The Howard Ashman Biography - future tense
Soon after Howard died, I wrote to a theater columnist whose work I admired, suggesting a biography of Howard. The columnist wrote back a sympathetic but pointed note saying that only time would tell if Howard and his work would demand a large enough audience for a biography. Which leads me to wonder – is it time, yet?
I do understand the columnist’s point, though.
Howard’s big break came in 1982 with Little Shop of Horrors. And he died in 1990. That’s eight years of relative success (though there were many more years before that of wonderfully creative work).
I say relative success because few people recognize history when they’re living it. Howard was enormously pleased, outrageously pleased, pleased beyond pleased, with the success of Little Shop. It meant money and opportunity and paying off credit card bills and college loans.
But Little Shop was an off Broadway show. The Orpheum Theatre has about 290 seats. If you figure the show played eight performances a week to a full house (which it didn’t) over the total five years of its run maybe 600,000 people would have seen it. That’s a lot of people but when you figure that over eight million people live in New York City, not that many people saw Little Shop by the time it closed five years after its opening.
So Howard was well known in a New York theater kind of way (as in, I’d be thrilled to meet Terrence McNally, but he’s a household name in very few households).
Even if Smile had been a smash hit, Howard’s level of fame wouldn’t have changed much. Quick, who directed Les Miz? Okay, bad example, but you catch my drift.
Which brings us to Disney.
Howard knew the work he was doing was good. He had no false modesty and like most artists, he managed to be both sure of himself and insecure at the same time.
But did he think he was helping to change animation history with Mermaid? Of course he didn’t. I doubt anyone who worked on the film felt that way. What they probably felt was that this movie could be really, really good, if no one screws it up and the powers that be let us do everything we want to do and there is a decent advertising campaign and if the critics like it and the test audiences have had decent dinners before filling in their little cards.
Again, you don’t know you’re making history when you’re in the midst of making history.
The accolades were dribbling in but the groundswell came a little late for Howard. The full impact of Mermaid, and then Beauty were really only felt after his death. Which is why you don’t find all that much info when you Google Howard’s name (though you find this site, which was the whole idea).
So to my original question – is it time for a bio, yet?
Yes, I think it is. Though I’m no longer pushing one. I think the time will come when the author is right. And, as you may have guessed, my more personal blog posts here are from a memoir I’ve been working on.
There’s so much of Howard’s story to tell. And it’s been a wonderful experience finding there are so many people out there who want to know more about him.
In the meantime, we have the web. Your stories and conversations on Feed Me are wonderful, please keep tuning in.