Howard Ashman and The Disney Renaissance
“The Man Who Gave a Beast His Soul”
When looking at the last thirty years of Disney musicals, Alan Menken has almost always been a major force behind some of the most successful ones. The Little Mermaid was his first film at Disney in 1989, and since then he has created the music and/or score for 12 movies through the Disney brand, including The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pocahontas, and Beauty and the Beast. He’s received 18 Oscar nominations and 8 wins when it comes to his work on Disney films. Over the past few years, I always hear friends of mine talk about how great Menken was for Disney and how he changed their dynamic. I’ve had professors mention the way a few musical theatre writers helped change the Disney Animation format forever, and they usually only mention Menken by name. Disney Animation started to change the way they did things in the mid-1980s, and for over a decade and a half there was an explosion of creativity and great stories coming out of the department. This time period was known as the Disney Renaissance. Alan Menken had a great effect on the Disney films of that time and he still does, but when talking about the Disney Renaissance, most people forget to mention a more important person for that time: Howard Ashman.
Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were a writing team who came to Disney after having success in the theatre world. They were known for writing the Off-Broadway musical adaptation of Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors. Menken wrote the music and Ashman wrote the lyrics and the book. When the musical was turned into the 1986 film starring Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene, Ashman also wrote the screenplay. Menken and Ashman also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song for a new song they added to the film.
After the release of Little Shop of Horrors, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken could have gone to any studio in Hollywood. When Disney asked them about working with the company on a few projects, Ashman said he “leapt at the chance,” and he specifically asked to do something with animation. Ashman’s decision to come to Disney is one of the most important moments of the entire Disney Renaissance.
The Walt Disney Company was in major financial trouble in the 1970s and the early 1980s after both Walt Disney and his brother Roy O. Disney passed away. Walt and his fellow successors always said that the heart of the company would always be animation. Well, during the post-Disney Brothers era, Disney animation was in a massive rut. A lot of the films during this time we consider underrated today (just check out our recent article about some of them), but they were not making money for the company and they were not well-received during their initial run.
Roy O. Disney’s son, Roy E. Disney, believed that the company needed an overall change. He was able to turn the Board of Directors against Walt’s son-in-law, Ron Miller, who served as the CEO and President of the Walt Disney Company. Miller was ousted from the company and Roy gained a lot of power, but he chose to have other people to run the actual business. He brought in Michael Eisner from Paramount Pictures to serve as the CEO and Frank Wells from Warner Bros. to serve as the President of the Walt Disney Company. With these two at the helm, The Walt Disney Company would be able to compete with the major Hollywood studios since Disney was not really one of them (my how things have changed).
Eisner brought in his Paramount associate, Jeffrey Katzenberg, to run the Motion Pictures Division. Katzenberg originally focused heavily on creating live-action films, and because of that, the animation department was forced off the main Disney studio lot in Burbank. They then moved about five miles away to Glendale, California, where the department worked out of various warehouses and trailers for around a decade. Animation was once the heart of the Walt Disney Company, but at this moment in time, they were essentially being tossed out on the street to fend for themselves.
The Little Mermaid was a film that had been in the works for years at Disney. Walt actually started working on it as early as the 1930s, but for some reason, it was never able to get off the ground. That all changed when Howard Ashman came on board. Don Hahn, the producer of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, said that Ashman was an outsider who came into the company, and the animators did not have much in common with him…at first. Ashman was Jewish, gay, a Baltimore native, and a theatre person. Hahn said that the animators were just a bunch of kids from Southern California who hadn’t been to the theatre in years. However, they both had one thing in common. They loved animation.
As the story goes, Ashman brought in all of the Disney animators to the makeshift screening room in Glendale. Ashman talked to them about the evolution of the American musical and the evolution of the Disney Animated films. He showed the animators how they both intertwined with one another, and he told them that these two ways of storytelling were made to work together. After that meeting, the animators completely bought into the system, and it changed the way Disney made animated musicals forever.
Before Ashman worked on Disney films, the majority of the Disney animated musicals featured music and songs that were mostly incidental. They did not usually move the story forward, and, in all honesty, didn’t reveal much about the characters. “When You Wish Upon a Star” is a beautiful song, but it was more of a theme song for Pinocchio than a song that held up the story. Ashman told the animators that a film needs “tentpole” songs that advance the story, almost like set pieces. They would be the foundation of the story, songs that revealed something about the characters and moved the story forward. Not everyone can spot music that is just thrown in there to liven up the film as opposed to music that is fundamental to the story. If you look at “Belle” or “Part of Your World”, you will notice the difference between the Ashman songs and the Disney songs before him. In Ashman’s songs, you know something about these characters; something is revealed about them. They give the characters humanity, good or bad. This was something that was not always present in Disney musicals, but because of Ashman it is still used today.
When The Little Mermaid was released in 1989, it became the highest-grossing animated film of all-time. Ashman not only wrote the lyrics to the songs of the film, but he was one of the film’s two lead producers, and he also did work on the script as well. The next project he started on after The Little Mermaid was a passion project of his: Aladdin. The majority of the creative team behind The Little Mermaid followed Ashman to Aladdin, including his writing partner Alan Menken and the directing duo of The Little Mermaid, Ron Clements and John Musker (who are both still working with Disney today and recently directed Moana). Ashman and Menken, however, were quickly asked to come in and fix a failing animated Disney film that was on the verge of becoming a disaster.
Beauty and the Beast was not supposed to be a musical. Like The Little Mermaid before it, Walt Disney and his group of animators originally tried to make the film in both the 1930s and 1950s, but they failed in making it work. Production for the newest version started in 1987, and it was going to be a n0n-musical. After seeing the initial twenty minutes of the story reel for Beauty and the Beast, Jeffrey Katzenberg did something completely out of left field: he scrapped the entire idea and told the creative team to start anew, because nothing was working. The director of the film would later resign due to the creative changes.
Ashman was reluctant to join the film for two reasons. One, Aladdin was a project he had been wanting to make for a while, and that was his passion at the time. Second, he was losing a struggle with AIDS, which he found out during the making of The Little Mermaid. Ashman, however, along with Menken, joined the film, and they were tasked with the difficult challenge of turning Beauty and the Beast into a musical. First-time feature directors, Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale (The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Atlantis: The Lost Empire) were brought on to helm the project, and Linda Woolverton was brought on to write the script, becoming the first female screenwriter to write an animated film for Disney. Along with the producer of the film, Don Hahn, the creative team met at a Residence Inn (yes, a Residence Inn) in Fishkill, New York to develop and retool the entire film. They worked on the film in Fishkill near Ashman’s home in order to make it more convenient for him, because of his failing health. Ashman and Menken would write “Belle”, “Be Our Guest”, “Gaston”, “Human Again” (which was later cut from the film), “The Mob Song”, and “Beauty and the Beast” all while in Fishkill during the pre-production of the film.
Between the beautiful animation from the Disney animators that were outcasts at their own studio and the phenomenal music from the theatre folks, Beauty and the Beast became one of the biggest animated films of all-time. Like The Little Mermaid before it, the Disney Renaissance crew were able to complete a project that Walt Disney himself could not make for being too challenging. Beauty and the Beast became the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and it changed the game for animation as an art form. The film is considered by many as a masterpiece. Howard Ashman, however, would never see the finished film. He died on March 14, 1991 at the age of 40 due to complications from AIDS, nine months before Beauty and the Beast was released.
Howard Ashman’s lyrics can only be heard in four Disney movies (one song in Oliver & Company, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin). He received a total of six Oscar nominations and two wins for the work he did with the company, including one win for Beauty and the Beast. Disney would continue on the production of Aladdin, but majority of Ashman’s songs would be cut because of the creative directions they took on the film. However, three of Ashman’s songs, “Arabian Nights”, “Friend Like Me”, and “Prince Ali” ended up in the film, and they essentially made Robin Williams the star of the film. Menken would later include three of Ashman’s cut songs in the Broadway adaptation of Aladdin.
I love Disney musicals, and I love the work of Alan Menken, but I’m left wondering just what else could Howard Ashman have done if he had lived longer. Roy E. Disney once said that Ashman was one of the closest things we had to a Walt Disney-type. Most of the animation department has said that Howard Ashman was the key to Disney’s success at that time. Even though Disney Animation continued the Disney Renaissance after his death, how many Disney animated films have better stories and better music than the films Ashman worked on? Very few. The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin is a trifecta of greatness.
So, when you walk out of Disney’s live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast this weekend and are singing the songs to yourself, remember Howard Ashman, because without him we wouldn’t have those beautiful lyrics. He was a genius whose music affected so many people from my generation and now a new one, but very few of them know his name. Maybe that will change one day.
If you want to learn more about Howard Ashman and the Disney Renaissance, watch Waking Sleeping Beauty. I’ve been a fan of it for many years, and it’s great for any Disney fan. Don Hahn, the producer of Beauty and the Beast, produced the documentary that delves into the history of the Disney Renaissance. It’s a great behind-the-scenes look at how the animation department was able to fall and then rise like a phoenix from the ashes. Hahn is also currently working on a documentary solely about Howard Ashman’s life.