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 be a good stage name.
Howard adored theater, discovering what would be his lifelong passion at an early age. He directed backyard musicals and his sister’s birthday parties, he created publicity shots for shows he only dreamed of directing, he won talent shows, he wrote poems for his grandmother and stories for himself.
He joined the Children’s Theatre Association at the age of nine and remained there as long as he lived in Baltimore.
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, receiving a BA in Theater in 1971. During his college years, Howard’s focus turned from acting toward writing and directing.
Howard attended Indiana University where he was a member of the Indiana Theater Company, the university’s professional touring repertory company.
For his Master’s Thesis, he 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. In one of fate’s little twists, one of the titles he worked on at that time was The Mickey Mouse Club Scrapbook.
In 1974, his one act plays, ‘Cause Maggie’s Afraid Of the Dark and Mud Season, were produced at the Direct Theater. In 1976, he wrote the book for Dreamstuff, produced at the WPA Theater on the Bowery (music Marsha Malamet, lyrics Dennis Green).
Circle Repertory’s Projects-In-Process produced Howard’s play, The Confirmation in 1976. In the following year it was produced at Princeton’s McCarter Theater in a production featuring Hershel Bernardi.
In 1977 Howard and partners Stuart White, Kyle Renick and Steve Wells took over leadership of the WPA, moving it to a new space on Fifth Avenue and 19th Street. Howard was named Artistic Director of the theater, which quickly became known as a producer of distinctive off-off Broadway theater.
In 1978, at the suggestion of renowned educator and head of the BMI Workshop, Lehman Engel, Howard began working with composer Alan Menken. Howard had long loved the works of Kurt Vonnegut and was anxious to create a musical based on his novel, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater.
In May 1979, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, based on the seminal Kurt Vonnegut novel 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.
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 underground 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, 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
Also in 1986, Howard began 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 the request that Sebastian the crab have a calypso lilt and the casting of Jodi Benson – who had starred in Smile - 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 awards, 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) 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 workspace at a hotel in 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 animated - 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.