shortly after settling into the big apple, but it came to an abrupt end when some of his one act plays were produced at a New York Theater Festival. Despite the small scale, Howard was more than happy with the attention it garnered and pursued the theater life, eventually becoming the leader of the Workshop of Players Art Foundation (W.P.A). Through several plays that received mixed reception, it was Howard’s adaptation of God Bless You Mr. Rosewater that would change his professional life forever, as during production he came across Alan Menken.
The two became closely acquainted over their musical collaboration. Afterwards, the newly formed duo moved on to another passion project the 1982 stage adaptation, Little Shop of Horrors, based on the Roger Corman horror/comedy film from the 1960’s.
Four years later, Frank Oz would us Howard’s stage version as the basis of his film adaptation, and he even got Howard to write the screenplay. Menken was put in charge of the music alongside Miles Goodman and the result is one of the most beloved musicals in Hollywood history. Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene are very relatable leads in the situations they have to deal with, the comedy always finds a way to bring out laughs with the most frightening execution, and of course the songs are bouncy, energetic, and a lot of fun, even in the darker moments.
However as sensational as the film was, Ashman and Oz’s dedication to the source material led to one of the most infamous alternate endings in cinema history:
This was originally going to be the theatrical ending, but after the test screen audience reacted negatively to the demise of the two likeable leads, the script was rewritten for a more traditional conclusion. Director Frank Oz would later comment on the debacle after Warner Brothers spent five million dollars on an ending that was ultimately left on the cutting room floor:
“This was, I think, the most expensive film Warner Bros. had done at the time. For every musical number, there was applause, they loved it, it was just fantastic…until Rick and Ellen died, and then the theatre became a refrigerator, an ice box. It was awful and the cards were just awful. You have to have a 55 percent (recommend) to really be released and we got a 13. It was a complete disaster. I learned a lesson: in a stage play, you kill the leads and they come out for a bow—in a movie, they don’t come out for a bow, they’re dead. They’re gone and so the audience lost the people they loved, as opposed to the theater audience where they knew the two people who played Audrey and Seymour were still alive. They loved those people, and they hated us for it. We had to do it, and do it in such a manner that the audience would enjoy the movie. It was very dissatisfying for both of us that we couldn’t do what we wanted. So creatively, no, it didn’t satisfy us and being true to the story. But we also understood the realities that they couldn’t release the movie if we had that ending. We had to take the workprint apart, and we never made a dupe of the original ending. At the time, the only copies of it that were made to be viewed were VHS workprint tapes given to few crew members. The scene in which Seymour proposes to Audrey originally contained the reprise of (Suddenly, Seymour). This scene was re-shot and the reprise was placed later in the new ending. In the final theatrical cut, the only miniatures that are retained are the New York City streets passing behind Steve Martin’s motorcycle ride at the beginning of (Dentist!). When we did re-shoot the ending, the crowd reaction went over 50 percent in our favor. Before it was a point where they hated it so much, Warner probably wouldn’t even release the movie.”
Since then, Warner Brothers did release a Director’s Cut Edition for those who prefer the more macabre ending where the plant takes over the world while also devouring the audience. It even received an applause from a 2012 screening at the New York Film Festival.
With Little Shop of Horrors cementing his reputation as a musical giant, Howard quickly got to work on another stage play, Smile, loosely based on the 1975 comedy feature by Michael Ritchie.
Unfortunately, it tanked upon release and coupled with the AIDS crises taking the lives of his friends, Howard was distraught in his life and had nowhere to go. That is, until he received a phone call from Jeffrey Katzenberg, who at the time was chairman of the Disney Animation studio. Apparently, Katzenberg was so impressed with Menken and Ashman’s work on Little Shops of Horrors, and wanted to recruit them to bring a spark back to the studio after the likes of The Black Cauldron sunk the company to an all time low. While it might seem more common these days, the 80’s was not a time when Disney associated itself with musicals after Walt Disney passed away. In fact the studio spent a whole decade trying to rediscover its identity as the younger animators were filling the shoes of their retired teachers. But before jumping into future projects, Howard wrote a song for Oliver and Company to test the water with Once Upon a Time In New York City:
Afterward, he and Menken were given the task to write songs for The Little Mermaid. Despite being hired as a lyricist, many interviews with people who worked with Howard stated that he had a huge influence on the whole production, going so far as to hold a meeting with the staff on the history of musicals. This meeting was where the “I want” song originated as Howard continued with his history lesson. On top of his musical theater knowledge, he contributed many changes to the movie such as the alteration of the English crab Clarence to the famous Jamaican crustacean Sebastian, and he even salvaged Jodi Benson from his stage adaptation of Smile to voice the lead character. His contributions to the film were so significant the he eventually received a producer credit alongside his musical credits. Menken has stated that Howard wrote the songs as a reflection of his own life, particularly the number Part of Your World:
Shockingly, Katzenberg nearly cut the scene after a test screening showcasing the unfinished animation failed to generate positive feedback. Howard along with directors John Musker, Ron Clements, and Ariel’s Animator Glen Keane, lobbied hard to keep the number as it was the mermaid’s defining character moment. When the final ink and paint was finished, Katzenberg regretted his decision as it became one of the highlights of Disney’s comeback, along with the rest of the soundtrack the duo conjured up during production:
Upon release, the music and songs were just as well received as the film itself, leading to several award nominations at the golden globes, the Grammys, and two wins at the Oscars for both original score and the song Under the Sea. Considering it won against two nominations for the legendary John Williams, that’s impressive.
After the ceremony ended and the applause died down, Howard and Menken returned to New York with their coveted awards. However, Ashman broke some hard news to his longtime collaborator Menken that he was HIV positive. Keep in mind that during this time, there was a lot of hatred rallied against people with AIDS even though today it’s common knowledge that it can’t be spread through casual contact. Death threats were everywhere and even the government itself failed to take any initiative on the matter. That’s how serious and uneducated people were. Ashman told no one else except Katzenberg as he didn’t want anyone to focus on his illness. Since Ashman wrote many of his songs to reflect his own life as Han Christian Andersen did with his stories, the AIDS crisis was no exception. His published CD Howard Sings Ashman is evident of this with songs like Sheridan Square:
Back onto Disney, Howard presented his idea for another movie Aladdin during a beach party at Katzenberg’s house. Unfortunately it was rejected and the two were asked to help write songs for Beauty and the Beast. Originally offered to Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s animation director, Richard Williams, it was turned down and given to his protégé, Richard Purdum. After working six months on the first 20 minutes of a non-musical edition of the story, the footage was presented to Katzenberg and scrapped after being dissatisfied with the direction. Knowing his version of Beauty and the Beast would never be made, Purdum resigned and the duties were assigned to Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale.
Reluctantly, Howard eventually agreed and turned the project into another musical. While a majority of the production was made in California, pre-production was moved to New York in order to be closer to Howard, although this too had some difficulties when it came to working on the story, especially the intro which the directors could not take seriously:
After re-tooling the intro to use stained glass windows, Howard continued to write the songs until March 14th, 1991:
Production on Beauty and the Beast wrapped six months later and like The Little Mermaid, the music and songs were just as praised as the movie itself:
In fact the movie itself made a splash at the award ceremonies. Not only sweeping nominations at the Grammys and Golden Globes for its score and songs, but it also become the first animated film to be nominated for best picture at the Oscars. This was nearly 10 years before the animated feature category was implemented.
With Howard gone, Aladdin continued production with Tim Rice finishing up the lyrics to the songs. Sadly many of Howard’s numbers were cut from the final product such as Humiliate the Boy and Proud of Your Boy, as they didn’t add much to the story. The latter of which took a huge emotional toll on the staff, especially Alan Menken:
Though some of his other songs were kept in like:
When Aladdin jumped to Broadway, Proud of Your Boy was brought along with it as a tribute to Howard. The results speak for themselves during both the recording and the on stage performance by Adam Jacobs:
And finally in 2001, Howard Ashman was indicted into the Disney Legends catalog for his contributions to the Renaissance period that has since become Disney’s most nostalgic timeline for both the company and its fans. Who’d have thought one man could accomplish so much in life, even after death?