Disney songs stand out on their own. They are a near-perfect combination of melody and lyrics that come together to express a feeling or tell a story. And while many can credit the legendary Alan Menken for those memorable melodies, we also have to thank Howard Ashman for those powerful words.
Ashman was an accomplished lyricist who already had a way of using words to compel people to pay attention to what was happening on stage or screen. But behind the man was a world that was way more complex that only added more meaning to his songs.
In “Howard,” a documentary by noted Disney producer and friend of Ashman’s Don Hahn, we get a first-look inside the life and mind of Ashman, as mainly told by never-before-seen (or heard) interviews and from personal accounts from family and friends – including Hahn.
According to Hahn, he wanted people to see Howard as an “entire human being” complete with all the goodness and insecurities that come with being one. Much of that is shared with the audience by telling of Howard’s desire to imagine, create, and tell stories.
Through early examples of him writing, directing, and starring in plays and musicals, we see a Howard that not only worked hard and was a perfectionist looking at every detail, but felt the excruciating pains of sharing that finished work with the world. “Sharing our vulnerabilities isn’t something natural to do, and Howard found that even more tough to do.”
Still, Howard’s work came out shining when he set aside those anxious thoughts. At the same time, Hahn emphasized Howard’s drive to pursue excellence in everything. “He taught me clarity and persistence,” Hahn said. “When doing things in our line of work, you have to be big-hearted and honest with clarity. Howard encompassed that.”
The second half of the documentary goes into Howard’s tenure at Disney, having been brought on to work with Menken to write music for Disney’s animated features that would herald in the so-called “Disney Renaissance” because of their commercial success. And one could argue that it was due in part to the music.
If you’re a big Disney fan, you’ll love seeing clips of Howard writing iconic songs with Menken like “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid, “Prince Ali” from Aladdin, and “Beauty and the Beast.” While Hahn made the documentary independently, his relationships with Disney having been producer on all those films made it easy for him to gain access to the Walt Disney Archives to dig out that footage soundbites, and more.
Hahn stressed to us during our interview that it would not be right, however, to relegate Howard to just his Disney notability. “But those projects basically surmised Howard in the best way possible.”
Ashman died due to complications in fighting AIDS in March 1991. In the preceding months, he was still very much involved with writing music with Menken on their last project together – Beauty and the Beast. After Ashman died, the movie eventually was another commercial success for Disney and even got nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards that year, the first time that an animated film was ever nominated in that prestigious category.
It was also nominated and won the Oscar for Best Original Song for “Be Our Guest,” which Menken and Howard wrote. Hahn chose to end his documentary with that celebration for the man who invited us all into his story and song-filled world. “I think it speaks to being human when we can shed tears and come away happy knowing that we can. I’ll always respond in that way when I think of Howard,” he said.
Our special thanks to Don Hahn for the interview. “Howard” is now streaming exclusively on Disney+.