Lyricist Howard Ashman is the unsung hero who helped create the contemporary Disney musical. He was also gay and died of AIDS at 40. Most of his many awards and nominations? They were awarded posthumously.
Ashman was composer Alan Menken’s right-hand man. As a playwright and lyricist, he collaborated with Menken on numerous projects starting in 1979. They began with a musical adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Their fist major success came with a 1982 reworking of a B-movie horror flick called Little Shop of Horrors. Ashman wrote the book and lyrics for each, and directed them both. In 1986, Ashman wrote the screenplay for Little Shop, which was directed by Frank Oz of Muppets fame. That same year, he wrote lyrics and the book for a Broadway musical called Smile, with music by Marvin Hamlisch. Again, Ashman directed.
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A Whole New World
Following the impressive success of the Little Shop film, he and Menken partnered with Disney for The Little Mermaid in 1989. That smash hit was followed by Beauty and the Beast in 1991. Before Menken and Ashman, the Disney studio had not had a hit musical in decades.
The rest is history. Ashman and Menken garnered two Golden Globe nominations and three Oscar nominations in 1989 for “Kiss the Girl” and “Under the Sea.” Ashman won two for the latter.
While Little Mermaid was still in production, Ashman pitched an animated musical version of Aladdin to the execs at Disney. Although only three of his songs made it to the final cut and his original treatment underwent revisions, it’s unlikely the project would have been realized without him.
It’s also likely that Beauty and the Beast sapped much of Ashman’s energy. He and Menken were called in to save the piece, which was originally not a musical at all. Their success saw the animated film do brisk box office business and lead to a Broadway staging and a live action adaptation in 2017.
Somewhere That’s Green
On March 26, 1990 — at what should have been his moment of greatest triumph at the 62nd Academy Awards, Ashman said he needed to talk to Menken. Back in New York, Ashman told Menken he was HIV-positive. Diagnosed in 1988 while Little Mermaid was in production, he was already gravely ill by the time Beauty and the Beast was underway.
He continued to work and write, but after an early Beauty and the Beast screening on March 10, 1991, Disney animators visited Ashman in the hospital. Ashman was blind, could barely speak and weighed 80 pounds. The artists reported his film was getting rave press reviews, and four days later he succumbed to AIDS complications. The film 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.”
Ultimately, he was honored with a posthumous Laurence Olivier Award and five Grammys — three of them conferred after his passing. Out of seven Oscar nominations, Ashman won two. Four of his nominations are posthumous, the most in Academy Awards history.
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Last modified: May 28, 2019