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Tribeca Film Festival: ‘Howard’ (review)

Produced by Don Hahn,
Jonathan Polenz, Lori Korngiebel

Written and Directed by Don Hahn
Featuring Howard Ashman, Alan Menken,
Jeffrey Katzenberg, Bill Lauch,
Sarah Gillespie, Peter Schneider


Almost three decades ago, the world lost not only one of the best lyricist but one of Broadway’s most dearest icons.

Howard Ashman didn’t just write songs, he wrote music that would forever touch our lives, so we could pass it down from generation to generation.

While his death, will always haves us wondering what could have been; his work continues to live on through various Disney live-action remakes like The Little Mermaid on Broadway and the Tony Award winning movie musical Beauty and the Beast.

Even though Ashman helped usher in the golden age of animated musicals which helped save Disney from folding, not much is known about his short-lived life.  Fortunately, Don Hahn’s documentary dives deep into his magical yet tragic journey with the help of Ashman’s co-workers, family members and friends.

Howard is a deeply insightful, caring and personal documentary which explores Ashman as a musical genius and a fearful gay man, who at any minute could lose it all.

In a rather linear fashion, the documentary begins with his sister where Ashman’s love of theater started as a child. At a young age Ashman was putting on creative shows for his family on a daily basis by using basic homemade toys.

From there he discovered the theater and honed his skills by writing imaginative musicals as a teenager. While he was content with his life, he longed for more adventure and sought better opportunities in New York City. Co-founding the WPA Theater which started out as all startups in a random office building in LES, his life forever changed when he met composer Alan Menken who wanted to collaborate on a musical adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Despite a very successful run at a smaller venue, the production fell apart once it ran on Broadway.

Fortunately, that didn’t deter the duo and they adapted Roger Corman’s 1960’s smash comedy Little Shop of Horrors which had a five-year run and was beloved by theater goers and movie lovers when it was written for the screen in 1986 (it was even nominated for Grammy).

Ashman would go on find success with multiple musical adaptations, but it wasn’t until the flop of musical adaptation of Smile  which lead to volatile creative differences with Marvin Hamlisch did Ashman’s life change for the best. Recruited Jeffrey Katzenberg, he moved California to work for Disney where he helped build their animation department. In a recorded interview he told an 92nd Street Y audience that animated musicals were the next big thing not knowing he was predicting his very successful career.
Despite Ashman’s success, he was harboring a deep secret, he was HIV-positive (a death sentence in the 90’s). While living with architect Bill Lauch, Ashman hid not only their relationship from the public but also his diagnoses. Afraid to the backlash he would face (especially from the family friendly All-American values Disney), he continued to work despite his illness and the heavy toll it took on his body.

During this time he worked with Menken again for Aladdin and The Little Mermaid. It wasn’t until the creation of Beauty and Beast did Menken decide to pour his personal struggles and fears into the song “The Mob Song,” it was his psychological release. The lyrics had a special meaning to Ashman who felt like an outsider as a gay HIV-positive man. During 90’s not much was known about HIV/AIDS, and many gays faced discriminated and were being murdered.

As Ashman’s body continued to deteriorate, he finally told his co-workers including Menken who found out a few days later after they won an Oscar for “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid. His fears would go unwarranted, as Disney supported him during his toughest battle, even moving their entire office to his hospital room to continue working on Beauty and Beast.
Unfortunately, Ashman died before the release of the movie but he was awarded a posthumous Oscar for Best Song.
Hahn created a documentary Disney and Ashman would be proud to show. Filled with behind the scenes footage of Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach singing as Mrs. Potts and Lumiere, to the planning of Aladdin and failed concept of The Little Mermaid’s Ursula. Ashman is an insight documentary flowing with the heart and soul of Disney magic.
Thoughtful, kind, and unabashed, there is both pleasurable and heartbreaking moments. Ashman produced our childhood in songs while Howard the documentary reminds us why Ashman made Disney happiest place on Earth.
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