“Betcha on land, they understand…”
Mousertainment Memorandum: I meant to post this piece for Howard Ashman’s birthday in May, but got caught in a run of other features. However, I present it today in recognition of the contributions and creations of this truly iconic and timeless talent.
I fell in love with Howard Ashman when I first saw the movie version of the musical Little Shop of Horrors and ate up every word of his witty, subversive lyrics. But I didn’t really recognize his genius until he and his composing partner Alan Menken joined up with The Walt Disney Company to create the late 1980’s/early 1990’s renaissance of animated films running from The Little Mermaid to Beauty and the Beast to Aladdin.
He was only 40 years old when he tragically passed away far too soon, but in those years that he wrote, he made a permanent indelible impression on generations of people, including myself.
As I child, I was enamored with the words of Lewis Carroll in his tales of Alice and Wonderland. It wasn’t his characters or their story so much as his ability to play with and reconstruct and reinterpret words that fascinated me.
When I grew older, that appreciation of this type of writer grew to include William Shakespeare – who also could use words to inspire and provoke, as well as move and amuse and define.
For me, Howard Ashman was one to be included in their ranks of the most admired wordsmiths. Something about the way his brain worked to twist language into its cleverest connotations tickled my fancy and pleased my vocabulary-loving mind. (Cole Porter would be another, may I add.)
From his litany of fish playing instruments to his ode to food dismemberment by a chef to a flatware “culinary cabaret” or a command to “genuflect, show some respect, down on one knee!” – Ashman’s mental acuity and linguistic gymnastics were such a special unique gift that they still make me marvel every time I roll his words around on my tongue.
Yet it was also Ashman’s status as an outcast – projected so clearly into so many of his songs, from Audrey’s ache for the ideal life that everyone else seemed to have in “Somewhere That’s Green” from Little Shop of Horrors to Ariel’s craving to be “Part of Your World” from Little Mermaid to Belle’s “peculiar” “different from the rest of us” girl in “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast – that made his words of longing so much more than just clever phrasing. So many people could relate to these not-quite-fitting-in characters and their feelings, all channeled by this one beautiful soul who spoke for them through their words.
For me, “Part of Your World” is the ultimate Disney Princess “I Want” song. One can interpret this as a very personal cry of someone desperately wanting to belong to a world they don’t feel invited or welcomed into and don’t totally understand. And this ubiquity and raw vulnerability is what makes it truly a song for the ages – not just for a teenage mermaid.
In Beauty and the Beast, it’s Belle’s status as an outcast, that she’s different, that’s really how she relates to the Beast, not just on seeing what’s below the surface.
And it’s Gaston’s “pure paragon”, seemingly admired by all the ‘normal’ people, that is shown to be gross and ugly and undesirable when examined closely.
In any movie, I’d encourage you to pay attention to the words and the writing, but in a musical, especially to the song lyrics. Howard Ashman was such a specific talent that I’ve always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Aladdin, as Ashman passed away before the film was finished and half the resulting lyrics were completed by Tim Rice (who I also like as a lyricist but who has a completely different style). The final product is a very schizophrenic film that bends from the extremes of Ashman’s dark humor to the lighter more saccharine quality of Rice’s “every moment red letter” lyrics. Over time, I came to appreciate the melding of both (honestly, in large part due to seeing Disney’s Aladdin – A Musical Spectacular at Disney California Adventure on so many occasions!). But when I first heard the lost song, “Proud of Your Boy”, later reintroduced from the Disney archives, that was not included in the released film, my heart wept for the movie that might have been… and everything else that Ashman could have accomplished given the blessing of time.
It has been 25 years since Howard left this world, but his words will live in perpetuity, his ultimate legacy.
And while there are many people who deserve the title “Disney Legend”, for me, Howard was simply legendary by any definition and will never ever be forgotten.
As dedicated in the film Beauty and the Beast:
“To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful. Howard Ashman 1950–1991.”
Are you a fan of Howard Ashman’s work? What is your favorite song lyric of his?