Today is the 71st birthday of the playwright and lyricist Howard Ashman. He contributed to some of the most successful Disney animated films. Jeffrey Katzenberg claims there are two angels watching down on them that put their magic touch on every film they made. Those two angels are Ashman and Walt Disney himself. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
NAME: Howard Elliot Ashman
DATE OF BIRTH: 17-May-1950
PLACE OF BIRTH: Baltimore, MD
DATE OF DEATH: 14-Mar-1991
PLACE OF DEATH: New York City
CAUSE OF DEATH: AIDS
REMAINS: Oheb Shalom Memorial Park, Reisterstown, Maryland, U.S.
Oscar for Best Music Original Song 1990 for The Little Mermaid (with Alan Menken)
Oscar for Best Music Original Song 1992 for Beauty and the Beast (with Alan Menken)
Golden Globe 1990 for The Little Mermaid (original song, with Alan Menken)
Golden Globe 1992 for Beauty and the Beast (original song, with Alan Menken)
Laurence Olivier Theatre Award 1998 for Beauty and the Beast (new musical)
Grammy 1991 for The Little Mermaid (recording for children, with Alan Menken)
Grammy 1991 for The Little Mermaid (song for film, with Alan Menken)
Grammy 1993 for Beauty and the Beast (album for children, with Alan Menken)
Grammy 1993 for Beauty and the Beast (song for film, with Alan Menken)
Disney Legend 2001
Father: Raymond Albert Ashman
Mother: Shirley Thelma Glass
Sister: Sarah Ashman-Gillespie
Boyfriend: William Lauch (until his death)
BEST KNOWN FOR: Howard Elliott Ashman was an American playwright, lyricist and stage director.
Ashman was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of Shirley Thelma (née Glass) and Raymond Albert Ashman, an ice cream cone manufacturer. His family was Jewish. He started his theater experiences with the Childrens Theater Association (CTA), playing roles such as Aladdin. Ashman first studied at Boston University and Goddard College (with a stop at Tufts University’s Summer Theater) and then went on to earn 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. In 1977 he became the artistic director of the WPA Theater in New York. He met future collaborator Alan Menken at the BMI Workshop, where he was classmates with Maury Yeston and Ed Kleban, among others. He first worked with Menken on the 1979 musical Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, adapted from Vonnegut’s novel of the same name. They also collaborated on Little Shop of Horrors with Ashman as director, lyricist, and librettist, winning the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lyrics. He also directed the workshop of Nine by Yeston at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and after asking why Guido’s wife stays with him after she knows he has not been faithful, inspired Yeston to write “My Husband Makes Movies”.
Ashman was director, lyricist, and book writer 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 Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 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 Menken, wrote all of the songs for the film. Ashman became a driving force during the early years of the “Disney Renaissance”. He would hold story meetings and said the animation and musical styles were made for each other which is why Disney needed to continue making musical movies. He also made strong choices in casting actors with strong musical theater and acting backgrounds. The Little Mermaid was released in November 1989 and it was an enormous success. Ashman and Menken received two Golden Globe nominations and three Academy Award nominations, including two for “Kiss the Girl” and “Under The Sea” with Ashman winning both awards for the latter.
In 1988, while working on The Little Mermaid, Ashman pitched the idea of an animated musical adaptation of Aladdin to Disney. 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. Directors John Musker and Ron Clements then joined the production, and the story underwent many changes, with some elements of the original treatment being dropped. Out of the 16 songs written for Aladdin, three of Ashman’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 him. In May 2020, Beauty and the Beast co-director Kirk Wise said, “If you had to point to one person responsible for the ‘Disney Renaissance’, I would say it was Howard.”
Along with Menken, Ashman was the co-recipient of two Grammy Awards, two Golden Globe Awards and two Academy Awards. Upon receiving his second Academy Award posthumously, William P. “Bill” Lauch, his partner, accepted the award in his stead.
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 sick and HIV/AIDS positive. He had been diagnosed in 1988, halfway through production 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. 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. In the early morning of March 14, he died from heart failure caused by HIV/AIDS at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan at the age of 40. Beauty and the Beast is dedicated “To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful. Howard Ashman 1950–1991.” He is buried in Oheb Shalom Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland.
Ashman met Stuart White, one of his first partners, at a summer university programme in 1969. Originally close friends, the two formed a bond which led to a secret relationship. They both did their masters in Indiana University and then moved upstate New York. They would re-open the Workshop of Players Art Foundation (WPA) together as artistic directors. Ashman cites their relationship as being one of the motivators he did so. The two however would eventually fall out in 1980 and reunite briefly prior to White’s death of AIDS in July 1983. Ashman would later go on and meet his life long partner, Bill Lauch, with whom he would spend the rest of his life. Bill Lauch was an architect from Cincinnati. Bill in the Disney documentary Howard makes a point of commenting that one of their first dates was the 26th Grammy Awards. Bill stayed with Ashman through the last stages of his AIDS and would posthomously claim the Oscars award for Original Song.
Over the course of his career, Howard Ashman won two Academy Awards (one posthumous) 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.
The Confirmation (1977) (writer)
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1979) (lyricist, librettist and director)
Little Shop of Horrors (1982) (lyricist, librettist and director)
Smile (1986) (lyricist, librettist and director)
Little Shop of Horrors (1986) (lyricist and screenwriter)
Oliver & Company (1988) (lyricist for “Once Upon a Time in New York City”)
The Little Mermaid (1989) (lyricist, producer, additional dialogue)
Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue (1990) (lyricist for “Wonderful Way to Say No”)
Beauty and the Beast (1991) (lyricist, executive producer) (dedicated)
Aladdin (1992) (lyricist for “Arabian Nights”, “Friend Like Me”, and “Prince Ali”).