Howard, the documentary on the life of legendary lyricist Howard Ashman, opens with sounds of an orchestra warming up before launching into the first notes of “Belle,” the opening number for Beauty and the Beast, at a 1990 recording session for the Disney animated musical.
If you have any connection at all to the film and its music, you’ll get instant goosebumps as Ashman, with all the animated physicality of one of the film’s magical characters, coaches Paige O’Hara, the voice of Belle, through his desired phrasings, tones, and pronunciations. Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach are milling about, chatting with Ashman and preparing to launch into recording the “Be Your Guest” showstopper. It’s as thrilling, and nostalgic, as archival footage comes.
“We knew something really special was happening that day,” Don Hahn, producer of Beauty and the Beast and director of Howard, says in a voice-over. “What we didn’t know is that in nine months, Howard would be gone.”
The new documentary, which launches on Disney+ this Friday, isn’t just a celebration of Ashman’s career. The man who “gave a mermaid her voice, and a beast his soul,” he’s the Oscar-winning lyricist behind The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, who, with composer Alan Menken, ushered in the Disney renaissance and forever imprinted these stories on the hearts of generations.
“Howard’s work has been celebrated in many wonderful ways before,” Bill Lauch, who was Ashman’s partner of seven years when he died in 1991, tells The Daily Beast. “But this is a film about him. About his life.”
Howard traces Ashman’s journey to celebrated songsmith back to his days growing up in Cincinnati, where he would stage plays for his sister using toy figurines and would set anything to a song. As he says it, “I would musicalize my laundry list.”
It follows him to New York City, where he moved in with his college boyfriend Stuart “Snooze” White, before they broke up after White was seduced by the partying culture the city offered. He met Lauch after Little Shop of Horrors, which Ashman wrote with Menken, became a massive off-Broadway hit. They had locked eyes at a bar in the Village. Ashman called a few days later to ask him on a date: “Have you ever been to the Grammys?” (The Little Shop cast album had been nominated.)
There’s no short grift given to Ashman’s genius in Howard.
Watch and listen spellbound as demos play of him singing along to drafts of “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid or “Prince Ali” from Aladdin. We’re reminded of how it was his idea for Sebastian the crab to have a Jamaican accent; that it was he who spotted a character sketch of Ursula inspired by the drag legend Divine and insisted animators use that; who fought to keep “Part of Your World” from being cut when executives thought the ballad would make kids restless.
“He was all the characters,” Jodi Benson, who voiced Ariel in the film, tells me in an emotional phone interview. “He played everybody better than we did. And if we were smart, we just copied him.”
But at the crux of Howard is a love story between two men.
It’s about how that love informed the perspective from which he wrote the music for these animated classics. It’s about how that love held strong as Ashman worked through his last days, first making the decision to finally tell Disney about his HIV diagnosis, then recording Beauty and the Beast as his health deteriorated, and finally writing the music for Aladdin from his deathbed.
It changes how you think about and internalize this music you probably hold so dear.
Disney obsessives might be familiar with the fact that Ashman died of AIDS at age 40, eight months before Beauty and the Beast hit theaters, and the attempts over the years to extrapolate different meanings from the songs’ lyrics because of what he was going through at the time.
But it makes an entirely different, more profound impact to see the story of Ashman’s great love with Lauch woven through the narrative of his indelible output, and to bear witness to the Herculean effort the pair went through at the end of his life to ensure that these final projects would be lasting ones.
More, this is a film that censors no aspect about Ashman’s life as a gay man and gives space to the brutality of the AIDS epidemic and how, through Ashman, it shaped what would become one of the most defining eras in Disney history.
Disney obsessives also know that the company has been criticized for its lack of LGBTQ inclusiveness, with generations still waiting for queer romances and characters in its films. That’s not to mention recent programming decisions like the shifting of the gay teen romance series Love, Victor from Disney+ to Hulu that telegraph the message that such content isn’t “family-friendly.”
It certainly means something, then, that Howard is premiering on that Disney+ platform. In fact, it means a lot.
“He died so young, just barely 40, and he lived in a time when it was not easy to be out and gay,” Lauch says. “He didn't really live in a closet, and everyone at Disney knew about our relationship. But the public, in general, was a different matter. Had he been able to grow and live through all the changes that we've seen in society, I don't know how public he would have been. But I know that it would have made a further impact on his work, his story, and what he wanted to do with life.”
Jodi Benson first met Howard Ashman as a young aspiring musical theater actress, auditioning for his splashy follow-up to Little Shop of Horrors, a beauty pageant satire called Smile.
She was on her fifth callback, a dance audition, when Ashman walked into the casting room and motioned her to the door with his finger. She broke down the second the two met in the hallway.
She was certain she had been cut and was devastated. But Ashman had actually brought her out there to tell her she got the part. He thought it was cruel to keep torturing her by making her dance through callbacks, weighed down with the anxiety of whether she was going to screw things up.
“It was the most generous and compassionate thing anyone’s ever done for me in my life,” she says.
Smile, it turns out, was a flop, and ultimately the catalyst for Ashman to head to Los Angeles and meet with Disney. Benson surmises it was guilt on Ashman’s part that Smile wasn’t a hit that compelled him to bring her in to audition for the voice of Ariel in The Little Mermaid.
She can’t count how many times over the years she’s performed the movie’s signature song, “Part of Your World.” But every time, she says, “I have this beautiful gift of a trigger memory of me singing it with Howard standing to my left.”
When she performs, as the piano tinkles the song’s intro, she makes a point of talking about him to the audience. Then she’ll take a breath so she doesn’t cry, and starts singing.
She thinks Howard should be required viewing for Disney fans and for those who have been touched by his music.
“It makes you really appreciate the art that came from all that he had to go through, all the pain and the sorrow and the joy and the frustration and the hurt and the rejection,” she says. “You’re going to listen to his music and be able to say, oh my gosh, when he's writing ‘Part of Your World,’ he also is struggling to figure out how to fit in. How to fit in with his personal life, how to fit in with his social life, how to fit in with all these different areas.”
It was at the Governors Ball after the Academy Awards ceremony that Ashman knew it was time to start telling people he was sick. Holding the Oscar they had just won for “Under the Sea,” he told Menken, “I’m so happy tonight, but when we get back to New York we have to have a serious talk.”
Benson was in Los Angeles when she got the call that Ashman only had a few days left to live. She hopped a redeye flight to New York that night and went straight to the hospital. Ashman had a cassette player on his chest. He had been listening to audition tapes of actors up for the role of Aladdin singing “Proud of Your Boy,” a song that would eventually be cut from the film but has since become a favorite of fans.
They traded notes on some of the performances, and then she took a moment to thank him for everything he had done for her, hold his hand, kiss him on the forehead, and say goodbye.
Before she could close the door to the hospital room behind her when she left, she crumpled to the floor weeping. She could hear Ashman’s voice from the bed asking Lauch to go out and see what was wrong. “With everything going on, he was the one worried about me.”
A driving point of Howard is how hard he worked to make sure that the songs he was writing at that time, often while confined to his hospital bed, were perfect. He had the very real sense that they would be his last—and that he wanted them to last.
When The Little Mermaid was released, Ashman and Lauch flew to Orlando for press. Disney World had put on a parade with characters from the movie in it, dancing along to Ashman’s songs.
“He suddenly teared up and got emotional. It dawned on him that this was going to enter the catalogue of Disney classics, that he was going to have a legacy,” Lauch says. “It was kind of unspoken and not expressed, but you know we just sort of looked at it. And both of us got kind of overwhelmed with the realization that this was happening.”
Paige O’Hara kept trying to raise her voice up an octave so that she would sound younger as Belle, but Howard Ashman was having nothing of it. He had cast O’Hara because of the maturity in her voice. Belle had an emotional intelligence beyond her years. That needed to reflect when she sang.
“He hid his HIV from us for so long,” she says in a phone interview. “And then I think back to those sessions, and I realize how really sick he was during that period, and how he had more energy than any of us. It's just unbelievable how strong and passionate he was, that he could muster up that kind of enthusiasm.”
A few months before the film’s release, there was a press push for the Beauty and the Beast soundtrack. Angela Lansbury, who at that point didn’t perform in public much, declined to take part and asked O’Hara to instead make the rounds singing the “Beauty and the Beast” title track. So she went to composer Alan Menken’s house to rehearse it.
Menken realized that it had been a long time since Ashman had heard anyone perform the song, so they called him in his New York hospital room and O’Hara sang it to him through the phone.
“I didn't know he had HIV then. I just knew that he was really sick,” O’Hara says. “I was guessing it was that, but it was confirmed to me about two days later. It’s such a hard thing. My husband and I were going to funerals every week at that point. I often think about what Howard would have created if he was still alive.”
Having this information now is an incredible, transformative thing, if you ever watch the movie again: the joy and magic that sing from every frame of that film and every verse of its songs contrast with the fact that, as he wrote them, Ashman was staring death in the face at age 39.
Three of Ashman and Menken’s songs from Beauty and the Beast were nominated for Oscars, with the title track winning. The ceremony took place four months after Ashman’s death. When the envelope was open and his name was called, Lauch joined Menken on stage.
“Howard and I shared a home and a life together, and I’m very happy and very proud to accept this for him,” Lauch said at the microphone. “But it is bittersweet. This is the first Academy Award to be given to someone we have lost to AIDS.”
It was a historic moment, not just in the tragedy of what Ashman’s win represented but in the fact that Lauch, his partner, was on stage contextualizing what it meant in front of all of Hollywood and the people watching at home.
O’Hara, who had performed “Belle” earlier that night, was watching from the wings with Richard White, who voiced Gaston. “Both of us looked at each other and hugged, teary-eyed, and said, ‘This is an amazing moment. This is history.’”
For Lauch, the moment was a culmination of many things: of Ashman’s work, of the life they shared together, of the chaos of those last months with Ashman battling his health and the dark, looming deadline to finish those projects.
“We both felt very isolated, afraid for knowledge of his HIV status to spread, how we would be treated, and whether his job was in jeopardy,” he says. “All of this stress, tension, and anxiety was a part of our daily life.”
In that Academy Award speech, he wanted to make the point that Disney had rallied around Ashman, giving him the support he needed so he could focus on his health and his ability to work. They had help, but so many other men who were struggling in exactly the same way didn’t.
He wanted to make sure he said that, and that he said that to that audience, specifically. That the speech is still such a landmark moment? Of course he never could have planned for that.
“I wish we could have been married, and we would have been,” he says. “But I was his surviving partner and it made sense to be there and represent. I’m glad that people now see it as a point of change.”
Don Hahn made Howard as an independent film.
He had known Bill Lauch from when he had worked with Ashman as a producer on Beauty and the Beast. He knew that their love story was an emotional one and that, more, it was going to be intrinsic to any documentary he made about Howard Ashman’s life.
“I wanted to guard that,” he says. “I didn’t want anybody to edit that out.”
After the film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in spring 2018, there was interest from a number of studios and streaming services to pick it up for distribution. Disney was among them, telling him, “This is our culture and history, and this is our movie and story.”
He agreed to let the film go to Disney+, with reservations, given its LGBTQ+ content and historical look at the AIDS epidemic. “To their credit, no one at Disney+ came in and asked me to change that content at all,” he says. The only cuts that were made were of the Hamilton variety: two words, including “whorehouse,” that were bleeped.
If anyone is surprised that Disney, with its meager track record when it comes to LGBTQ+ inclusivity, would be the service premiering this story, Hahn understands. “I feel exactly the same way,” he says.
“I feel like the company knows the LGBTQ+ community is a loyal part of the audience. We need to make movies about our whole audience—and do it kind of fearlessly. So if this is the beginning of that, I'm really happy.”
O’Hara doesn’t mince her words when it comes to that topic.
“It's huge and it's about friggin’ time,” she says. “It's about time that there's more stories of love with the gay community and films about them. I mean, I think this is going to open up a huge door for the LGBTQ community. It's just way past due.”
While making too much of this film’s Disney+ launch would be an unearned celebration when it comes to progress, it is poetically perfect that it is Howard Ashman’s story that is the catalyst for the conversation.
“I think it takes characters like Howard, who enter into that venue and give good reason to change things,” Lauch says. “I think that the fact that Howard was incredibly gifted and was willing to share those gifts with this company that maybe felt outside his cultural world was a way to pull them into it. I think it had to start from a willingness to go in that direction by Disney, and then it also took a talent and a character like Howard, to sort of take the torch and run with it, as it were.”