Did you know that Jeffrey Katzenberg almost cut “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid? He couldn’t understand the point of a ballad in an animated film that was bright and colorful. But the man who wrote the song’s lyrics, Howard Ashman, saved the song. And thank goodness he did. This is just one of the many things I learned watching a new Disney+ documentary about Ashman, simply called Howard.
You may not know Howard Ashman’s name, but you definitely know his work. Along with composer Alan Menken, Ashman created the soundtracks to our millennial childhoods. The duo created the music for the Disney Renaissance films The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. And while the documentary focuses on Ashman’s entire life, the look at the Disney era gets a lot of focus. Mainly because that’s how many people know of him. He had a hand in creating some of the best most memorable songs in movie history. But at the same time, so few people know his name.
Howard Ashman is a part of a lost generation. He is one of the gay men who sadly lost their lives in the early years of the AIDS epidemic. He died of AIDS related heart failure in March of 1991 while working on Beauty and the Beast. His diagnosis came in 1988 during production on The Little Mermaid. Three songs from Aladdin: “Friend Like Me,” “Arabian Nights,” and “Prince Ali” were written by Ashman, who pitched the idea before Beauty and the Beast. He accomplished a lot in his career, but after seeing the documentary, you can’t help but wonder what else he could have done if he lived. For example, how would Aladdin be different if he’d written all the songs? Would we love them as much as we do?
Many of the things we love about the Disney Renaissance movies are thanks to Ashman. In Howard, we learn that he introduced the idea of character development to the Disney team. That’s why he wrote “Part of Your World.” Because he knew that Ariel needed an “I want” song, one that moves the action of the movie forward. That song not only makes her intentions clear, but it also sets the wheels in motion for everything that comes next. Coming from a musical theatre background, Ashman knew that it was the only way you could get people to care about the characters. It feels like such a normal thing now, but if you watch older Disney movies, you notice the difference. Now that this is the way they tell stories, it’s hard to believe they ever did it any other way.
Howard really gives you insight into Ashman as a storyteller. Creating stories from a young age, seeing the evolution as he grew and learned is really enjoyable. If you’re like me and you like understanding the creative process, this is something you’ll enjoy. No one just magically knows everything about storytelling. But Ashman is a master at the craft, and learning about him is very insightful. Throughout the film, stories of him as a person are intercut with him as an artist and a creator.
We get to see the recording of the music for Beauty and the Beast, which as a big fan of the movie, is very exciting. You see Howard coaching Paige O’Hara through the opening song, which was nominated for an Oscar. Additionally, we watch Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach recording “Be Our Guest,” and hear them just shooting the shit. In these moments, you can see what an consummate artist and creator Ashman was.
His artistry is what makes those movies stand the test of time. Think about it. If you ask most millennials what their favorite Disney movie is, chances are they’ll say one of those three. And it’s not a coincidence. It’s because they are the most perfect blends of artistry and craft. There is a real sense of character development and story arc that feels effortless. And all of that is thanks to Howard Ashman. He pushed the movie’s script writers to really make the characters three dimensional — something animation hadn’t seen before. That’s why we love Belle so much. It’s why you root for Aladdin and want him to succeed. And why we want Ariel to have legs, even though we know it’s a terrible idea to sell her voice. But that’s also the insight of adulthood.
Ashman had a hand in creating one of the most popular Disney villains of all time. His insight and suggestions gave us the Ursula we all know and love. And his words gave us one of the best lines: “And don’t forget the importance of body language!” You can see that exact moment in your head when you hear it. Another cool thing? You can hear some of his demos for many of his Disney songs in the film. “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is especially fun.
“One of the last great places for American theatre is animation,” he says in an interview clip. That’s why Jeffrey Katzenberg begged him to come to Disney. After the success of Little Shop of Horrors, Katzenberg knew that Ashman (and Menken) were the way to move Disney forward. There was a deeper understanding of not only what was good, but what people would like. Without the mind of Howard Ashman, we wouldn’t have these beloved classics.
Howard is a film that pulls back the veil on the creative process. So often we see movies, which are the end results of a very long process. And we rarely ever get to know the people behind them. But this isn’t just a man who lived a successful life and died a tragic death. He’s a brilliant man who gave us some of our most cherished memories.
Howard is streaming on Disney+.