Howard, the highly anticipated documentary about the life and career of lyricist Howard Ashman debuts on Disney+ this Friday (August 7th). I had the chance to preview this powerful film. Written, directed and produced by Don Hahn, who worked with Ashman on the 1991 Beauty and the Beast, the documentary is a love letter to Ashman in honoring both his life and his work.
Howard Ashman and Paige O’Hara, Copyright Disney
There are several things I noted about Howard in watching. First, the film is bookended with two Ashman/Alan Menken songs – neither of which almost made it into their respective films. “Belle”, the opening song for Beauty and the Beast, is shown as it is being recorded with a full orchestra for the animated film as the documentary begins. The original storyboard for the movie did not include it, and Howard Ashman was very nervous to send what was a 5-6 minute song to Disney for fear of being laughed at. And the end credits feature Part of Your World as sung by Ashman. Ashman fought for the song to be in The Little Mermaid to the point that it potentially could have had him fired.
The film also never shows anyone in the present day. While we hear the voices of friends, family and co-workers of Howard Ashman, all of the discernable footage we see is from the timeline of Ashman’s life. We hear from Don Hahn, Jodi Benson (Ariel), Alan Menken, Jeffrey Katzenberg and so many others – including Ashman in voice and in footage, and his sister Sarah Gillespie and partner Bill Lauch.
One other thing I found notable is that the film is almost exactly half his life and work up until the Disney years and then that takes up the other half. Ashman’s time with Disney spanned 4-5 years but he will be forever remembered for his part in sparking the early years of the Disney Renaissance.
Howard spans the entire life of Howard Ashman. From his early years in Baltimore – where his love of entertaining and musicals started young – to founding the off-Broadway Theater the WPA, he eventually teamed up with Alan Menken well before being courted by Disney and also found a first relationship partner in Stuart White. With Menken he adapted Little Shop of Horrors into a popular musical. But he also faced a devastating blow with Smile, which he worked on with Marvin Hamlisch – the musical received poor reviews and closed soon after debuting. It also led to his work with Disney and by then he had a new relationship partner in Bill Lauch.
Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, copyright Disney
Jeffrey Katzenberg, then Chairman of Walt Disney Studios, reached out to Ashman, who brought Menken with him to Disney. It seems for someone who loved Broadway and musicals, that working for Walt Disney Animation Studios was a perfect fit. Ashman said that the “last great place to do Broadway musicals is in animation”. This is when “Part of Your World” became an issue, with a memo being found by a friend of Ashman’s that Ashman should be fired. Of course, The Little Mermaid kicked off a string of major Disney hits and Ashman then moved on to Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin (the latter which he was working on from his hospital bed).
There is a lot to the documentary, but the most moving scene for me was when Ashman was working on Beauty and the Beast. At this time, not very many of those around him knew he was sick. There is a wonderful couple of minutes where we see Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach singing while Alan Menken and Howard Ashman happily listen to them and then with them and others. There is a poignancy to it in that Menken would have been one of the only ones there that knew Ashman had AIDS and was nearing the end of his life. Ashman had held the information close, in part because he did not know how Disney would react.
We never see Howard Ashman in the hospital, but we hear the voices of those who visited him. Those include Don Hahn, before Beauty and the Beast had premiered. Hahn told Ashman, “Howard, you wouldn’t believe it. People love this movie. Who would have thought?” Ashman said, “I would have”. This emotional couple of minutes from those who visited him is done as we see rain cascading against windows like tears.
My own tears happen during the end credits, with the song “Part of Your World” sung by Ashman as his life is shown in photos. The song fits his own life as much as it does Ariel’s.