Thursday, May 17, 2018

Born Today In 1950, Oscar-Winning Lyricist for 'The Little Mermaid' and 'Beauty and the Beast,' Howard Ashman

Howard Ashman was born today, May 17, in 1950. He was an American playwright and lyricist. He collaborated with Alan Menken (with Ashman below) on several works and is most widely known for several animated feature films for Disney, for which Ashman wrote the lyrics and Menken composed the music. 
Ashman and Menken began their collaboration with the musical God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1979), for which Ashman directed and wrote both book and lyrics. Their next musical, Little Shop of Horrors (1982) for which Ashman again directed and wrote both book and lyrics, became a long-running success and led to a 1986 feature film. The partnership's first Disney film was The Little Mermaid (1989), followed by Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992). 

Ashman was born in Baltimore, Maryland. He first studied at Boston University and Goddard College (with a stop at Tufts University's Summer Theater) and then went on to achieve his master's degree from Indiana University in 1974.

After graduating from Indiana in 1974 he moved to New York and worked as an editor at Grosset & Dunlap. His first two plays, Cause Maggie's Afraid of the Dark and Dreamstuff, were met with mixed reviews. His play The Confirmation was produced in 1977 at Princeton's McCarter Theater and starred Herschel Bernardi. 

Ashman was director, lyricist, and bookwriter for the 1986 Broadway musical Smile (music by Marvin Hamlisch). Also in 1986, Ashman wrote the screenplay for the Frank Oz–directed film adaptation of his musical Little Shop of Horrors, as well as contributing the lyrics for two new songs, "Some Fun Now" and "Mean Green Mother From Outer Space," the latter of which received an Academy Award nomination.

In 1986, Ashman was brought in to write lyrics for a song in Disney's Oliver & Company. While there, he was told about another project that they had been working on for a couple years. The film was The Little Mermaid, Disney's first fairy tale in 30 years. Ashman, along with Alan Menken, wrote all of the songs for the film. Ashman became a driving force during the early years of the Disney Renaissance.

In 1988, while working on The Little Mermaid, Ashman pitched to Disney the idea of an animated musical adaptation of Aladdin. After he wrote a group of songs with partner Alan Menken and a film treatment, a screenplay was written by Linda Woolverton, who had worked on Beauty and the Beast. The story underwent many changes and some elements of the original treatment were dropped. Out of the 16 songs written for Aladdin, three of Howard's songs ended up in the finished film, which was released after his death.

During early production of Aladdin, Ashman and Menken were approached to help reinvigorate and save the production of Beauty and the Beast, which was going nowhere as a non-musical. Ashman, wishing to focus on Aladdin and his health, reluctantly agreed. It was at this time that his health began to decline due to his illness. Regardless, he completed lyrical work on Beauty and the Beast before succumbing to AIDS. The film was released mere months after his death and is dedicated to Ashman.

On the night of the 62nd Academy Awards, Ashman told Menken that they needed to talk when they got back to New York, where he revealed to Menken that he was HIV positive. He had been diagnosed in 1988, midway through the making of The Little Mermaid. During the making of Beauty and the Beast, the Disney animators were flown to work with Ashman at his home in Fishkill, New York. There they discovered that he was seriously ill. He grew weaker but he remained productive and continued to write songs. After the first screening for Beauty and the Beast on March 10, 1991, the animators visited Ashman in the hospital. He weighed 80 pounds, had lost his sight, and could barely speak. The animators and producer Don Hahn told him that the film was incredibly well received by the press. On March 14, Ashman, age 40, died from complications from AIDS, in New York City.  

Ashman was survived by his partner Bill Lauch.

Over the course of his career, Howard Ashman won two Academy Awards out of seven nominations. Of these nominations, four are posthumous nominations, the most in Academy Awards history. He also won a posthumous Laurence Olivier Award and five Grammy Awards (three of them posthumous), among other accolades.

Don Hahn’s documentary Howard takes a look at the life of the Academy Award-winning lyricist and the legacy he left behind. In the exclusive clip above, we see him at work recording the memorable Beauty and the Beast song “Be Our Guest” with composer and frequent collaborator Alan Menken as well as the movie’s stars Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach. Howard made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 22.

Below is a clip from Disney's The Little Mermaid

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