Howard is a long-overdue documentary that tells the story of the late songwriter/composer Howard Ashman, who passed away as a result of AIDS in March 1991.
To those who grew up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Ashman’s music played a large role in our cinematic upbringing. Ashman and Alan Menken teamed up for The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast. Make no mistake about it, these films simply would not be the same without Ashman’s involvement.
One can understand why Ashman decided to hide the diagnosis but it wasn’t fair to everyone working on Beauty and the Beast at the time.
It wouldn’t be a documentary one someone in the film industry without archival footage of Roger Ebert. In this case, it was a clip from Siskel and Ebert, in which Roger makes the argument that Little Shop of Horrors is “the next big cult film.” What’s so interesting about Little Shop of Horrors is that after Walter Kerr trashed G-d Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Ashman decided that his next project would consist of no more than eight people and a gimmick. The result was a musical, written with Alan Menken, that became an instant success at the WPA Theatre. It was a parody of the American musical comedy. There were at least 30 producers who were interested in taking it to Broadway.
Shortly thereafter, Ashman would meet Bill Lauch, who would become his longtime partner. In a different era, the two would have gotten married but that’s another story for another time. Lauch was visiting his uncle after graduating from OSU with plans for a career in architecture. Their first date just happened to be at the Grammy’s where Ashman was up for Best Cast Album.
Ashman worked on the musical, Smile, with Marvin Hamlisch. Jodi Benson, later to be cast as Ariel in The Little Mermaid, auditioned for it. Unfortunately, money people weren’t interested. Hamlisch and Ashman just didn’t click with each other.
After the failure of Smile, Jeffrey Katzenberg courted Ashman to join the Walt Disney family. The rest of which is history. Howard took the call during a seder of all places! Menken referred to the animation as a “surprisingly small operation.” Disney animation films had faltered until the late 1980s when the Disney Renaissance period got underway. In any event, Ashman joined in the Disney family where he was very instrumental in the development of The Little Mermaid, an animated film that was co-directed by John Musker and Ron Clements. One of his ideas was to make the crab, Sebastian, a Jamaican character.
It was around this time in which Howard noticed white spots appearing on his skin. He had declined to take a test for HIV at the time because he was afraid of losing his insurance. Ultimately, he did do a test for T cells at the request of a doctor and the results came back in March 1988 on the same day in which he would appear at the 92Y to discuss Little Shop of Horrors making the transition from stage to screen. Lauch noted that it was easy for them to hide the illness for at least a year or two. They couldn’t do it for all too long.
After “Under the Sea” won Ashman and Menken an Oscar in March 1990, Ashman told him the sad news. Slowly but surely, the news would make the rounds. It’s fair that Disney executives would be angry for him hiding the truth. At the same time, there was this real fear of being fired. Peter Schneider, a former Disney Animation executive, was angry and rightfully so but he would have gone so far as move the recording sessions to New York if it made things better for Ashman’s health.
After Aladdin was sent back for rewrites, the duo started working on Beauty and the Beast but Ashman’s health at worsened. Katzenberg morphed into being “a nice Jewish man” and essentially moved heaven and earth in order to help Howard. This meant that the recording sessions would take place in New York. This displays the importance of what the man meant for the company if they were going to move their entire shop because of his health.
With “Belle’s Song” at the start of the film, they turned it into an operetta and helped to introduce the film’s characters. The recording session for the songs were likened to that of recording a cast album for a Broadway musical. It wouldn’t be a complete film if there wasn’t footage of Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury working on “Be Our Guest.” The “Mob Song” was described as a metaphor for AIDS.
It’s not surprising to learn that Ashman wasn’t afraid to speak up against the likes of Katzenberg. He stood his ground after Katzenberg wanted to cut “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid. As Roy Disney put it, “If Howard said it, it was gospel.” The influence that the songwriter had, Disney says, was similar to the great Walt Disney.
One of the interesting choices that director Don Hahn made was to have audio from contemporary interviews play over the photos and archival footage. It’s a perplexing decision that works but one can’t help but wonder why Hahn went with this choice. In doing so, we’re taken into the rooms and theaters where Ashman did his work. Of course, Alan Menken scored the film because it wouldn’t be a film on Ashman without his writing partner doing so!
The animated films are much of the reason why Ashman’s legacy is as great as it is today. Take a trip to any of the Disney parks and see it for yourself. The music still lives on today. It’s why the nostalgia in watching the film hits so hard.
Howard offers incredible insight into the life of one of the greatest living songwriters of all time.
DIRECTOR: Don Hahn
FEATURING: Alan Menken, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Bill Lauch, Sarah Gillespie, Peter Schneider
An official selection of the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, Howard premiered in the Spotlight Documentary program.