By Maureen Lee Lenker
August 07, 2020 at 07:27 PM EDT
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If you're a fan of Disney animation, chances are you love something Howard Ashman created.

The Oscar-winning songwriter and lyricist penned some of Disney's most memorable songs alongside longtime creative partner and composer Alan Menken, including all the tracks for The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Howard, a new documentary from renowned animator and filmmaker Don Hahn, gives fans a glimpse into Ashman's life and his genius.

Now streaming on Disney+, the documentary focuses particularly on Ashman's creative pursuits, including his early days as a playwright, his efforts in musical theater with shows like Little Shop of Horrors and Smile, and his collaboration with Menken and Disney on the films that would become a huge part of his legacy after his untimely death from complications of AIDS in 1991.

It's a treasure trove for Disney fans, packed with behind-the-scenes footage from iconic movies. Ashman often recorded demo tapes of songs himself, and the documentary is full of clips of him delivering some of his best-known work. If you've ever wanted to hear Ashman perform "Poor Unfortunate Souls" or "Belle," this is your chance.

But Howard also offers unprecedented insight into Ashman's personal journey and creative process. Here are 12 things we learned from watching.

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1. Ashman had an interesting connection to a recent Disney film

Although Frozen didn't exist until more than two decades after Ashman's passing, he was always linked to fairy tales. His sister describes him as a child obsessed with storytelling and imagination, regularly putting on plays in their backyard. But when he was in graduate school, he adapted the fairy tale The Snow Queen — the original inspiration for Frozen — for the stage as his master's thesis.

2. Ashman worked for Disney before he ever became a professional songwriter

When Ashman was a struggling artist, he worked as a copywriter to pay his bills. One of his biggest and favorite projects was editing the Mickey Mouse Club scrapbook. He even got to travel to Los Angeles as part of the job.

3. His first date with his partner Bill Lauch was at the Grammys

Soon after Ashman first met Lauch at a bar in New York City, Ashman asked him on a date. But it was a rather extraordinary location for a first date: the Grammy Awards, where Ashman was up for Best Original Cast Recording for Little Shop of Horrors.

4. He wrote a biopic for Tina Turner alongside the legendary singer

When Ashman first came out to work with Disney in a creative capacity, he wrote a script with Tina Turner titled I, Tina. The biopic never came to fruition, and Ashman went to work with the animation department instead.

5. It was his idea to make Sebastian the crab Jamaican

In early meetings with Little Mermaid directors Ron Clements and Jon Musker, Ashman made a suggestion that would change cinematic history. What if, he suggested, King Triton's underling and Ariel's guardian Sebastian the crab was Jamaican? Now we can't imagine hearing "Under the Sea" any other way.

6. He was instrumental in the final design of Ursula

There were a lot of design options for the sea witch Ursula, including one based on drag star Divine. That was the image Ashman gravitated toward in a meeting, and one of Disney's most iconic villains was born.

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7. Roy Disney considered Ashman's contributions almost as important as Walt Disney's

In Howard, Roy Disney explains Ashman's influence and the value of his contributions by comparing him to Disney's founder. That's extremely high praise.

8. Menken used to leave writing sessions and cry because he thought Ashman was frustrated with him

When Ashman was first diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, he kept it a secret from even his closest collaborators out of fear that Disney would fire him. Frustration over his illness and his dwindling time on earth often led to outbursts in the studio, like the time he smashed a Walkman Pro. Not knowing of his partner's illness, Menken would assume it was because he was doing inadequate work and excuse himself for breaks to cry.

9. Ashman played Aladdin in a children's theater production

Aladdin was the last movie Ashman worked on before his death, and he was so passionate about the project that he wrote a 30-page treatment, complete with suggested songs. Part of this interest in the character might have stemmed from his own connection to the street rat: Ashman portrayed Aladdin in a 1965 children's theater production in Baltimore.

10. During the Little Mermaid press junket, Ashman had a catheter in his chest and was receiving daily IV treatments

Still keeping his diagnosis secret, Ashman endured eight-hour days at Disney World doing press while concealing the extent of his illness, which required him to have a catheter in his chest and receive daily treatments via IV infusion. It was an emotional time for him, and when he saw a parade featuring the characters from the film, he cried, explaining that it was the moment he realized his work would live on after him. At the time, his friends and collaborators thought he was speaking on a much more long-term basis.

11. "Prince Ali" was written at Ashman's hospital bed

Up until his last days, Ashman continued to work on songs for Aladdin. There was a cut song for Jafar, "Humiliate the Boy," which Menken postulates was full of heavy subtext about Ashman's own illness and the physical and emotional losses he was facing. Menken brought a keyboard to Ashman's hospital room, and they wrote "Prince Ali" there.

12. Ashman was the first person to win an Oscar who had died from AIDS

In 1991, Ashman won his second Oscar posthumously, for his work on the title song for Beauty and the Beast. Lauch accepted the award on his behalf and marked it as a bittersweet milestone as the first Oscar given to someone who had died in the AIDS epidemic.

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