The new Disney Plus documentary Howard honors the impressive career of legendary lyricist Howard Ashman, who wrote some of the most beloved Disney Animation songs ever. It also tells the harrowing tale of the discovery and spread of AIDS, which tragically took Ashman’s life in 1991 when he was just 40.
The disease didn’t, however, stop Ashman from writing iconic Disney tunes even as his health declined precipitously. He even drew from his own personal experience with physical losses to describe a character’s plight.
“You may not know his name, but you sure know Howard Ashman’s music,” the movie’s producer, Don Hahn, said in a release. “He’s one of the greatest storytellers of the 20th century who helped to revitalize the American musical and re-energize Disney Animation. He left us a songbook that still lives on in us today, yet his personal story has never been fully told until now.”
Howard features evocative footage of Ashman working on so many instantly recognizable songs. The film includes Jodi Benson’s audition as the voice of Ariel in The Little Mermaid; Ashman giving directions to Paige O’Hara, who voices Belle in Beauty and the Beast; and the recording of Be Our Guest with Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury. His story also unfolds through interviews with Ashman’s husband Bill Lauch, family, friends, classmates, actors and Disney music partner Alan Menken.
Ashman started out performing in his backyard with the neighborhood kids, and grew up writing poems, songs, stories and plays before studying theater in college, where he wrote a musical version of The Snow Queen for his thesis. His first job for Disney was editing the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse scrapbook while he was a struggling playwright in New York City.
But soon he started his own theater and eventually came to work alongside famed Disney composer Alan Menken. Ashman and Menken teamed up to write stage musicals God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater in 1979, and then Little Shop of Horrors in 1982, the latter of which led to a movie. The two moved over to Disney together and began work on The Little Mermaid, with Menken writing the music and Ashman penning lyrics. “There’s just something about the Disney fairytale cartoons going all the way back to Snow White and then to Pinocchio,” Ashman says in interview footage.
He wrote Part of Your World — the song where Ariel yearns to become human — within minutes of hearing the plotline for The Little Mermaid. “Using The Little Mermaid, he literally taught us how to tell a story with songs,” Hahn said.
It’s thanks to Ashman that the narrative song became a cornerstone of Disney Animation. He particularly liked writing for the villains. “They’re just more fun, I don’t know why … and Ursula’s an especially fun villain,” he said while writing Poor Unfortunate Souls.
“We’ve found ourselves in the one area in films where musicals might work, and that is in animation over at Disney,” he said at an event just days after being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. His diagnosis followed several of his friends and a former boyfriend dying of the disease years earlier.
The documentary follows his health decline as he valiantly plows ahead, working on the lyrics for Aladdin’s Friend Like Me and Prince Ali. His colleagues even packed up the storyboards for Beauty and the Beast and took the work to upstate New York so the ill Ashman could continue working with them.
While writing the lyrics for Jafar’s villain song Humiliate the Boy, Ashman channeled his experience with the loss of his eyesight, his voice and the sensation in his fingers as his AIDS progressed. Although the song was cut from the finished film, the lyrics described Jafar humiliating Aladdin by stripping everything away from him. By the time he worked on Prince Ali, he was writing from his hospital bed.
Ashman won Oscars, Golden Globes and Grammys for the songs Under the Sea and Beauty and the Beast, as well as a Grammy for the Aladdin album. They were awarded posthumously. Sadly, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast weren’t released until after he died.
Following Ashman’s untimely death, his Disney music partner Menken went on to write the scores for Tangled, Hercules, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Enchanted.
Howard launches on Disney Plus on Friday, Aug. 7.