Journalist. Mother. Bunny enthusiast. Pop culture junkie.

Journalist. Mother. Bunny enthusiast. Pop culture junkie.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Man Who Saved Disney

His name was Howard Ashman.

He had a glowing Broadway career before fate intervened.

He worked his way up the showbiz ladder during the mid-1970s and a decade later, he had not only created award-winning musicals, but had found a perfect professional partnership with composer Alan Menkin. Together, with Alan writing the music and Howard creating deliciously witty lyrics, they won awards and dazzled Broadway audiences with spectacular musicals, such as Little Shop of Horrors and Smile.

While the two 30-somethings were enjoying their theatrical success in New York City, there was drama brewing across the country.

Disney executives in Hollywood were panicking. The company seemed to be a sinking ship, with one box office disappointment after another. Ever since Walt Disney's death, the company had been struggling to maintain its magic. In the 1980s, especially, they watched in dismay as their animated movies, like The Great Mouse Detective, were overshadowed by films like An American Tail and Land Before Time,  both which were created by a former Disney employee.

Fast action was required. Disney executives turned their attention to a project, which had been tossed around since the 1930s. It was called The Little Mermaid. They wanted catchy Broadway-like songs to be the focus.

So, Howard and Alan were brought on board to liven things up.

It couldn't have been a more perfect fit.

The two immediately got to work, creating songs that mesmerized studio execs. They even brought in one of their former Broadway stars, Jodi Benson, to voice Ariel.

(Below is iconic footage of Howard guiding Jodi during the recording of "Part of Your World.")

At the time, they were just having fun. The two men had absolutely no idea they were creating Hollywood history.

But when The Little Mermaid was released, they finally realized their lives had changed forever.

Not only was the film a humongous box office smash and insane commercial success, it put Disney back on top. It won Howard and Alan two Academy Awards for best score and best song ("Under the Sea").

But the happiness was short-lived.

Three days after the ceremony, the two men were sitting in Howard's cottage, which he shared with his lover, an architect. Howard revealed to Alan that he was HIV positive. He had been diagnosed during the making of the Little Mermaid. Alan was devastated for his friend.

They also knew they needed to beat the clock to finish their latest project, Beauty and the Beast. Disney flew out their animators to New York to work with Howard. At first, the animators were annoyed because they thought Howard was just being a big shot, having them fly out to him. But when they arrived, it quickly became clear that Howard was seriously ill.

When his eyesight failed, Disney hired somebody to read for him. Within months, they had a speakerphone hooked up next to his bed. Despite his difficulties, Howard never stopped working.

When Disney executives held the first screening of Beauty and the Beast, they were stunned. The film completely blew them away. They visited Howard in the hospital, to tell him the great news, and were saddened to see he didn't have much time left. He was down to 80 pounds, had lost all his sight, and could barely speak. But he smiled when he heard the movie was going to be a huge success.

He died of AIDS at the age of 40, several months before Beauty and the Beast was released in theaters.

His second Academy Award was accepted by his grieving lover.

Before his death, Howard had written a few songs for his next project Aladdin. Those songs, "Arabian Nights," "Friend Like Me," and "Prince Ali" were all used in the film.

Years after his death, Disney would go on to have even more phenomenal success with Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, and Mulan.

Alan has also continued to have enviable success. He would go on to compose even more Disney films (most recently, Tangled) and win a record eight Academy Awards. Most recently, he was nominated for a Tony for his production of Sister Act The Musical. He is considered one of the most powerful and iconic figures in musical theater history.

Needless to say, his old friend Howard would be proud.

Although he has been dead for more than two decades, Howard's legacy has never been stronger.

His sister keeps a twitter, tumblr, and blog in his honor. And fans all over the world have fan sites and Facebook pages dedicated to him.

After all, your star doesn't just fade away after you become part of the world's childhood.


Mike Ekey said...

Amazing story. I remember and love everyone one of those movies and I hope to share them with my daughter in the future.

The Dainty Dolls House said...

Spectacular story...what a life!! Just so sad it was quickly taken away from such a thing...I really do hope they find a cure sometime. He wrote some gorgeous those xx

fashion-meets-art said...

so good to know. thanks for sharing.
lovely greets
maren anita


Style-Delights said...

Such an inspiring story!! Thanks for sharing! I love your posts about entertainment stars and their colorful, interesting, inspiring personalities!! Thanks for visiting my blog! Hope you are having a wonderful day!
Style Delights Blog

Chloe Moon said...

Little mermaid, beauty & beast, & Aladdin shaped my childhood. I always say that I was lucky to be young yet old enough to enjoy those films and see them in the theaters. Little Mermaid was the first movie I ever saw in the theaters. That's a shame he passed away. He really did bring such light to children everywhere!

Couture Carrie said...

What an awesome story, darling, and beautifully told, as usual! Will have to check out the blog his sister keeps.


P.S. Thanks for being the only one so far to properly enter my sleep mask giveaway :)

Aditi So-Saree said...

Another beautiful post.


Josie said...

What a great tribute to someone who contributed to soooo many people's memories!
xo Josie

Swarnali said...

It is such a pity he left the world so young....
Amazing and a very inspiring story...The Little Mermaid and Aladdin have always been my fave animated movies

David Macaulay said...

wow - I never knew Disney was in such trouble in the 1980s, not that I know so much re Disney anyhow :)

French Girl in Seattle said...

Well, my dear Jenny, another wonderful story about a talented guy (I am ashamed to confess) I had never heard about until tonight... I have excellent friends who are huge Disney fans, and I am forwarding this story to them tonight. I am curious to see if they are aware of the role Howard played in recent Disney productions. Well done. Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

Sherin said...

That was so interesting to read. Both The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast played such a big role in my childhood, that it's interesting to know about someone so important to them.

The Grande Dame said...

B&B is still one of my favourite films of all time. Knowing it was made possible by someone who had their life cut so short makes it even more special. What a loss, yet what a legacy to leave behind.

Cafe Fashionista said...

You basically just gave history to three of my forever favorite Disney films - The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. Love love love this post! :)

Shybiker said...

I love how informative and educational your posts are.

Shannon said...

This story gave me chills. WOW. And as someone who grew up with The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, this just makes it even more powerful.

Chic 'n Cheap Living said...

Wow, thanks for sharing this story. It is so sad that he left the world too early and "The Little Mermaid" was really a new and great time for Disney. It is interesting to know that the two of them were part of such a historic turnaround for the company.

Chic 'n Cheap Living

Jessica Cangiano said...

What an engaging, fascinating story - and life. I was not aware of this true tale one bit, but shall certainly think of it often now whenever I see something relating to Disney.

♥ Jessica

*PS* Thank you deeply for your terrifically sweet comment (it will have me blushing all week!) on my US day trip post this week, honey. I hope very much that you get a chance to visit friendly ol' Canada one day, too.

Style Diaries said...

I am completely obsessed with everything!!!! Very lovely and chic.

xoxo, Style Diaries, a Lifestyle Blog & Yum Diaries a Food Blog.


Rosh S said...

Such a touching story :) All three where his music was used - Little Mermaid, Alladin and Beauty and the Beast continue to remain my favourites even today. Can't help but wonder what future Disney productions would have been if he had lived.


Having been a huge film fan all of my life, I loved reading this post. I had read alittle about Alan and Howard's story before, but as always, you have a way of unfolding stories that make it so much more interesting! I agree, how can you forget the people that contributed such a large part to your childhood. Surprisingly, LM and B&B are my favorite Disney films. I still sing Under the Sea in the shower sometimes!


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