The lyricist Howard Ashman was responsible for some of the most resonant songs from your favorite Disney movies…
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I became obsessed with The Little Mermaid about as early as I could comprehend the English language. Those songs are emotional food from the gods. ‘Part of Your World’ is like pouring a vial of hopeful goosebumps straight into your ear. ‘Under the Sea’ is the lively dance party you’ve always wanted to be invited to. ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’ is a slithering, menacing cabaret number sung by the world’s most fabulous octopus.
When I was a little older, my parents introduced me to the Little Shop of Horrors original cast soundtrack, which I listened to so many times I can practically sing the entire track list in my sleep. When they told me is was written by the same person as The Little Mermaid‘s lyrics, suddenly I had a new idol: Howard Ashman.
In addition to a groundbreaking musical theater career, Ashman is the prolific lyricist behind some of the most iconic Disney animated soundtracks in the studio’s history — including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. With the help of his close collaborator, composer Alan Menken, Ashman had a talent for telling stories through song like few others in the 20th century. He was also one of the many LGBTQ artists whose lives were tragically cut short by the AIDS epidemic. Recently, I watched Howard, the documentary I have been waiting for for basically my entire life, on Disney+, and it brought the song man to life in a way I’ve always wanted to witness. Sign up for Disney+ today to watch Howard and all the classic films Ashman helped bring to life.
In addition to interviews with his closest friends, family, and collaborators, there are hours of footage with the artist — interviews, cast recordings, intimate snapshots of his creative process. Ashman was a bona fide perfectionist who didn’t compromise his vision, but the his work was always grounded in empathy for his characters. His songs were so human.
Revisiting some of those favorite movies from your childhood with knowledge of how Ashman did it adds even more depth to the movies and songs you loved as a child. Watch Howard now on Disney+, and you’ll see your favorite classics with a renewed perspective.
The Little Mermaid
Disney’s CEO in the ’80s Jeffrey Katzenberg had been scouting Howard for years, and the tale of an adventurous young mermaid longing to explore the shore was his first project after signing on with the company. Working closely with the animators and the writers, the songs Ashman and Menken composed didn’t just function as song breaks — they informed the writing, and actively drove the plot forward. Think about it. In the space of two minutes, ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’ moves us from undersea ennui to girl on the surface with a mission. ‘Kiss The Girl’ brings us right to the edge of Ariel fulfilling her goal to become a human and reclaim her voice.
‘Part of your World’ is probably the very best example. One of the most pivotal (and famous) songs from the movie, it’s often referenced as the template for an "I wish" song — a song in a musical that clearly states the main character’s goal. Believe it or not, it almost didn’t make it in. Katzenberg thought it was boring, a little too long, and that kids would be squirming in their seats.
Ashman fought tooth and nail for the song, and thank goodness he did. It’s almost unimaginable that the film could pack such an emotional punch without Ariel’s pining ballad about going up to the surface (not to mention that incredible reprise). The story is told in great detail in the documentary, and you get to hear an amazing and sweet early demo of Howard singing it.
As an aside, Howard won his first Academy Award for his work on the film, with Best Original Song that year going to ‘Under the Sea.’
Beauty And The Beast
"Little town, it’s a quiet village/ Every day like the one before…" is likely something you’ve sung to yourself while walking to work, and you have Howard to thank for that. The second project Ashman worked on with Disney was the tale of Belle and her misunderstood bestial captor. He was able to isolate the story’s resonant emotional moments, and bring them to life with songs like ‘Be Our Guest,’ ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ and so many more. Belle even got her own I wish song with "Belle."
By this time, Howard’s illness had advanced to the point that working in the studio for hours on end wasn’t tenable. At the time, he was living in upstate New York with his partner Bill Lauch, and the only way he could work on the film was for the production to come to him. So thats what happened. The animators packed up their storyboards and headed to Beacon, New York. All of the recording sessions for the songs were moved to New York City.
One of the jewels from the documentary comes from footage of the recording session of ‘Be Our Guest’ for the film. Howard looks on as an entire orchestra plays the score, and Jerry Orbach (Lumiere) and Angela Lansbury (Mrs. Potts), perform their hearts out in the booth. Watching the magic happen is spellbinding, and seeing Howard direct the actors shows his incredible ear for detail.
Not to mention, Howard won that year’s Academy Award (1992) for Best Original song along with Alan Menken, for the movie’s titular song "Beauty and the Beast." By the time the movie premiered, in 1992, Howard had succumbed to the virus. His partner Bill and Alan accepted the award in his stead, and it was the first Oscar given to someone who had passed away from AIDS.
As a kid, Howard played the titular role of this story in a children’s theater group production, and always had an affection for it. He was the one who originally pitched the idea to Disney, and its screenplay went through three drafts of the screenplay before Katzenberg agreed to its production. Aladdin ended up being the final project Howard worked on, premiering in 1993 after his death.
In the documentary, Howard’s loved ones describe a sense of creative urgency to his last few months, and that showed in his work on this project. He wrote 16 songs for the musical, though only three of them made it into the movie. Predictably, those sings were three of the movie’s liveliest: ‘Arabian Nights,’ ‘Friend Like Me,’ and ‘Prince Ali.’ The rest of the songs were written by Alan Menken, with Tim Rice taking over as the lyricist.
In the documentary, we take a fascinating look at one of Howard’s deleted songs from Aladdin. The idea was to give Jafar a song, coming at his moment of victory when he exposes Prince Ali as a lowly street rat in front of the Sultan and Jasmine. Titled ‘Humiliate the Boy,’ it’s a moment when Aladdin has everything cruelly stripped away from him. "Seize the good times/ Too bad they never last/ Especially for an urchin/ With a questionable past." As friends and family remember, Howard couldn’t help but put himself in his work. They draw parallels to this time, when the virus was breaking his body down, snatching his vitality from him and leaving him with nothing.
And bittersweet though it was, his work continued to inspire. His work for Aladdin was critically rewarded yet again at the 1993 Golden Globes. ‘Friend Like Me’ won for Best Original Song.
It’s difficult not to lament the tragedy of such a huge talent taken too soon. Howard passed away on March 14th, 1991 at the age of 41. Like his friends, family, and colleagues, I as a fan have always wondered what songs Howard could have given us if he had just another month… another year… another decade, or lifetime. But the fact that I, as a young, dreamy, sensitive kid (and now, as a sensitive, dreamy adult) had the privilege of being whisked to another plane by his brilliant songs is such spectacular fortune. And I will keep returning to his music, and sharing it with others, as long as I’m around.
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