Review: 'Howard,' a valentine to the songwriter who helped Disney get its mojo back

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Disney lyricist Howard Ashman in a promotional poster for the documentary "Howard." - Disney Plus/Disney Plus/TNS

The Howard in “Howard,” streaming on Disney Plus starting Friday, is Howard Ashman. And anyone who had the wit and the cheek to write the lyric “I use antlers in all of my decorating!” for the muscle-bound antagonist in “Beauty and the Beast” plainly deserves to have his story be told in a documentary.

Ashman’s lyrics — and, just as crucially, his finesse with every aspect of musical theater — played an enormous part in the Disney animation comeback begun in the late 1980s. At the time the studio’s animation output had sputtered into near-irrelevance. Few within the company showed much faith in feature animation, despite its long and often glorious history there under Walt Disney.

As writer-director Don Hahn’s absorbing 2018 documentary shows, when then-studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg convinced Ashman to go west and join the team, the company’s financial and creative fortunes changed seemingly overnight.

Ashman was coming off a debilitating Broadway flop at the time, a 1986 musical version of the Michael Ritchie film “Smile,” so he was ready to try something new. He got to work with collaborator and composer Alan Menken on “The Little Mermaid” (1989), which turned out to be a huge hit and a weather vane for the studio: This is where we should go.

An adaptation of “Aladdin” proved stubborn. By this time Ashman had received his HIV diagnosis, at a time in the AIDS epidemic when contracting AIDS virtually guaranteed a short and terrible finale. In the time he had left, Ashman rejoined Menken on another stalled Disney animation project, “Beauty and the Beast.” From its sweeping, theatrically scaled opening number “Belle” onward, Ashman and company made it clear: The movie, as New York Times drama critic Frank Rich later wrote, was the best Broadway musical of 1991. It just happened to be on film, and wasn’t (yet) a stage phenomenon or, as Disney continued to drag its hits on stage, another dutiful example of brand extension.

Three of Ashman’s songs ended up in the next Disney animated smash, “Aladdin” (1992). By that time Ashman was dead, in 1991, at the age of 40. He’d kept his diagnosis a secret until near the end, from most everyone. As “Howard” acknowledges, Ashman was terrified of losing his Disney health insurance. As far back as 1989, he participated in a tiring “Little Mermaid” press junket, as a good company man, with a heart catheter in his chest. He wrote the “Aladdin” lyrics to “Prince Ali” from his hospital bed, accompanied by composer Menken and his portable keyboard.

“Howard” does a fine, loving job tracing who he was as a gay Jewish boy growing up in Baltimore; as an aspiring playwright and theatrical impresario, schooled at Boston University, Goddard College in Vermont, the summer theater program at Tufts University, and a graduate student at Indiana University; and as a hungry young New York City transplant, eager to make his mark.

He and his first serious boyfriend, Stuart White, decamped to New York together from Indiana, where they started their own off-off-Broadway theater, the WPA. “Howard” is pure catnip for fans of both Disney animation and ’70s and ’80s musical theater. Ashman struck gold with his first major success, “Little Shop of Horrors.” In one archival interview he describes the show’s appeal as “the dark side of ‘Grease.’” As a teenager Ashman fell hard for the old Roger Corman movie. Everyone told him it was a terrible idea for a musical. He made millions off it.

“Howard” director Don Hahn worked with Ashman on “Beauty and the Beast,” and he interpolates a fair amount of Disney rehearsal footage and interview snippets from the earlier and illuminating Disney-sanctioned documentary, “Waking Sleeping Beauty.” Hahn and company handle the rougher edges and volatile contradictions of Ashman’s life and personality with discretion bordering occasionally on blandness. Speaking of which: “Howard” ends with a montage of Ashman’s Disney influence, including footage of the billion-dollar-grossing live-action remakes of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin.” Yeah, well. Money isn’t everything.

Ashman wanted success, of course, on his creative terms. In the film Ashman speaks eloquently on the topic of the “I want” song — a number sung early in a show (or a movie), usually by the heroine, expressing what’s in her heart and her vision of happiness and fulfillment. Ashman poured that concept into his life’s work. Some musical theater giants, notably songwriter Jerry Ross of “The Pajama Game” and “Damn Yankees,” leave this world before they’ve barely begun. (Ross was 29.) Ashman cemented his own legacy on the musical stage and on the Disney animated musical soundstage, just in time.

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‘HOWARD’

3.5 stars

MPAA rating: PG

Running time: 1:35

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