The Life and Work of Howard Ashman


A Native of Baltimore, Howard was Born in 1950.  He found his passion early on, joining Baltimore's Children's Theater Association while in grade school, and never wavering from his first love.

in 1974, after graduating from Goddard College in Vermont and receiving his MFA from Indiana University, Ashman moved to New York. In 1976, his play, The Confirmation, was produced at Princeton’s McCarter Theater and the Annenberg Center in Philadelphia.

Howard was a founder and Artistic Director of the iconic off Broadway Theater, the WPA, where he conceived, wrote and directed a musical adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater with music by Alan Menken.  After its WPA production, the show moved for a short run to the Intermedia Theater.

In 1982 Howard 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, Howard 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 Beauty and the Beast, a film that defined the childhood of generations.

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's Life: A Timeline

Howard (center) in a publicity shot of his own creation - for L’il Abner’s Poke Chops

Howard (center) in a publicity shot of his own creation - for L’il Abner’s Poke Chops

Baltimore 1950-1967

Howard Elliott Ashman was born May 17, 1950 to Shirley and Raymond Ashman in Baltimore, MD. His mother swears she chose his name because she thought it would look good on a marquee...

The family home was filled with music - Gilbert and Sullivan, Broadway musicals and operetta were the soundtrack of his childhood.  Howard adored theater, discovering what would be his lifelong passion at an early age. He directed backyard musicals and his sister’s birthday parties.  His first known piece of work was L’il Abner’s Poke Chops, which he wrote, directed and starred in at age ten.  He also did the publicity.  Indeed, he created publicity shots for shows he only dreamed of directing.

He joined the Children’s Theatre Association (CTA) at the age of six, beginning his love affair with theater.  In a 1984 newspaper interview, Howard talked about CTA’s influence on him:

“My mom took me to see Mr. Popper’s Penguins at the Children’s Theater Association when I was four or five.  I wanted to join the company then, but you weren’t allowed to join until you were seven.  They did let me in a year early, when I was six.  And from that time until the day I graduated from high school, every Saturday morning of my life was spent downtown on Ploy Street where CTA taught dramatics and rehearsed plays.

Howard in a Children’s Theater Association production of Pinocchio

Howard in a Children’s Theater Association production of Pinocchio

You started in the creative dramatics classes and then you were in the plays.  And then you waited until you were old enough for the ‘teenage workshops’.  Getting into that was a rite of manhood.  That meant you got to take on technical responsibilities, you learned about lights and sets.”

Like most gifted people, Howard spent his youth exploring outlets for his creativity.  He painted and he wrote poetry and short stories, but in the end he always returned to his first love, theater.

Though he was slim, Howard loved cooking - a hobby he took up in childhood and continued to enjoy throughout his life.  As an adult, his love of food would come out in song as just about every musical he worked on had - one way or another - a food song (Rosewater - “Cheese Nips”; Little Shop - “Feed Me”; Mermaid - “Les Poissons”; Beauty and the Beast - “Be Our Guest”; Smile - “Maria’s Song."  Even the unfinished Babe had “Growing Boy.”


College & Grad School — 1967 - 1973

Howard spent his first year of college as a theater major at Boston University.

He transferred to Goddard College in Vermont the following year.  At Goddard he wrote and worked in experimental theater and did a semester in Boston appearing in a black box production of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal at Harvard’s Loeb Theater.

Howard earned a BA in Theater from Goddard in 1971 as his interest in theater began to move from performance to directing and writing.

Howard attended Indiana University, where he was a member of the Indiana Theater Company, the university’s professional repertory company. During this time, Howard took on such disparate roles as Dick in Dames at Sea and Reverend Morrell in Candida.  This was the last time Howard worked as an actor.

For his Master’s Thesis, Howard wrote the book and lyrics for a children’s musical based on the Hans Christian Andersen story, "The Snow Queen."     


New York — 1973 - 1986

After receiving his degree, Howard moved to New York and was hired by Grosset & Dunlap Publishers.

He wrote to his sister, “I am so thrilled to be out of school, I can’t tell you.  I hum ‘Well it’s  you boy and you should know it.  With each breath and every little movement you show it’ on my way to the office.  Yes, I have become the male Mary Tyler Moore.  And wait til I have the time and space to tell you about my female boss, Ms. Louise Grant.

“I’m the assistant (that’s a fancy word for secretary/guy Friday) for the editor of Tempo Books at Grosset and Dunlap,” he wrote.  “My boss is a terrific, brilliant, verbal lady, and if I do well, something tells me that in ten years I’ll have a very very good career in publishing.”

Shortly after moving to New York, his one act plays, ‘Cause Maggie’s Afraid Of the Dark and Mud Season, were produced in a New York theater festival. Howard wrote, “It’s really very small scale and only one night, sans sets, costumes, everything, but at least it’s in New York and my Indiana friends are insanely jealous...exciting, non?  I’m in heaven.”

Howard eventually left publishing to pursue a career in theater.  He supported himself freelancing for Grosset, and in one of life’s little ironies, the book he was most proud of editing was The Mickey Mouse Club Scrapbook.

When Howard Met Alan: probably the first photo of the storied songwriting team together.

When Howard Met Alan: probably the first photo of the storied songwriting team together.

In 1976, Howard wrote the book for Dreamstuff, a musical based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Produced at the WPA Theater on the Bowery (music Marsha Malamet, lyrics Dennis Green), it was the last production at WPA’s Bowery theater.

Circle Repertory’s Projects-In-Process produced Howard’s play, The Confirmation, in 1976.  It attracted interest, and in the following year the show was produced in a pre-Broadway run at Princeton’s McCarter Theater and in Philadelphia.  The production featured Hershel Bernardi in the lead role but did not move to Broadway or New York.

In 1977 Howard and partners took over leadership of a renewed WPA, moving it to a new space on Fifth Avenue and 19th Street. Howard was named co-Artistic Director (with Stuart White) of the theater, which quickly became known as a producer of distinctive off off Broadway fare.

In 1979, Howard worked on a revised story and libretto for a new production of Friml’s The Vagabond King, which was produced at the Houston Grand Opera.  He also directed Maury Yeston’s Nine, then a work in progress, for the O’Neill Theatre Center’s Composer/Librettists Conference.

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Howard then acquired the rights to create a musical based on Kurt Vonnegut’s beloved novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.  At the suggestion of Mr. Yeston, Howard began working with composer Alan Menken (“It was fated for them to work together.” Mr. Yeston recalls, “ I was just the first one who said, ‘It’d be great for you guys to meet’”). In May 1979, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, with book, lyrics and direction by Howard and music by Alan Menken, opened to great reviews at the WPA Theater. Soon after, the show moved to the off Broadway Entermedia Theater for a short run. In 1981, Howard directed another production of the show at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, and in 2017, Rosewater was revived for a limited concert run by New York’s Encores Off-Center.

After Rosewater closed, Howard and Alan began work on a musical based on the life of Babe Ruth.  After completing five songs for Babe, they tabled the project and began working on a musical based on a film Howard had loved in his teens - an odd cult film about a man-eating plant.  Though family and friends advised against it, Howard pursued the project. In the spring of 1982, Little Shop of Horrors opened at the WPA Theater, with book, lyrics and direction by Howard and music by Alan Menken. An immediate success, it transferred during the summer to the Orpheum Theater in Manhattan’s East Village where it ran for five years, winning numerous awards and spawning productions all over the world.

During 1982 and 1983, Howard directed productions of LSOH in Los Angeles and London, as well as the first national tour of the show in 1984.

In mid-1984, Howard and composer Jonathan Sheffer wrote two songs ("Song For A Hunter College Graduate" and "Straw Boater Rag") for a Hal Prince-directed revue called Diamonds.

A film version of Little Shop of Horrors, with a screenplay by Howard and directed by Frank Oz, was released in 1986. "Mean Green Mother From Outer Space," written by Howard and Alan for the film version of LSOH, was nominated for an Academy Award.

Howard’s next project was a new musical called Smile, which he directed and for which he wrote the book and lyrics. Marvin Hamlisch composed the music. Smile previewed in Howard’s hometown of Baltimore and transferred to the Lunt-Fontanne Theater on Broadway in November of 1986. Though the show enjoyed only a short run, it has since become popular with high school and college theater groups.


Disney Collaboration — 1986-1991

In 1986, Howard began a collaboration with the Disney Company. Working with composer Barry Mann, Howard contributed a song to Disney’s animated film, Oliver and Company (“Once Upon A Time In New York City”).

After considering many projects, Howard chose to work in animation and proposed to Disney that Alan Menken join him.

He began work on The Little Mermaid, and among his other significant contributions was that Sebastian the crab have a calypso lilt and that Jodi Benson – who had starred in Smile – be cast as Ariel.

The Little Mermaid stunned critics and audiences alike when it premiered in November of 1989. Janet Maslin, reviewing the film in the New York Times, wrote:

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, the lyricist and composer who collaborated on Little Shop of Horrors, score the film's first musical bull's-eye with ''Part of Your World,'' a powerhouse ballad in which Ariel (with the voice of Jodi Benson) belts out her envy of ''Bright young women/Sick of swimmin'/Ready to staaaand!'' Any Broadway musical would be lucky to include a single number this good. ''The Little Mermaid'' has half a dozen of them.


Among their numerous accolades, Howard and Alan won the Academy Award for best song ("Under The Sea") in 1989.

Earlier, in 1988, Howard had written for Disney a treatment for an animated film based on the tales of Aladdin. He was disappointed that the treatment was not accepted (three songs from the treatment were later used in the 1992 Disney film and all but one of the songs he originally wrote are used in the stage production) but enthusiastically moved on to several new projects – a treatment and screenplay for a film based on Tina Turner’s autobiography and another animated musical to be based on the French fairy tale, Beauty and The Beast.

During this period, Howard developed an unusual infection and in early 1988, he learned that he was HIV positive.

In order to allow Howard to continue working, the Beauty and The Beast creative team and others from the Disney Company set up a workspace at a Residence Inn near Beacon, New York where Howard had moved with his partner, Bill Lauch. Howard’s contributions to the film – including the concept of the castle’s household objects being humans who had been enchanted along with the prince – are many and well documented.  He was intimately involved in the casting of the film as well as working directly – sometimes, if he was ill, attending recording sessions by phone – with the film’s actors on their characters and performances.

Although he lived to see the film in rough, Howard died from complications of AIDS on March 14, 1991, before the film was completed. He was 40 years old.

Janet Maslin, reviewing the film 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."

Indeed it has.