B Sides: Why Howard Ashman Was The Unsung Hero of The Disney Renaissance
  • TUESDAY, MARCH 01, 2016

  • Posted by: Don Saas

B Sides is a weekly franchise that examines an element of contemporary culture outside of the realm of just music. And in the wake of Sunday's Oscars controversy, we're looking at the legacy of Academy Award-winning lyricist Howard Ashman

Sunday night, Sam Smith came under fire at the Academy Awards for claiming that he was the first openly gay man to win an Oscar. He...wasn't. There have been plenty (though none in the acting categories as Ian McKellan bemoaned publicly in the midst of this year's vocal diversity issues with the Academy). And the honor of being the first openly gay man to win an Academy Award was Howard Ashman.



Unless you're a hardcore Disney devotee, you probably don't know Howard Ashman by name, but if you watched a Disney film between the years of 1988 to 1992, you've heard his music (or if you're a fan of cult musical favorite, The Little Shop of Horrors, for which he was the librettist of the stage play and the lyricist for the film). Alongside composer Alan Menken and fellow lyricist Tim Rice, Howard Ashman helped to kickstart the Disney renaissance from the late 80s to the mid-90s.

Starting off with a contribution to 1988's Oliver & Company (generally considered to be the first film of Disney's renewed period of artistic ambition after the string of busts that were released in the 70s and most of the 80s though I will stan for The Great Mouse Detective as an unsung masterpiece of 80s Disney), Howard Ashman took over as the chief lyricist for The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast and would have been the main lyricist for Aladdin had he not succumbed to his battle with AIDS (and he still contributed a significant number of songs to the soundtrack).



This is going to be heretical for some folks, but the reason those 90s Disney films (particularly the ones that Menken/Ashman wrote the tunes for) were such successes had little to do with the stories of those films. Beauty and the Beast is my favorite Disney film that isn't made by Pixar or is Fantasia, but the core love story at its heart is...problematic and then some. The Little Mermaid is a pretty basic adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale, and the less said about Aladdin's awkward Orientalism the better. But those scores/soundtracks have stood the test of time more than even many of the most beloved Broadway musicals of the last 60 years.

And it was Howard Ashman's background in actual musical theater that contributed to that success. His magnum opus (the "book" for Beauty & the Beast) could be easily mistaken for a Broadway soundtrack if you'd never seen the film. It has patter songs. It's not built solely around show-stopping solo numbers. Choristers create the texture and background chatter that are at the heart of all of the recognizable Stephen Sondheim/Andrew Lloyd Webber numbers that you know and love. "The Mob Song" could easily have been taken out of The Phantom of the Opera and with a little imaginative set work, "Belle" is a classic opening number from a musical, introducing the ingenue heroine and the town (and its people) that she calls home. And there's the classic villain song, "Gaston," that tells you everything you need to know about Gaston, who may be toxic masculinity defined.



And while I may have made that crack about the film not being built solely around jaw-dropping solo vocal runs, the most famous song from the film is its title track (for which Howard Ashman won his second Oscar for Best Original Song...sadly, posthumously as the film was released months after he passed away from his battle to AIDS). Though it's the performance from theater legend Angela Lansbury in the film itself that speaks to the subtle romanticism and fantasy of Ashman's lyrics more than the over-produced radio version featuring Peabo Byrson and Celine Dion.

The lyrics of Howard Ashman and Tim Rice alongside the music of Alan Menken (and also Elton John for The Lion King) elevated films that were otherwise safe and predictable children's fare. And when that music stopped being the focus of Disney's films, they immediately lost their place in the spotlight to the works of Pixar, and even at the peak of the Disney renaissance, the storytelling of Don Bluth's films of that same era (An American Tail, All Dogs Go To Heaven, The Land Before Time) were more imaginative/emotionally involving.



Think about the last non-Pixar Disney film to receive the sort of accolades that the output of those films from the 80s/90s were given. It was Frozen, and once again, Frozen's success is largely due to the music. It's time for another heretical opinion. The narrative of Frozen is serviceable. It's a subversion of Disney's own tropes but not in any radical or emotionally impactful sense and with none of the edge that Pixar had been bringing to kid's movies for two decades by that point. But "Let It Go" is the best Disney song since "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" and it was sung by Broadway legend Idina Menzel. Are you starting to see the pattern here?

There's no Disney renaissance without Howard Ashman. Full stop. He left an indelible imprint on generations of children. And I should know. I was born in 1989...the year that saw the release of The Little Mermaid. My family had every single Howard Ashman Disney musical on VHS (except for Oliver & Company and he only contributed a single song to that soundtrack). The music of those films (and the competition that was being presented by Don Bluth and his team of disgruntled former Disney animators) pushed Disney to the be their very best to keep up. And so, Sam Smith, the next time you decide to make cute quotes about thinking you should date Howard Ashman cause you have no idea who he is or the role he played in the advancement of the queer community, maybe you can find this article and get some education.

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