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 lyricist Howard Ashman. Alan Menken usually gets credit for the music in the Disney Renaissance movies, but Ashman is cited as the 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 began writing, starring, and directing in his own backyard musicals at age ten. Four years earlier, he joined the Children’s Theatre’s Association where he displayed both his passion and talents for the arts. After studying at Goddard College, Howard earned his master’s degree at Indiana University, then moved to New York in 1974. He had a brief stint as a publisher shortly after settling in the big apple, but it came to an abrupt end when several of his one act plays were produced at a New York Theater Festival. Despite the small scale, Howard became enthralled with the attention 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, Howard’s adaptation of God Bless You Mr. Rosewater changed his professional life changed forever when he came across Alan Menken.
The two became closely acquainted over their collaboration, and the newly formed duo moved on to another passion project: 1982’s Little Shop of Horrors, based on the Roger Corman horror/comedy film from the 1960’s.
Four years later, Frank Oz utilized Howard’s stage play as the basis of his film adaptation. He even got Howard to write the screenplay. Menken worked on 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 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, Ashman and Oz’s dedication to the source material led to one of the most infamous alternate endings in cinema history:
After a test screen audience reacted negatively to the demise of the two 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 released a Director’s Cut Edition for those who prefer the more macabre ending. 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 became distraught in his life and had nowhere to go. That is, until he received a phone call from Jeffrey Katzenberg, then the chairman of the Disney Animation studio. 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, Disney did not associate 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 started filling the shoes of their retired mentors. 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 tasked to write songs for The Little Mermaid. Despite being hired as a lyricist, many of Howard’s colleagues saw him as a huge influence on the production, going so far as to hold a meeting with the staff on the history of musicals. This meeting birth the “I want” song lecture 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 into 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 that he received both a producer musical credit. Menken 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 because it defined the mermaid’s character. When the final ink and paint wrapped, Katzenberg regretted his decision as it became one of the highlights of Disney’s comeback, along with the rest of the soundtrack:
Upon release, the music and songs received as much critical acclaim as the film, 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, Howard and Menken returned to New York with their coveted awards. There, Ashman broke the news to his longtime collaborator that he was HIV positive. Keep in mind that during this time, people with AIDS suffered from intense discrimination like death threats even the U.S. government failed to take any initiative on the matter. That’s how serious and uneducated people were because today, it’s common knowledge that AIDS does not spread through casual contact. Ashman told no one else except Katzenberg as he didn’t want anyone to focus on his illness. Since Ashman wrote many songs to reflect his own life like Han Christian Andersen’s stories, the AIDS crisis became a prominent subject. His CD Howard Sings Ashman is evident of this with the song Sheridan Square:
Back onto Disney, Howard presented his idea for Aladdin during a beach party at Katzenberg’s house. Unfortunately, Katzenberg rejected it and requested the two to write songs for Beauty and the Beast. Originally offered to Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s animation director, Richard Williams, he instead turned it over to his protégé, Richard Purdum. After working six months on the first 20 minutes of a non-musical edition, the team presented the footage to Katzenberg, who scrapped the entire after being dissatisfied. Knowing his version of Beauty and the Beast would never be made, Purdum resigned, and the directing duties were given to Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale.
Reluctantly, Howard agreed and turned the project into another musical. While a majority of the production took place in California, pre-production moved to New York in order to accommodate Howard, although this too had difficulties when it came to working on the story, especially the intro since the directors could not take it seriously:
After re-tooling the intro to use stained glass windows, Howard continued to write the songs until March 1991:
Production on Beauty and the Beast wrapped six months later and like The Little Mermaid, the music and songs received equal praise:
In fact, the movie made a splash at award ceremonies. Not only did it sweep 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 happened nearly ten years before the ceremony created the best animated feature category.
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 both the staff and Menken:
Though some of his other songs were kept in like:
When Aladdin jumped to Broadway, Menken resurrected Proud of Your Boy 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?
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