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`Howard’ a poignant tribute songwriting genius Ashman

Douglas Laman
Special to Texoma Marketing and Media Group
Disney lyricist Howard Ashman, the subject of the documentary "Howard," has been gone for almost 30 years, but his witty and nimble work lives on in the songs of classic films.

Last summer, I went and saw my college’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors.” I’d seen this show numerous times (heck, I was even in a version of it in high school), but it never fails to dazzle me. The songs, the puppetry, the dark sense of humor - it’s all just so up my alley. At this particular viewing, though, one of the songs hit me like it never had before. The song was “Somewhere That’s Green,” which features Audrey wistfully singing about her desires to move into a traditional 1950s suburban home. It’s a tongue-in-cheek parody of the classic “I Want” songs, with the joke being that Audrey wants TV dinners and a 12-inch TV rather than to go somewhere over the rainbow.

It’s all so silly and humorous, yet, somehow, those final few lines got me all choked up. It had never happened before, but as “Somewhere That’s Green” wrapped up, I was dabbing tears from my eyes. Maybe it was just my mood that day. Maybe it was because I was older now and better understood the concept of wanting something that seems so close yet so far away. Whatever the reason, the lyrics that songwriter Howard Ashman penned for this tune touched my heart like I had never heard the song before. That’s the power of a great lyricist.

This lyricist gets an appropriately superb documentary with “Howard” (streaming now on Disney+). Hailing from director Don Hahn, who produced a number of animated Disney films including “Beauty and the Beast,” “Howard” chronicles the life of Howard Ashman from his childhood days in growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, to his establishing the WPA Theater in New York City, to his time spent at Walt Disney Animation Studios writing Oscar-winning tunes for movies the aforementioned “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid.”

In the second-half of the movie’s runtime, the tragic element of Ashman being diagnosed with HIV enters the picture. He chose to keep his diagnosis a secret from nearly everyone, including the folks at Disney. But he and his loved ones knew the time he had left was limited. Whatever time he had left, though, Ashman was going to use it to express the sort of creativity he’d been exhibiting since he was a youngster.

Hahn proves insightful, using lyrics from Ashman’s assorted songs to reflect the man’s mood at various points in his life. Lyrics from productions like “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Smile,” and even a rejected tune for Jafar to sing from “Aladdin” take on whole new levels of meaning when placed against pivotal parts of Ashman’s life. Of course, the best use of one of his songs comes toward the end when Alan Menken recounts a dream he had about Ashman the night this lyricist passed away. This was always going to be an incredibly moving moment, but having it accompanied by a soft orchestral cover of “Somewhere That’s Green” just gives it an extra boost of poignancy.

Meanwhile, pieces of narration related to the AIDS crisis ensures that “Howard” isn’t just a fluff piece promoting the Disney movies that Ashman worked on. It not only emphasizes Ashman’s struggle with AIDS, but delivers anecdotes painting such a warm and lovely portrait of his home life. These stories of casual domestic life are sweet on their own merits, but they also succeed in ensuring that “Howard” doesn’t only focus on Ashman’s sexuality for tragic purposes.

At one point, “The Little Mermaid” director John Musker notes that he and Ashman were watching a “Little Mermaid”-themed float go down a road at Walt Disney World. As the float passed them, Ashman, who was well aware of his terminal illness, turned to Musker and said ,“This is going to outlive me after I die.” Nearly 30 years after he passed away, Ashman’s works continue to enchant people. His bold creativity, witty wordplay and sense of empathy for his characters - these key components of his work have endured.

They’re the qualities that are emphasized so much throughout well-made documentary “Howard” and ensure that the world will always know characters like Seymour Krelborn, Ariel and Belle. And they’re the very qualities that ensure someone can cry listening to “Somewhere That’s Green” for the umpteenth time.

Douglas Laman is a lifelong movie fan and writer. A graduate of UT Dallas, he is preparing to become a graduate student at the University of North Texas. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group.

Howard Ashman, standing, works with partner Alan Menken. They can be recognized for helping to revive Walt Disney Studios Animation with their run of films that include "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin."