Producer and lyricist Howard Ashman made a huge splash in the world of Disney animation in 1989 with The Little Mermaid, which he co-produced with John Musker. His song “Under the Sea,” co-written with composer Alan Menken, won an Oscar® that year for Best Song. In the infectious Calypso-flavored piece, Sebastian the Crab advises lovelorn mermaid Ariel to stay home because the seaweed isn’t necessarily greener “in somebody else’s lake.”
“Howard’s lyrics,” as Menken later recalled, “would wink at the adults and say something to the kids at exactly the same time.”
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, on May 17, 1950, the successful lyricist, librettist, playwright, and director received his MFA from Indiana University. In 1974, he moved to New York and became an editor at Grosset & Dunlap, while writing plays including Dreamstuff, a musical version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which marked the beginning of his association with the off-off-Broadway WPA Theatre in 1977. While at Grosset & Dunlap, he also compiled The New Mickey Mouse Club Book for Disney .
Two years later, Howard teamed with Menken for the first time, creating a musical version of Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. They went on to write the musical version of Roger Corman’s 1960 cult film Little Shop of Horrors and won critical raves and awards including the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical of 1982-83. The offbeat show was transformed into a motion picture by Frank Oz in 1986, subsequently winning the musical duo their first Academy Award® nominations.
That same year, Howard penned the wistful ballad “Disneyland” for the Broadway production of Smile, written with Marvin Hamlisch, depicting utopia as a Disney theme park. He soon after signed a contract with The Walt Disney Company to write lyrics and dialogue for its animated features.
Whether Howard envisioned a hip genie performing the Oscar®-nominated “Friend Like Me” with Cab Calloway flamboyance in Aladdin, or an anthropomorphic candlestick oozing with Maurice Chevalier charm while singing the Oscar-nominated “Be Our Guest” in Beauty and the Beast, he imbued Disney characters with his own sense of emotional realism.
Howard Ashman passed away in New York City on March 14, 1991, prior to the release of Beauty and the Beast. That film, which he executive produced, was the first animated movie ever nominated for an Academy Award for Best Motion Picture. Its title song won the songwriters yet another Oscar. Upon its release, the film was dedicated to Howard, “who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul.” Howard earned a posthumous Oscar nomination in 1993 for “Friend Like Me,” which he had co-written for Aladdin prior to his death.
In 1994, Beauty and the Beast moved to the New York stage; when it closed in 2007 after 5,464 performances, it had become the 8th longest-running musical in Broadway history. The production featured “Human Again,” a chorus number by Howard and Menken that was storyboarded for the animated motion picture but never completed. The nearly 10-minute sequence was later animated and added to Beauty and the Beast for an IMAX re-release on January 1, 2002.
The 2009 documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, which tells of the animation renaissance that Howard helped usher in at The Walt Disney Studios, is dedicated in part to his memory.