AIDS decimated a generation of great artists, and Howard Ashman is one of its biggest casualties. He died at age 40, and what he accomplished – which is a lot – is just the tip of the iceberg of what he is capable of, artistically. I think he is probably the best of the modern day lyricists – there is wit and charm in his words and they sound always sophisticated and erudite. This fine documentary by Don Hahn shows us just that.
My first introduction to Ashman’s work, ironically, is his 1986 flop musical ‘Smile.’ I remember seeing ti and loving it, but at that time I was young and I loved everything I saw. I remember what attracted me to the show was Marvin Hamlisch – he wrote the music and of course, I knew every word and breath of ‘A Chorus Line.’ I didn’t see ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ until later, and while I admire that show, if is not really my cup of tea. Years later, and even though I am not a Disney cartoon fan, I loved the ‘musicals’ aspect of ‘The Beauty and teh Beast,’ and ‘Alladin,’ of course.
The documentary takes us chronologically through his life and work. Hahn uses mostly voice overs from interviews, and we get a lot of archival footage and cassette recordings of Ashman working. I obviously love the ‘musicals’ section, the segment with Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury recording ‘Be Our Guest’ made my spine tingle. It was harrowing to see how AIDS was teated at that time – Ashman had concerns that Disney would fire him if they found out he had the disease so he had to hide it. His legacy is safe and sound and solid – the three movies he worked on at Disney are modern classics, and we see the studio regurgitating the material in different ways, and they all work. I personally think Alan Menken’s later work with different collaborators pale in comparison to hi work with Ashman. For lovers of musicals, and Disney musicals, this film is a treat.