Almost three decades ago, the world lost not only one of the best lyricist but one of Broadway’s dearest icons. Howard Ashman didn’t just write songs, he wrote music that would forever touch our lives, so we could pass it down from generation to generation. While his death, will always have us wondering what could have been; his work continues to live on through various Disney live-action remakes like The Little Mermaid on Broadway and the Tony Award-winning movie musical Beauty and the Beast.
Even though Ashman helped usher in the golden age of animated musicals which helped save Disney from folding, not much is known about his short-lived life. Fortunately, Don Hahn’s documentary dives deep into his magical yet tragic journey with the help of Ashman’s co-workers, family members, and friends.
Howard is a deeply insightful, caring and personal documentary which explores Ashman as a musical genius and a fearful gay man, who at any minute could lose it all.
In a rather linear fashion, the documentary begins with his sister where Ashman’s love of theater started as a child. At a young age, Ashman was putting on creative shows for his family on a daily basis by using basic homemade toys. From there he discovered the theater and honed his skills by writing imaginative musicals as a teenager. While he was content with his life, he longed for more adventure and sought better opportunities in New York City. Co-founding the WPA Theater which started out as all startups in a random office building in LES, his life forever changed when he met composer Alan Menken who wanted to collaborate on a musical adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Despite a very successful run at a smaller venue, the production fell apart once it ran on Broadway. Fortunately, that didn’t deter the duo and they adapted Roger Corman’s 1960’s smash comedy Little Shop of Horrors which had a five-year run and was beloved by theatergoers and movie lovers when it was written for the screen in 1986 (it was even nominated for a Grammy).
During this time he worked with Menken again for Aladdin and The Little Mermaid. It wasn’t until the creation of Beauty and Beast did Menken decide to pour his personal struggles and fears into the song “The Mob Song,” it was his psychological release. The lyrics had a special meaning to Ashman who felt like an outsider as a gay HIV-positive man. During the 90’s not much was known about HIV/AIDS, and many gays faced discrimination and were being murdered.