The Life and Work of Howard Ashman

Howard Ashman was a native of Baltimore who grew up loving MUSIC.

In 1974, after graduating from Goddard College in Vermont and receiving his MFA from Indiana University—where he was also a member of the professional acting company—Ashman moved to New York. In 1976, his play, The Confirmation, was produced at Princeton’s McCarter Theater.

A founder of the WPA Theater, Ashman was also its Artistic Director. At the WPA, he conceived, wrote and directed a musical adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater with music by Alan Menken.

In 1982 he conceived, wrote and directed Little Shop of Horrors, again with music by Mr. Menken. The musical, based upon Roger Corman’s 1960s-era horror flick was immediately successful. Indeed, it soon became a New York “must see,” playing for five years off-Broadway at the Orpheum Theater in lower Manhattan. The show played LA and London’s West End, Japan, Scandinavia, and Europe, and continues to be produced to great acclaim around the world. In 2003, Little Shop was revived on Broadway, and in 2007 it was revived on London’s West End. It is currently one of the most-produced shows in American high schools.

In 1986, Ashman wrote and directed the Broadway musical, Smile, which featured music by Marvin Hamlisch. Little appreciated at the time, Smile is now considered a lost gem of musical theater and is performed by high schools and amateur groups around the US.

Turning his talents toward film, Ashman was pivotal in the renaissance of Disney animated musicals and in the development of The Little Mermaid (Producer and Lyrics), Beauty and the Beast (Executive Producer and Lyrics) and Aladdin (Lyrics), all with music by Alan Menken.

During production of The Little Mermaid, Howard discovered he was infected with HIV.  Despite his illness, he continued to work, helping to give life to a film that

Ashman’s contributions to the revival of classic Disney animated musicals have been acknowledged by many but were perhaps best expressed by his colleagues, who dedicated the film Beauty and the Beast to his memory: “To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul. He will be forever missed.”

Howard died of AIDS in 1991, shortly before the release of Beauty and the Beast.

Janet Maslin, reviewing the animated film Beauty and the Beast in the New York Times, quoting from "Be Our Guest," wrote:

"'Soup du jour, hot hors d'ouevres
Why, we only live to serve
Try the gray stuff, it's delicious
Don't believe me? Ask the dishes!" 

This demonstrates Mr. Ashman's gifts as an outstandingly nimble lyricist. His death from AIDS in March at age 40 cut short a brilliant career, but the jubilant energy of his work will long live on."

Ashman’s numerous awards include two Oscars, two Golden Globes, four Grammys, a Drama Desk and a London Evening Standard.

Howard: A Timeline