May 17, 1950– Howard Ashman. Despite spending my childhood, adolescence & even young adulthood as an A+ berserk Musical Theatre Queen, living & breathing the musicals, collecting the original cast albums for the most obscure shows: Allegro, Dear World, Kean, Goldilocks, The Rothschilds, Two By Two, It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s Superman, Subways Are For Sleeping, The Robber Bridegroom, 70, Girls, 70, The Golden Apple, The Apple Tree, Juno, I got off that Musical Theatre ride in the early 1980s. I was less than enchanted with the offerings. I didn’t move easily into the Cats & Miss Saigon era. I found more enjoyment in appearing on stage in a musical than listening to one on the stereo. My personal tastes moved towards Elvis Costello, The Police & The Clash & away from Sondheim.
The big exception to my new point of view was Little Shop Of Horrors from 1982. I listened to this show until the LP was worn through. I knew every song from the score & I was convinced that I could play any of the roles. I always wanted to do the tune Somewhere That’s Green in my own act, but I never got the chance to work it up. It remains a favorite musical of mine, certainly in the Top 10.
I honor lyricists & Howard Ashman is one of the best. Ashman collaborated with his artistic partner Alan Menken on 3 notable animated features for Disney Studios with Ashman writing the lyrics & Menken composing the scores.
Ashman first worked with Menken on a 1979 musical adapted from Kurt Vonnegut‘s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. They next collaborated on Little Shop Of Horrors with Ashman as director, lyricist, & librettist. & produced by Ashman’s own WPA Theatre. Ashman left the team once, as director, lyricist & book-writer for the 1986 Broadway musical, Smile, with music by the late, great Marvin Hamlisch.
In early 1989, Disney Studios was teetering on the brink bankruptcy. New CEO Michael Eisner had threatened to shut down the famed animation unit unless The Little Mermaid, its fall 1989 release, turned a profit. David Geffen, who had produced the off-Broadway run of Little Shop Of Horrors, had brought the Menken/Ashman team to Disney in hopes of making a hit musical out of The Little Mermaid, originally slated as a non-musical. It would go on to win 2 Grammys, 2 Golden Globes & 2 Oscars for their songs. Just days after he won the Oscar for Under The Sea, Ashman confided in Menken that he had AIDS. His illness made him weaker each day, but Ashman never stopped writing the tunes. He wrote the witty & warm lyrics for Beauty & The Beast & turned out more songs for a 3rd Disney animated musical Aladdin. Ashman’s last Academy Award in 1992 was awarded posthumously for Best Song. It was accepted by his longtime partner, architect Bill Lauch.
Ashman first fell in love with musicals when his grandmother took him to see an Disney animated movie. The financial success of The Little Mermaid saved Disney Studios, but the plague had already found Ashman. From his deathbed, Ashman provided the lyrics for Beauty & Beast’s songs, 3 of them would be nominated for Best Song Oscars, with the title song winning. The film was the first-ever animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture, but Ashman didn’t make it long enough to enjoy the success. He was hard at work on the lyrics for Aladdin when he took that final bow 4 days after the release of Beauty & The Beast in 1991. He never got to see the finished film.
In 1975, when Ashman had arrived with his boyfriend in NYC’s West Village to try to make it on Broadway, like so many of us did, he had no intention of living a life in the closet, even if it meant a rougher road professionally. He lived his life with bravery & artistic integrity.
Beauty & The Beast is dedicated to Ashman. The credits read:
“To our Friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice & a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful. Howard Ashman, 1950-1991”.
His headstone reads:
“O’ that he would have but one more song to sing”.
Ashman would have been 65 years old today.