HOWARD: The Howard Ashman Story on Disney+ | A Man Already “Part Of Your World”
You may not immediately recognize this man’s name, but I would bet you a Disneyland Churro that you already adore his work. Howard Ashman: a man that most Disney lovers know and cherish. You have tapped your foot along to his music, sang the lyrics to the songs that he wrote and watched the movies he contributed his genius to over and over, but how much do you know about this beloved man?
HOWARD is a wonderful documentary directed by Don Hahn (Waking Sleeping Beauty, The Emperor's New Groove, The Lion King & more) which shares the story of Howard Ashman and his life & legacy. For 92 minutes you feel very much part of Howard’s world, as if you’re sitting in his family living room flipping through photo albums and hearing stories from his sister Sarah, partner Bill, Alan Menken, Jodi Benson (the voice of Ariel) and a few others. This tale (as old as time) is also wonderfully told by Howard himself - thanks to video interviews, recordings and hundreds of personal photos. This isn’t just stories from people who knew Howard from a distance. This is a personal and intimate film that celebrates Howard’s life, which was cut very short due to AIDS. It was a secret he kept hidden from everyone, including his songwriting partner, Alan Menken.
For me, at 32 years old and growing up with The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty And The Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992), as well as Little Shop of Horrors (1986), this documentary felt like a trip down nostalgia lane. Within moments of pressing play I was already emotional. These movies and this music is my childhood, thanks to Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Every part of this documentary feels like you’re right there with them behind the scenes seeing the whole creative process.
It’s evident in this film that Howard was very particular about what he wanted on every creative level. He was direct, persistent and bold, but always kind-hearted. In old videos of him directing Jodi Benson, she noted that when there was even a thought that Disney executives wanted to scratch Part of Your World from The Little Mermaid, Howard insisted that this “I want” song about Ariel's hopes and dreams stays in the film. Can you imagine The Little Mermaid without that song? That’s like Disneyland without Main Street USA! Jeffrey Katzenberg (Disney’s chairman at the time) wanted it cut. Howard was persistent. “Over my dead body,” he said. You know the ending to that story, because now you’re singing Part Of Your World.
During a press briefing with director Don Hahn that I was a part of, it was lovely to see how much this film meant to him with the stories he told, and also how his mission was to put as much of Howard in this film telling his own story. I wrote down “big hearted” three separate times during this interview. That’s one of the many ways that Don described him. So while Howard was direct and bold and persistent, he also did it with a kind heart.
Don also talked about how Howard and Alan wrote songs about food. Be Our Guest is a song all about eating. And singing “Beef ragout, Cheese souffle, Pie and pudding ‘en flambe’” is definitely making me hungry right now. Thanks to their creative lyrics we can also sing about "Les poissons, les poissons Hee hee hee, haw haw haw" from The Little Mermaid. Of course, being a food blogger and a Disney lover, you can see why I love singing these fun songs about food.
I think it’s something that we, as creators, can use in our own work, too. Our lives are defined by what we do and what we create. We can have great, big, beautiful ideas, pay attention to detail and be a perfectionist, but also lead with a kind heart, just as Howard did.
Sadly, Howard’s life ended at the young age of 39. He completed working on The Little Mermaid, which he and Alan Menken won an Oscar for. Some of my favorite scenes in this documentary are of Howard with Jerry Orbach (Lumiere) and Angela Lansbury (Mrs. Potts). I couldn’t help but fight tears … I lost that fight really fast! Howard never got to see Beauty And The Beast or Aladdin completed, but the music from these films are timeless and live on and on.
Howard has inspired so much of all that has been created at Disney since his passing. His work will only inspire Disney’s present and future.
I invite you to relax and pull up a chair as Disney+ proudly presents, HOWARD.