How Disney's Howard Ashman documentary honors The Little Mermaid songwriter's 'heroic' story
When people who knew him speak about Howard Ashman — the lyricist who, with composer Alan Menken, penned the songs for some of Disney's most beloved animated films — they almost always do so with something like awe. No less than Roy E. Disney, nephew of the animation legend, reportedly referred to Ashman as "another Walt."
"He was one of those rare people that had, certainly, genius to him in terms of his talent, but [also] he had amazing depth in terms of his craft," says Don Hahn, who worked with Ashman as a producer on Beauty and the Beast. "He was this really learned guy who made musical theater his life. And he was much more than a lyricist, you know. He was a dramatist. He was a director, a producer. He was demanding, he was challenging to work with, he was smarter than many of us in the room. And all that meant we had to up our game. If we had a point of view that was different from Howard's, we had to defend it. He was tremendously able to tell you not only what would work in his mind, but why it would work."
Indeed, beyond bringing his brilliant lyrical craftsmanship to films like Beauty and The Little Mermaid, Ashman played a major role in story and character development throughout production (it was he, for instance, who suggested Mermaid's crab sidekick Sebastian be Jamaican) and closely supervised the actors' performances of his songs, as you can see in the clip above.
Ashman's life and career were tragically cut short, however, when he died of complications from AIDS at age 40, months before Beauty and the Beast was completed. Now, almost 30 years later, Ashman's full story is finally being told with the documentary Howard, which arrives on Disney+ Friday. The film, directed by Hahn, follows Ashman's life from his beginnings and early work on stage, including a stint as artistic director of New York's WPA Theater, through the Off-Broadway hit Little Shop of Horrors, his work with Disney, and his illness, which he battled while working on Beauty throughout 1990-91.
"I think that's where it becomes heroic. Here's a guy struggling with his life and recording these joyful songs, and writing them while he's aware that he has a limited time on earth," Hahn says. "That's about as big and epic a story as I can think of. That kind of struggle of life and death against the creative spirit is really moving and important to me."
Ahead of the documentary's Disney+ release, Hahn spoke to EW about shaping its narrative, the "treasure hunt" of archival research, and letting Ashman tell his own story through the film.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why has it taken so long for Howard's story to be fully told in this way?
DON HAHN: I don't completely know. I made a movie called Waking Sleeping Beauty about 10 years ago, and it was touched on there, and there was so much more information. Howard's sister wanted to do a [biopic] for a while; there was a student at USC that was gathering information, and nothing ever came of it. I think it was just a matter of waiting for some time to pass, because I think with more time passing, you end up seeing how important Howard was. That's maybe a perspective that we wouldn't have had immediately afterward. And I think we have a little more perspective on the AIDS epidemic and those times. So I think it's actually better that it's taken some time, to get a more accurate, authentic point of view on what that all meant.
How did the documentary end up coming together with you as the director?
Well, it started at a lunch, as everything does in Hollywood. I had lunch with Sarah Gillespie, Howard's sister, and it really was just a catch-up lunch. And I kind of just blurted out, "I think I'm gonna do a documentary." And she said, "Oh, that's lovely." I was pretty sure she didn't believe me — later, she said she did not believe me — but I thought, there's a story here, a really interesting story, and I knew enough of it to want to dive in.
That first year or so was just trying to learn about Howard. And it's the kind of thing where you think you know somebody, but you don't really know them. I'd go through his family's papers, track down friends who had worked with him on Little Shop of Horrors, and colleagues and actors, and start to gather stories. That's when I found that the most interesting, compelling material I had was from Howard himself. We were finding these great interviews he did, and it was interesting, and funny, and revealed his process, and his thinking, and his personal story. And I just thought, as a filmmaker, I just need to stay out of the way and let Howard tell his story. And that made me want to support it with people that knew him and worked with him personally. I wanted people like his sister; like Bill [Lauch], his partner; like directors that have worked with him, to really talk about that one-on-one relationship. So I supported Howard's own words with those people and tried to get a personal story surrounding him, and that's how the film grew.
Can you tell me more about your research process?
Howard's papers are at the Library of Congress, so Lori Korngiebel, my producer, and I went through box after box of that. They had some things that had never been heard. In one box they had a tape from Bill's answering machine. It's a very sad tape to listen to — they had a recording on it of Howard talking to the Mermaid directors, and then the later part of the tape is Howard passing, and some more very sad things. That tape became an amazing discovery.
We knew we needed the help of Howard's family, and Sarah was great. We went up to her house in upstate New York, and went through box after box, and scrapbooks, and scanned things for the film. Bill Lauch, the same way. Late in the game, people would realize they had things that maybe I'd be interested in. We'd been talking to Kyle Renick, who was Howard's producer at the WPA Theater, for a year, and he said, "You know, I just found these three cassette tapes. When Howard was sick I recorded like two hours of him reminiscing." We had a lot of those things happen. I had one friend call up and say, "I have a friend that was at the Mermaid junket in Orlando back in '89. And he happened to record it." And I said, "Let me listen," and it was Howard and Alan talking all about Mermaid. It's like the documentarian's dream to come across those things.
What do you think the effect is of letting that archival material and Howard himself tell his story, as opposed to a more talking head-style approach to a documentary?
I thought the advantage of it was the authenticity of it. To hear the inflections in Howard's voice as he's talking about Little Shop, or about introducing Caribbean music into Little Mermaid — those inflections, and hearing the humor in his voice, and that kind of thing, is something that can't be described in words. I don't think we need old guys reminiscing; there's plenty of that on TV. But I thought what we needed is to really transport you back into that time, and have you sit at the table with Howard. I was lucky enough to sit at those tables, and I want you to sit there too, and listen to the man and his colleagues.
How did making this film affect your perception of Howard, compared to when you were working with him?
I had my own experiences with him, which were generally really positive, but there's a loving aspect of Howard that his family and close friends [saw]. He was big-hearted, he was beloved, not just in animation, but on the stage. His theater collaborators, people he spent 12 hours a day with rehearsing, were his friends, and that really doesn't happen in the entertainment business. People that are your taskmasters are not often your friends. And Howard was a taskmaster, and he was very articulate about what he wanted.
There's a very vulnerable side in the stories [about] him. Alan tells a story, which is completely true, of him not wanting to send the Beauty and the Beast songs in, because the opening song, "Belle," was five minutes long, and nobody asked for that. Nobody asked for an operetta. So he had a vulnerable side that was really afraid of humiliation. He never had a hit on Broadway. He never wanted to go to Broadway, and I think had he lived longer, he probably wouldn't have gone to Broadway. So that vulnerable, childlike artist that is afraid of humiliation was the same man that was full of imagination, and fantasy, and clever, witty work. And by trying to tell both of those sides of his character, hopefully, you get an insight into that.
Howard debuts on Disney+ Aug. 7.
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