From Rugrats to The Simpsons, at some point in our lives we’ve devoted time to watching cartoons. Whether you have been depriving your inner child of animation for who-knows-how long or are an active Disney/Nickelodeon/Comic Strip-phile like I am, this is an inside look into something you may not know about animation. Enjoy this free issue of the Toon Times.
“To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful.”
So, who is Howard? Why was a Disney movie, possibly the most beloved and critically-acclaimed animated film of its day, dedicated to him?
Growing up in Baltimore, Md., Howard Ashman was not the son of musical theater parents, but was destined for the stage. According to Ashman’s mother, Shirley, she chose his full name, Howard Elliott Ashman, because she believed it would be a good stage name.
And live up to his name he did. After studying theater at Boston University for one year, Ashman transferred to Goddard College and turned into a man who loved creating over performing. Focusing on acting and directing led Ashman to Indiana University for a master’s degree and eventually to New York City, where he would make his small break on the theater scene.
In New York, Ashman became co-founder and artistic director at the WPA Theatre, where he wrote and directed the musical adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater with his future Disney collaborator, Alan Menken.
Giving his regards to Broadway
In 1982, a small musical appeared Off-Broadway. The play featured poor kids living on Skid Row, a flower shop owner and a Venus fly trap.
The show was Little Shop of Horrors, the first stage success of the music writing duo Ashman and Menken, but the only Broadway victory that the former would live to see. The production caricatured a group of people working in a flower shop, including owner Mr. Mushnik and employees and lead characters, Audrey and Seymour.
As lyricist, Ashman took the characters and the story from the 1960 cult film with a similar name, adapting them to the stage with witty lyrics and funny dialogue. This signature, along with the comic book atmosphere would make it a hit off and on Broadway. From “Skid Row” to “Somewhere that’s Green,” Ashman’s use of topical humor and pop culture references would frame all of his work for the remainder of his extensive (but short-lived) career. Along with Menken, Ashman’s name (though regrettably forgotten by most non-Disney-enthusiasts) would become synonymous with great storytelling through music in some of Disney’s most treasured films.
The man of many voices
When Ashman was called to write lyrics for Disney three, he knew there was only one man to compose music to his lyrics for The Little Mermaid: Alan Menken.
Ashman, at this point an unappreciated Broadway veteran fresh off an unsuccessful run of his musical Smile, invited Menken to join the opportunity that would make him immortal in the world of lyricists.
The Little Mermaid became much more than Ashman’s pet project. The Broadway virtuoso dedicated his heart and soul to the production, singing versions of the songs he wrote with Menken, the recordings of which were readily used by actors performing the songs in the film. Ashman inhabited the voices of Ariel, Ursula, Sebastian and other characters using recordings not only as a medium for music, but for animated expression.
In the recording studio with Jodi Benson, the voice of Ariel, Ashman stood next to her and suggested the subtle nuances that would create the “Part of Your World” that we know, love and sing in the shower today. His recordings from The Little Mermaid and other films he wrote for were later released in an album titled Howard Sings Ashman.
Listening to Ashman sing his own lyrics on the CD makes the music truly come alive. Pat Carroll (the voice of Ursula) noted in an interview on The Little Mermaid Platinum Edition DVD that she stole bits and pieces of Ashman’s performances of the songs and lines in script and conformed to his innovative and expressive form of speaking and singing. In this way, he became not only a part of the songwriting in The Little Mermaid, but also part of how dialogue and lyrics worked in the film.
Tale as old as time
Ashman faced a future of endless potential after the success of The Little Mermaid in 1989, but by the time his next project was in the recording stages, he was no longer in a well-enough state to stand alongside his actors and coach their every word.
When Beauty and the Beast was in its production stage, Ashman was in a New York City hospital to combat a dire case of AIDS and was, according to interviews with Disney Animation staff at the time, deteriorating in voice and in person, but never in personality.
Frequently in contact with Beauty and the Beast by telephone, Ashman remained a part of the production management of the film, playing an integral role in the character of the story despite the diminishing of his own person. And much like with The Little Mermaid, his influence resulted in subtle but significant changes to lyrical interpretation.
In interviews from various Disney archival sources, Menken recounts a recording during the production of Beauty and the Beast. While Paige O’Hara, the voice of Belle, was in the sound booth singing “Something There,” the song of burgeoning love between Belle and the Beast, Ashman piped into the session from the phone in his New York hospital room.
When she hit a snag in the song, Ashman made one comment that would subtly alter O’Hara’s interpretation: he uttered “Streisand” in reference to the Broadway ingénue-turned-star Barbra Streisand as a source of inspiration for Belle’s voice, and that note of Beauty and the Beast forever changed.
A Disney legend
Before he passed in 1991, 40-year-old Ashman had written some of the most memorable lyrics, beyond even the animated film genre that he was an enormous part of. His lyrics integrated intelligence and beauty in voice and creativity in character, with a smattering of jokes on the side.
Further than these three movies, though, Ashman’s legacy will live on for decades with the continued re-releasing of these classic Disney films as well as their Broadway stage adaptations in recent years. The massive success of Beauty and the Beast on Broadway, Aladdin at Disney’s California Adventure theme park and The Little Mermaid on Broadway speaks to the Broadway spirit that Ashman and Menken ushered into Disney after years of movie musical dormancy.
While many of Disney’s greatest films were made decades before, there is no influence more instrumental to the voice of Disney characters of the late 1980s and early 1990s than Ashman.
He may have given a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, but Ashman gave the Disney Studio his own heart.
Editor's note, Dec. 22, 2012 at 10:17 p.m.: This article originally stated that Menken recruited Ashman to work on The Little Mermaid. It has been changed to reflect the fact that it was Ashman who was hired by Disney for three films of his choosing, and brought Menken on board for the film.