John Musker Question Countdown #1

During Mermaid, what would Howard do that would inadvertently make you laugh, and what would he do that would make you pull your hair out?

In this post, the last in my ten question series about Howard, I would like to share a final mosaic of memories about him, my relationship with him, what I learned from him, and how I feel about him.

Howard was a brilliant, complicated artist.  I was not as close to him as some, but I saw him happy and I saw him mad.  I saw him frustrated, and I saw him howl with laughter. I saw him caustic, and I saw him be disarmingly vulnerable. And Howard was a wonderful actor. So there were times when you had to evaluate if part of what he was doing was for effect.

When Ron Clements and I first met Howard in New York, he gave us his ideas for how songs might be woven into Little Mermaid.  We went to lunch afterward at a restaurant of Howard’s choice in Soho.  After eating, Howard picked at the remnants of his shrimp salad sandwich* on dark bread (I think I remember that because as a strictly meat and potatoes kid from the Midwest, I had never seen a shrimp salad sandwich!) and told us we should just go ahead with whatever we wanted to do.  He said you don’t need me, you don’t have to listen to me, you know what you’re doing.  Ron and I immediately pushed his remarks aside. We loved his ideas.  We were eager to work with them and we thought they helped tell the story.  Howard seemed surprised. “Really?”

We assured him we were sincere.  Both at the time, and to this day, I don’t know whether Howard’s remarks reflected his true feelings, whether they were his attempt to give us a graceful “out” if we didn’t like his ideas, whether they reflected his sympathy for fellow artists who got stuck having to take notes from “outsiders,” whether they expressed his insecurities about the ideas themselves, or whether it was all a little staged, a card that he was playing in order to prompt the response that he got.  I suspect it was all of those.  I don’t know what Howard expected to encounter when he met us, but I think he liked that we were easy going, thoughtful, non fire-breathers who seemed genuine.  He liked that we were writers, I think. And he liked that we seemed open to collaborating with him and that we were receptive to his ideas.   It is certainly possible that his attempt to recede was a carefully planned gambit to make us plead with him to stay and to soft pedal how passionate he was about his ideas.   In the end it didn’t matter.  We really were excited to work with him.  He was so smart, clever, and funny.  He had us at “Jamaican crab.”

Our working relationship evolved.  There’s no question, Howard knew a great deal about things we didn’t.  He was our mentor.  We had been fans of musical theater but not necessarily students of it.  With Howard, we had a book writer, lyricist, and director who knew that world inside and out, and loved it deeply. I think Howard respected that we knew more about animation, and the Disney canon, than he did.   We were happy to share what we knew, and I believe Howard sincerely appreciated the collegiality with which we worked.  Which is not to say we agreed on everything.  We didn’t.  We had many spirited discussions about the film and what worked and how it might work better.

Between Ron and me, I more often than not was the one who had notes about the songs, often small, but annoying to Howard none the less.  Because of that, I think Howard felt closer to Ron than he did to me.  Ron was gentle, Winnie the Pooh.  I was Larry David, sometimes giving notes that were delivered with the delicacy of a Sumo wrestler. I always had a bit of the Smother Brothers’ lament for Ron Clements, “Mom always liked you best!” with Howard being Mom, because I tended to be the deliverer of these damned notes.

Howard wasn’t shy about voicing his disagreements with suggestions he found unreasonable, capricious, or merely inane.  In preparing for this post I watched an hour-long lecture Howard gave at the Studio back in 1987 about the songs in Mermaid.  In it, he recounted one of my notes that I had forgotten about. When they first played Fathoms Below for us, Howard said that, “John felt it sounded too much like an Old Spice commercial.”

I had forgotten that comment, but it came back to me that I had in fact said that.  I thought the song too cheery, that it didn’t seem enough like a work song, and pointed to the Roustabouts’ song in Dumbo (where silhouetted men erect a circus tent in a driving rain) as closer in tone to what I thought was needed.  Howard took the note, and he and Alan reworked the song in a minor key. They liked the end result, as I recall.   Howard did actually listen to notes, but only ones he thought had some storytelling validity.  Just watching Howard recount this on that DVD, I flinched 25 years later, remembering how fiercely Howard protected his songs.

I do remember, though, chafing with Howard about some story notes we were given by Jeffrey Katzenberg.  Howard was surprisingly conciliatory. He said to me, “It’s hard to argue with a note to make a scene more emotional…”

Howard held strong convictions about everything and it was always fascinating to hear his point of view on a whole host of subjects.  Like many, he felt that once the songs you heard in the theater were no longer popular hits on the radio, the American Musical went on the endangered species list.  Howard felt that musical theater might go the way of opera, no longer an art form for the masses.  But he also felt that the inherent stylization of animation enabled audiences to accept the convention of characters breaking into song, and thus it might be the last refuge for the musical.  He loved the convention of characters breaking into song, but knew audiences no longer seemed to buy it in the more naturalistic world of live action filmmaking.

I remember Howard at work with Alan in California in their music room.  The room had a piano and was a throwback to the Disney director rooms of the Thirties when a piano was always present because of the close integration in the shorts between music and animation.  Howard and Alan would work away at a song, and would summon us to the room when they were ready.  Howard would be perched on a stool while Alan played.  Howard would say, “Give me that watery figure you were doing, Alan…” Alan would play a vamp. Howard would frown.  “No, no…not that one… the other one you were doing.”  Alan would rummage around with patterns with his right hand and suddenly Howard would light up.  “That one…”

Howard talked about the songs as “pastiche,” a potpourri of different idioms.  Their stylistic forebears informed the songs.  The Kingston Trio’s calypso was the foundation of Under the Sea.  Brecht-Weill helped shape Poor Unfortunate Souls. Beauty and the Beast echoed Shall we Dance.

None of them were used literally, merely as a point of departure.  I also recall complimenting Howard on some particularly clever bit of wordsmithery in one of his lyrics.  He smiled.  “I’ll tell you the secret…” He held up a book. “The rhyming dictionary!  The lyricist’s best friend!”  I had never heard of such a tool.  Howard said they were well used by all the great lyricists.  There was a little more to great lyric writing than that, of course, but still, I felt the wizard had let me into a select secret society by sharing such information.

Howard was critical of our LA-based casting people. He replaced them with his own.  He was angered when an arranger on his music team cut him out of decisions. That arranger was gone.  Howard was unafraid to be the “bad guy” when he felt it was warranted, something Ron and I were usually too mealy mouthed to undertake. He was also critical of how other directors were handling his material, whether it was in live action or animation.  Hearing these criticisms from him did, of course, make me, in my own insecurities, wonder, what is Howard saying about us?  I would occasionally express that angst to Nancy Parent, Howard's** close friend and at that time also his personal assistant, but she would reassure us, “Howard loves you guys…”

There was a point where we were going through bumpy story times on Mermaid.  Howard told us that Peter Schneider, our immediate “boss” and Jeffrey Katzenberg’s lieutenant, wanted him to come down hard on us.  Howard said, “But, I told him, I’m not gonna do that…” What was left unstated was whether Howard agreed with Peter’s notes or had some of his own that he hadn’t completely expressed to us.  By the way Howard told us, though, he successfully communicated the message that management wasn’t happy with us, without directly involving himself.  I was grateful that Howard wasn’t trying to force changes on us that we didn’t want to make (even if he had issues himself) but his remarks made it clear we were on the hot seat and it was up to us to find a way off.  Perhaps when Peter does his memoirs, he may recall this (and Howard’s feelings) from a POV we were not privy to.

Howard could be disarmingly vulnerable as well.  He shared with me how moved he was during a recent screening of the Disney feature Snow White.  He was moved to tears by the sight of Snow White in her coffin.  He was stunned by how affected he was. Whether he was more sensitive to depictions of mortality having gotten his own diagnosis near that time, I don’t know.  But he told me, upon trying to figure out why it seemed so moving to him, he thought the main reason was that Snow White played the role of mother to the dwarves, and in that scene we are emotionally “with” the dwarves because… “Mom died…”

Howard really fought for people he believed in.  Alan hadn’t been given the chance to write the underscore for the film version of Little Shop. Howard thought that Alan should be given the opportunity to write the underscore on Mermaid.  It would be his first. I believe he also said having Alan do the score would enable the song’s melodies to be woven into the fabric of the movie such that it all became seamless.  Howard did his best to coach Alan through this process, even though Alan’s “audition” cue featured “action adventure” (the shark chase), the type of sequence which Howard openly admitted was the least interesting part of the film for him. When Alan “passed” his audition and got the gig to score the movie, Howard was relieved, and beamed like a proud papa, “You done good, Alan…”

When Jodi Benson came in to record Part of Your World she had not had much experience working in front of a microphone, having done mostly stage work. And the engineers had no experience recording a theater-trained voice.  There were technical difficulties.  Jodi’s voice was being distorted because of the way she was miked and recorded. Different types of mikes were brought out.   The lights were lowered to encourage a more intimate portrayal.  It was very difficult for Jodi and Howard coached her through.  He stood with her in the booth and guided her in a way to get not only the performance that fit the mood and character, but to make it recordable, a process Howard himself didn’t fully understand and which was complicated by the engineer’s lack of familiarity with a range of vocal approaches.  It was touching to see the delicacy with which Howard guided Jodi.  They finally resolved the technical issues and Jodi could breathe again. And her performance feels fresh and spontaneous and heartfelt thanks both to her amazing abilities and Howard’s calm tutelage.

Howard was a sensitive guy (as am I.) Although he could be fairly caustic, he had antennae whose filaments were finely tuned to slights.  When Smile, his Broadway musical debuted, I characterized a review I had read as “mixed”.  He strongly disagreed.  He felt that review was actually a “good” review.

When Mermaid was nearly completed, it was screened for selected members of the press.  Their off the record comments were solicited by the marketing people as they emerged from screening rooms.  I still remember reading Richard Shickel’s comments:  “What’s not to like? It was charming.”   I spoke with Howard on the phone about it. He was miffed. He found “charming” infinitely condescending.  So did I.  It seemed to both of us a bit of a diss. Mermaid was “charming”… like balloon animals at kid’s parties, or a pony at a bar mitzvah.  Thanks, Dick.

Perhaps one of the funniest (or at least most painful) displays of Howard’s reaction to a “review” happened during the production of Mermaid.  Ron and I and Howard were standing in the Flower Street building near where the animators sat.  Nik Ranieri, a tall, thin, cranky and occasionally impolitic animator who was helping animate Ursula at the time, proceeded to gleefully share with Howard his ridicule of some song demos from another project he had heard. As Howard leaned against a cubicle wall, Nik railed about how awful these songs were, not anywhere near as good as Howard’s songs on Mermaid.  All the while, Howard stood stone-faced and chomped down at a steady pace on his Nicorette anti-smoking gum.  The songs Nik was belittling were from some project in development called, Beauty and the Beast.

In the midst of his tirade the nickel dropped and Nik said, “and…and you …wrote these songs, didn’t you?”   Howard nodded silently and unsmilingly, never losing tempo on his gum chaw.  Never was there a quicker back-pedal as Nik tried to extricate himself.

“I…I …I mean…what I was saying was…um…that uh…”

Howard just waved his attempts off, ain’t buyin’ it, pal, and walked away as Nik pleaded his case.  In a true Hollywood ending, Nik wound up animating Lumiere in Beauty, and got to animate that godawful ( according to NR) Be Our Guest ( which Nik has come around on.) Life’s fulla ironic situations, idn’t it?

Nik also animated Charlotte in The Princess and the Frog.  Here's a caricature I did of him, channeling his inner Maggie from Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.

In December of 1989, Little Mermaid was nominated for a Golden Globe as ‘Best Picture, Comedy or Musical’.  The awards were given out at a gala at the Beverly Hilton ballroom. We were at a table with Howard and Alan.  They had already won best song for Under the Sea and Alan had won for his score as well. Perhaps because we were new to the awards game at that time, it didn’t really dawn on me that was Mermaid to win Best Picture, Howard and I would have to run up to the podium to accept.  Howard and I never discussed it with each other. I don’t know if he didn’t give it a chance so he hadn’t prepared anything.  I certainly hadn’t.  But after winning two awards, it seemed possible, might it win?  I felt like I was going to throw up.  I looked at Howard. We just exchanged that look and waited. The winner was announced.  It was that rollicking musical comedy Driving Miss Daisy.

Howard graciously mentioned Ron and me in his thanks, both at this and the subsequent Academy Awards, when receiving the awards for Best Song.  It was a thrill to see Howard and Alan’s brilliant work receive such recognition.

Ron and I were blessed to have collaborated with Howard on two films. We learned a great deal from him.  Ron and I felt that songs should advance the story, but Howard’s ways of doing that were revelatory.  He liked his songs to have information and to carry essential plot material. To take the key story beats and through the use of music to underline them and drive them home. From Howard, I learned the importance of grounding your writing in the specific, rather than the general.  I watched Howard’s zealous defense of his material and ideas, anchored by their relationship to the story being told. All ideas are not created equal.  There are definite reasons why some support the story more strongly, and we learned from Howard that those ideas must be defended.  We saw inventiveness and passion from Howard in equal measure, qualities that produced art that has stood the test of time.  We learned lessons of showmanship, of staging and characters, of using subtext to put ideas over more powerfully.  We saw how Howard could tap into his own vulnerabilities and humanity and empathetically invest those in characters and songs that revealed those emotions. And dammit, Howard was funny.  And he had a gift for effortlessly weaving comedy and vulnerability in a seamless way that made his creations (and ours and others) live.

I can’t close this without talking about Howard’s physical decline.  In the cruelest of fates, the means by which he brought such vitality to his art were taken from him one by one.  His sight…his voice…his wit, were all stripped from him.  As many of you readers know, I imagine, Howard performed the demos of his songs. He sang on them, hilariously or touchingly as the song demanded and created a template for the performance to follow.  Anyone who performed an Ashman song would admit, they were trying to live up to the brilliance of the performance he had created.   As his illness overtook him, his voice was reduced to a rasp.  Even if he could write a song, he would never sing one again.  One of my last memories, perhaps the last time I spoke with Howard, was over the phone during the production of Aladdin.  I can’t remember the specifics, but I was passing along some note on a song we had gotten from Jeffrey.  Howard was outraged.  He rasped into the phone,  “What is he talking about?!! DOESN’T HE KNOW HOW SICK I AM?!!”  I was mortified.   He was right. It was absurd. I never saw Howard in the hospital in New York where he went after his health declined precipitously.  He died not long after this call on my sister Mimi’s birthday, March 14th, 1991.  He was 40 years old.

Six weeks later, Ron and I flew to New York and attended the memorial for Howard at the Orpheum Theatre on May 6.  It was an emotional evening.  There were several searing versions of Howard’s songs, most sung by the artists who had debuted them.  Jodi Benson sang a very powerful Part of Your World. I thought back to the first time I had ever heard the song, sung so believably and with such passion by Howard in his apartment in Soho. But I must confess, it was Ellen Greene’s rendition of  Somewhere that’s Green that most vividly recalled Howard to me.  Ellen’s performance may have been overwrought to some, I can’t quite remember.  But I remember clearly how those images in that song, as sung by Ellen, brought Howard alive to me in his utterly unique alchemy of humor and heartache, pathos and punch lines. And as those lyrics filled the theater, I sat there and sobbed.  Howard had changed my life and the lives of many others. He had touched me, and far countless others. He was a leader, a mentor, a collaborator, a musical genius, and a friend.  And he was gone.

At the memorial, I remember Jodi telling me a story.  I hope I have it right.

One of Howard’s most dearly loved musicals was the Mary Martin version of Peter Pan.  I saw it on TV as a kid and was moved by it, and for me, too, it is almost a primal memory. Howard was visited in the hospital by Don Hahn and Jeffrey Katzenberg when he was nearing the end.  Howard’s mind by that time was not always clear.  Jodi came to visit him in the hospital just after Jeffrey left.  He told her with a smile on his face, “I just has the most amazing visitor.  Do you know who was just here?”  Jodi smiled and played along. “Who?”  Howard beamed: “Mary Martin!”

I don’t know if Jeffrey realizes the oblique happiness he gave Howard, but maybe this offsets some of the rest.

And what of Howard’s songs?  I was reminded how powerful they are, and how much impact Howard had on all of us when viewing a clip on the bonus features of Waking Sleeping Beauty the Peter Schneider/Don Hahn documentary about Disney animation in that “Golden Age.” In this clip, the often curmudgeonly and exceptionally talented story man Ed Gombert discusses Proud of Your Boy, Howard’s song from the original Aladdin.  It is twenty years after Howard’s death but the discussion of this song, and what it meant to Howard, and what Howard meant to Ed, and to all of us, moves Ed to tears. And me as well.

In preparing this final post, I looked at a DVD of a lecture that Howard did at the Studio on April 28th, 1987.  A brief section of it was also excerpted in Waking Sleeping Beauty.  I was at that lecture 25 years ago, in the little screening room on Flower Street where we made Little Mermaid.  The camera is essentially locked on Howard, as he explains to the assembled animators his thoughts about how musicals work, what the structural devices are within them, and how animation may be the last bastion for sung musicals.  He also discusses the specifics of how he approached the storytelling, dramatic, and stylistic issues in the songs of Little Mermaid.  It is wonderful to see this lecture in its entirety.  It is an amazing resource for any student of the art form, and I hope someday Disney includes it in its full length on one of its Blu Ray releases.

It was amazing to see after all these years, and to hear offstage questions from the audience, and have the shock of recognition as I realize I’m hearing Mike Gabriel, long before he directed Rescuers Down Under or Pocahontas, and who is currently art directing a film (Wreck it Ralph) at Feature Animation.   Even more poignantly there is an offstage question from a voice I recognize as Joe Ranft’s, the brilliant story man, my friend and the friend of hundreds of others, who like Howard, left this world all too soon, at the age of 45. In his brief question, and in Howard’s “performance” throughout this lecture, both Howard and Joe are heartbreakingly full of life.  Both men who changed Disney animation, both gone too soon.

The panel was moderated by Bill Matthews, the avuncular head of training at Feature Animation at the time.  In his intro of Howard, Bill credits him with writing the musical, God Bless You, Mr. President.  Mr. Rosewater, Howard gently corrects the somewhat befuddled Bill.  It is a great in-character moment for both Howard and Bill.  Bill leaves the stage and Howard works alone from notes at his feet. He is making his way through an explanation of Mermaid’s song score, and playing demos as he goes along.  When he plays Under the Sea and Poor Unfortunate Souls the lecture audience responds like so many later will, bursting into loud and sustained applause. Howard has a wry smile on his face as it washes over him.

As the hour moves along, Howard looks increasingly at this watch.  He’s got a lot left to cover.  He has to skip Les Poissons and has yet to talk about Kiss the Girl.  “How are we on time?” Howard asks Bill.  “You’ve got about ten minutes…” Bill says from off camera. As I watch this I want to jump out of my chair.  It’s a lunchtime lecture, Bill!!  For God’s sake give him more than ten minutes!!!  He’s got insights to share, knowledge to dispense, songs to sing!! But when those ten minutes are up, and before Howard has finished…it’s time to go.  The lecture must end, according to some unknown scheduler.

Howard winces and smiles.  Not enough time, but Howard plays by the rules. He folds up his notes and walks off camera.  The stories will remain unfinished.  The songs will remain unsung, if not unwritten.  Forever. Like the best music Howard gifted us with, it is sweet, it is sad, and it’s over far too soon. God bless you, Mr. Ashman.  You were a tough nut, but I miss you dearly. And I know you told me twenty-five years ago about Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, how good it was, and that me being Catholic I really should listen to it.  I never quite did, but I promise you, I will.

Thanks.  See you.

Sarah's asteriks:

*I can’t believe Howard knew a place in Soho for decent shrimp salad sandwiches and didn’t tell me about it.

**Poor Nancy. She got the same question from me a few times, too.