"He was the best. Emotionally I communicate with him. At times I’ll just get blindsided by hearing a song. And in my dreams, I’ll think, Oh my God, it’s Howard.”x
When Howard Ashman was coaching Jodi Benson’s vocal performance during the recording of this scene, Howard physicalised the now iconic extraction of Ariel’s voice to help Jodi understand what she needed to express. The animators were watching, and they were moved to put what they saw to drawing. When you see this scene, in the moment that Ariel’s voice moves out of her body, you are watching Howard’s movement.
Howard Ashman, lyricist to the Disney musical Aladdin, was in a children’s theatre production of the classic tale when he was young; this was possibly an inspiration for him later developing the iconic story and score. Seen here is a photo from that childhood production in Baltimore. Howard played Aladdin.
Happy Birthday Howard Ashman ♫ Born May 17, 1950
"Howard knew the work he was doing was good. He had no false modesty and like most artists, he managed to be both sure of himself and insecure at the same time… But it hardly mattered, really, how he did it. It was all part of the magic I believed in. The magic only Howard could make.” x
Happy Birthday Howard Ashman ♫ Born May 17, 1950
Howard’s artistic vision was crystal clear, vivid, tangible, manifesting itself in everything he created. He believed in the power of purpose, structure and style to convey the emotional and sometimes cynical truths of his work. Although often painful, but more than often silly, “beneath the puppetry and games beats the heart of a romantic idealist longing for a world that doesn’t and never did exist”. Said of one of Howard’s most childlike and tragic characters, perhaps this unwavering longing underpins all.
Howard’s first proper show was a modest hit, and remains a forgotten classic. Then suddenly, and without warning, Howard’s second show became one of Boradway’s most iconic productions of all time. Howard was a force of nature that, with no evidence to the contrary, emerged from the womb as talented as an artist as can be. He had no buffer period of uncertain experimentation and critical disappointment before the creation of masterpieces. Perhaps he had to fit in as much perfection as he could in his short, fruitful life. In the decade of his prominence, Howard changed the world
Howard was as solid as a rock, seemingly unbreakable. He was strong, persuasive, dynamic, and fiercely intelligent. But, almost as inconceivably as he entered this world, he slipped through our fingers, we perhaps undeserving of him after all. He has brought joy to children, understanding to the misunderstood, and a therapeutic sensation to those in need of feeling. It is in those moments of deep evocation that Howard lives, because at one time, Howard felt those things too. Those sunken eyes, that delicate voice, that steadfast artistic vision. Howard breathes.
Over 20 years after he conceived the story and wrote the score for Aladdin, Howard Ashman has been nominated for Best Original Score at the 2014 Tony Awards this week. This is his last chance at a Tony.
When Howard left this world, the score to Aladdin was completed by his song-writing partner Alan Menken alongside lyricist Tim Rice; three songs were included in the film from the original score, and three from the Rice score. Howard was nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Song. He lost the award to Rice.
The Broadway staging of Aladdin is being called the best Disney musical staging since The Lion King (which was the best Disney musical staging since Ashman’s Beauty and the Beast). This may be true, but it is so much more. The three Ashman songs that were not included in the film have been reworked into the story and included in the Broadway show. Of those three songs, there is one of the most beloved, and heartbreaking, songs of the entire Ashman repertoire.
Proud of Your Boy could have possibly won him the Oscar had it appeared in the film, but it may just win him the Tony. The genuine and innocent tragic beauty so often seen in the best Ashman ballads is at its most elemental here. A young man pleads for redemption, redemption for his flaws, flaws for which he needn’t apologize. But the listener is an abstract, an other; an angelic yet absent mother-figure unable to comfort her hurting son. And oh what hurt. Just like Smile's Disneyland, Proud of Your Boy exists almost in another realm of understanding. We feel the meaning, as if we were a hurt and lonely child in need of comfort once more.
We all mess up, screw up, and we all need someone to be proud of us for who we are anyway. Well, Howard, I am proud of you. We are so, so proud of you. Your art never stops effecting people in very profound ways. Now Howard’s own sort of redemption is playing out, every night, when those rejected songs are given their rightful place in the ears and hearts of adoring theatregoers.
Every night, life is finally breathed into those unsung songs, long forgotten and dormant for all those years. It cannot be expressed how much this means. How wonderful that Howard’s vision is being played out in those few precious, honest moments on stage every night. In a beautiful and profound moment of stillness and calm, Howard’s light shines, it burns.
When I hear Proud of Your Boy, it makes me think of Howard. How he must have wished this song would make it into a production he knew he would never see completed. How he poured out his soul into this character, this reflection, this moment of truth in what turned out to be a very flashy show. But at heart, this text, and this medium, is an internal experience. When theatre truly reaches greatness, it has the ability to show us a reflection of ourselves. Howard created that moment in Aladdin. Just like Aladdin, he was a child at heart.
The meaning of this Tony nomination is two-fold. Many fans feel that because his iconic work Little Shop of Horrors was never eligible for any Tony Awards, he is most deserving of this recognition from the authorities of the medium to which he dedicated, and gifted, so much. We hope, but we know that truly, this is enough. Just that Howard’s work is coming to life and effecting people in new ways is enough. But we hope.
Spare a thought today for Howard Ashman (May 17, 1950 - March 14, 1991)
Howard may have suffered in silence, but he did have a voice. No doubt he was secretive and tortured, but he is all to easily pigeon-holed as a tragic martyr. I implore you - please, please do not condense him down to something so simple. Howard was brilliant. A funny, complex, warm, strong-willed, loving, sensitive, intensely bright man; often sarcastic and moody, but always caring, and a wonderful friend. Do not remember him the way most choose to. He once was a child, who put on plays with the children in his neighbourhood. He was once a young man, who fell in and out of love. He once laughed, loudly and fully, losing control with happiness. He had a rare true artistic vision. Do not misremember. He was a man, he was whole, he was loved.
I was very lucky from the beginning.
Nobody can deny that Howard’s work was so uniquely funny, and clever, and entertaining. Yet at his most poignant, Howard wrote about the unifying existence of beauty and pain, of secrets and understanding, of darkness and love. Drawn in by the cleverness of his lyrics and then struck by his work’s truth, we are all represented in Howard’s often simple but ever-effective verse as we are confronted with the parallel need for home and purpose in a world full of cynicism and greed. Through song he gently fanned the sparks that ignite the human soul, turning them into burning flames, illuminating even the most mysterious corners of the human existence. Howard’s distinctive voice that remains so alive in his work, triggers a remembrance of the most instinctual and elemental emotions that drive us, at times seemingly evoking an older than ancient feeling of what it means to love and be loved. We are sarcastic, cynical, and troubled, but in those seldom-illuminated dark corners of ourselves, we are basic, we are children.
Beneath the puppetry and games beats the heart of a romantic idealist longing for a world that doesn’t and never did exist.
The true tragedy of arguably Howard’s greatest and most heartbreaking song, Disneyland, is not at all that Doria believes in the fakery of the titular idyllic fantasy world. Not at all. The greatest tragedy of that song is that she knows the magic world she craves isn’t real, but she wants to live there anyway. What happened to Howard makes it painfully clear how cruel and unjust the world can be. But, and perhaps this is the greatest tragedy of all, against all reason we still believe in the beauty of our own wants, desires, and dreams. Against our better judgement, we still get lost in those safe imaginative realms of possibility. Because of Howard, there is still somewhere to which we can for a time escape, just like children - children who are acutely and disturbingly aware of the dark cruelty of our world.“This is a magical land,” Howard said, “you may now make a wish”
This article includes a clip from the Howard’s Lecture bonus feature which will be on The Little Mermaid Blu-ray!