When lyricist Howard Ashman died from HIV / AIDS related illness, he was just 40 years of age.
4 days earlier Beauty and the Beast had just had its first screening to much acclaim. It would go on to become a global success, comprising two films and a Broadway musical.
Ashman was a perfectionist, dreamer and gifted storyteller and in a new Disney+ documentary, Howard, his life is celebrated.
The doco is written and directed by Don Hahn, who produced Beauty & the Beast, and stands tall as a valentine to the consummate lyricist.
“We know something really special was happening that day but what we didn’t know was that in 9 months Howard would be gone,” Hahn recalls of a Beauty & the Beast recording session.
Ashman’s legacy includes Little Shop of Horrors, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin as well as Smile and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Although he worked largely with Alan Menken, he also composed with Marvin Hamlisch.
While we hear from friends, family and colleagues, there are almost no master interviews in this documentary, instead juxtaposing the audio with photographs and archival film.
His sister Sarah recalls how he entertained her in his bedroom, by dressing up and creating shows from toy cowboys. His mother Shirley recalls a skill in poetry led to stories, plays and lyrics. Despite never playing an instrument, Howard would grow up to know exactly how a song should be crafted and performed.
At university he fell in love with Stuart White, a bright young director, with whom he set up a New York theatre company, known as WPA Theater. Constructed above a shop, the company found modest success, but Ashman was frustrated with White’s penchant for partying. With collaborator Alan Menken they created God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and Off-Off-Broadway hit Little Shop of Horrors, based on a low-budget 1960 movie.
Although his next venture, Smile, co-written with Marvin Hamlisch was shunned, he was lured to California by Jeffrey Katzenberg at Disney Animation. By the 1980s he had also met architect Bill Lauch, who would become his life partner.
For Disney, Ashman and Menken would deliver three box office hits, and a treasure trove of songs, performed by the likes of Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach, Jodi Benson, Paige O’Hara (who all appear here) and Robin Williams.
Significantly, Ashman resisted calls to cull slow ballads, likening their value to When You Wish Upon a Star in Pinnochio, and always insisting that the songs must further the plot. At Disney he was liberated to tell the stories in the way he had as a boy.
“Maybe the last great place to do Broadway musicals is animation,” we hear.
Yet he was also harboring a secret, having been diagnosed with HIV in the 1980s.
“I didn’t know how Disney would react. I’m a gay man working on a film for kids. I didn’t want to be fired,” he once said.
In his final stages, Disney animators would have to move from Los Angeles to New York for him to finish Beauty & the Beast, without knowing why. To keep his secret, Katzenberg was forced to tell the company Ashman was simply a “diva.”
There is also interpretation that “The Mob Song” in Beauty & the Beast was an allegory for ignorance about AIDS and homosexuality.
Through the mist, through the woods
Through the darkness and the shadows
It’s a nightmare, but it’s one exciting ride
Say a prayer, then we’re there
At the drawbridge of a castle
And there’s something truly terrible inside
But his sister describes that as “a bunch of hooey” saying Ashman was gifted with empathy, for the Beast, for Belle, for his audience. He was not political, she insists, but human.
Through Howard, Disney pays respect to one of its finest storytellers, taken from us too soon, but with a world of wit and insight into the human condition. And a whole lotta magic.
Howard screens Friday August 7 on Disney+