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October 5th, 2018

Howard Ashman. He was a songwriter, stage show book writer and, later, film producer. He was one of the reasons there are 1982's Little Shop of Horrors, 1989's The Little Mermaid, 1991's Beauty and the Beast, and 1992's Aladdin.

He also holds a tragic milestone. As his personal partner Bill Lauch said when accepting Ashman's Oscar for the song "Beauty and the Beast," "...it is bittersweet. This is the first Academy Award given to someone we've lost to AIDS." Ashman was diagnosed in 1988 and passed away in early 1991, after completing his work on Beauty and the Beast. If I remember correctly, he finished his last piece, the unused and brutal Aladdin song "Humiliate the Boy," only three days before he died. A few years past his death, AIDS and HIV drugs reached the point where they could keep people alive and healthier; but those weren't ready for him, or for the many others who died of AIDS in the Eighties and Nineties.

And a 1990s that didn't happen, because he wasn't here to live and work, can only be imagined. I decided to try to imagine it.

Aladdin would have been much different. Writers (including Linda Woolverton) and producers could not make either Ashman's original story idea (which he and his writing partner Alan Menken had written in 1988) or other story ideas work until the filmmakers hired the writing team of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio in spring 1991. Most of Ashman's first batch of songs didn't fit into the new story, leaving just "Arabian Nights" and "Friend Like Me" (and "Prince Ali," which Ashman had written later). If he'd still been on the film, would Elliott and Rossio have been hired? Would Ashman have gotten the chance to direct or co-direct, as he'd hoped? My hunch is, most likely, there'd be no Elliott/Rossio script (they likely would have had some other career breakthrough, though now I wonder if Pirates of the Caribbean would have happened with them scripting), instead some other writer(s) working with Ashman's input, likely with Ashman co-directing alongside John Musker and Ron Clements, and certainly no Tim Rice songs in Aladdin.

(And would Rice still have been hired for 1994's The Lion King? I'm about 60% "yes"; Rice was hired for the later film while already working on the earlier one, but even had he not, his name almost certainly would have come up.)

Had Ashman been alive in late '92, he also likely — how do I put this delicately? — would have had words about the controversy over the "Arabian Nights" line "Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face." He would've been annoyed that people were mad. Good chance the lyric still would've been changed for home release, but Ashman almost certainly would've done better than "Where it's flat and immense and the heat is intense." He'd probably rewrite two or three lines around the line to make the revised song flow better.

And it's likely Aladdin, whatever version hit theaters in 1992, would have been a hit. He'd have gotten more work, but I'm thinking that full-on film directing would have been something he did once. It's a surprisingly grueling job, and in animation it's a slow job, especially back then when Disney spent an average of four years producing each animated film. (Productions tend to be faster now.)

Then there was Pixar. That studio's feature debut Toy Story was by design offbeat and less Disney-like, so in my hypothetical world, Randy Newman still would have scored that film, but imagine Newman and Ashman trading off on smartassed Pixar films, likely more of them musicals (or at least movies with songs). The side of Ashman which wrote Little Shop (and the harsh unused Aladdin song "Call Me a Princess," about a princess who's a spoiled brat and not at all like the final film's Jasmine) probably would have had a blast.

And non-Disney stuff. Ashman worked behind the scenes to make the Tina Turner/Ike Turner biopic What's Love Got to Do With It? happen and even wrote an unused draft of the script; that film still would have been made. What else? More science fiction-influenced stuff, like his stage version of Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater? And later, Little Shop almost certainly still would've been revived as a big Broadway show; and he could have adapted to the changing Broadway/Off-Broadway scene, perhaps doing an original Broadway show, or shows. Ashman was a stage guy at heart, which helps you to handle theater's brutal deadlines.

I doubt that he would have been interested in television work. I do think that if he paid any attention to the infamous show Cop Rock, which debuted in late 1990 a few months before he died, he would have rolled his eyes at it. But, fast-forwarding over two decades later to when the comedy-drama-musical Crazy Ex-Girlfriend debuted, had Ashman still been around, he would have at least respected what that show's creators do every week.

Had Ashman still been around. That's still a hurdle to imagine.

Howard Ashman had an intriguing enough life that I seriously hope for a biopic about him someday. There's (I think) a perfect bit of casting, too, Alan Tudyk of Firefly/Serenity and Rogue One: a Star Wars Story. We did at least get the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, about how difficult a time Disney Feature Animation had from the early 80s to the mid-90s, and the doc shows Ashman's sometimes explosive side and his powering-through-his-illness side; plus Don Hahn's 2018 documentary Howard will tell more.

We can't have him, except as a memory. We can't be him, either. It's unproductive to be mad at a disease, especially as I'm not a scientist or doctor who could have done anything to help Howard Ashman and others survive AIDS, but I'm still mad at what talent and love AIDS took from us, by taking so many people. Howard Ashman is a microcosm of that.

A lot of us still remember you, sir. We'll keep it up.



A much better source of info about Howard Ashman is the site and blog Howard Ashman Dot Com, created and maintained by Sarah Ashman Gillespie, Howard's sister. I just appreciate his work; I never knew him. I'm glad to hear from the people who did.

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