New Disney documentary celebrates the life of Howard Ashman

Howard | Disney+ | Available Now | ★ ★ ★ ★  

A new documentary from Disney celebrates the life and work of writer and lyricist Howard Ashman.

Ashman and his collaborator, composer Alan Menkin, are credited with bringing about a renaissance of Disney’s animated films in the 1980’s and early 1990’s when they worked on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. 

Ashman first found success on Broadway, in 1982 his musical Little Shop of Horrors was an off-Broadway hit that went on to tour the world, and be adapted into a film in 1986. It was the second musical the pair had collaborated on after 1978’s God Bless You, Mr Rosewater – which is based on a Kurt Vonnegut novel.

Ashman’s follow up musical Smile saw him collaborate with composer Marvin Hamlisch. The production was savaged by critics and closed after just 48 performances. It is now considered a ‘lost musical’ as no cast recording of the work was ever made, so short was it’s run.

Around the same time Ashman was invited to work on a song for Disney’s Oliver and Company which began his association with Disney. Ashman had grown up with their classic animated films including Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, but in the 1980’s the studio was struggling to have success with animated films with The Fox and The Hound, The Black Cauldron, and The Great Mouse Detective failing to impress at the box office.

Bringing in his collaborator Alan Menkin, Ashman pitched the idea of writing songs for their next project The Little Mermaid. The film was a great success and two of the songs were nominated for an Academy Award, with Under The Sea being crowned on the big night. It was first time since 1978 that a Disney animated film had earn Academy Awards nomination.      

Afterwards Menkin and Ashman pitched an animated version of Aladdin  to the studio. Production on the concept was halted due to creative challenges, and they went on to work on another Disney film Beauty and the Beast. 

Sadly Ashman would not live to see the film being released, while creating the memorable songs for the musical he had also been battling the effects of being HIV positive and he passed away just three months before the film’s release. The final film was dedicated to his memory. He was survived by his longtime partner Bill Launch.

After his passing he would become the first person lost to AIDS to win an Academy Award, he also won Grammys and an Oliver Award for his work on Beauty and the Beast. Disney returned to making Aladdin with three of Ashman’s songs remaining in the revised story. Menkin worked with lyricist Tim Rice on the remainder of the songs.   

The documentary traces Howard Ashman’s life from his childhood where he was obsessed with performing and storytelling, through his college year and life in 1970’s NYC, where he set up and independent theatre. It also discusses how the themes of his Disney films can be interpreted from an LGBTI perspective and relate to the writer’s own challenges of facing his life coming to an end at the young age of forty.

Howard can be streamed on Disney+ 

Graeme Watson

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