Howard Ashman’s Lyrics Live On in the Live-Action “The Little Mermaid”: Get to Know the Late Writer

Everett Collection / Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

There wouldn’t be “The Little Mermaid” without Howard Ashman. There probably wouldn’t be many of the most beloved Disney movies without him. Ashman was credited as a lyricist on 1989’s “The Little Mermaid,” 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast,” and 1992’s “Aladdin,” but he also worked as a storyteller behind the scenes, whipping the movies into shape and helping create the framework of a Disney animated movie that the studio continued to use throughout the ’90s.

Don Hahn, who produced “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King,” said in his 2009 documentary, “Waking Sleeping Beauty,” about the history of Walt Disney Feature Animation, “Howard is referred to by Roy Disney as another Walt. To us, and to our generation, he was a Walt Disney type.” Hahn also directed the 2018 documentary “Howard” about Ashman’s life and his work for Disney.

“The animation studio was basically shutting down,” Jodi Benson, who voices Ariel in the original film, said in 2016, per NPR. “When we did our film, we didn’t even have an animation division over at the lot; they’d been kicked off and in these little cubicles in this run-down place. Going in there and seeing all these animators crammed into these little cubicles and sleeping on the floor, it was just unbelievable to think that Walt’s vision was dying.” Ashman and his work on “The Little Mermaid” helped bring animation front and center at the company once more.

In their pre-Disney days, Ashman and his frequent collaborator Alan Menken worked together on multiple musicals – most notably “Little Shop of Horrors” – before Ashman moved to Disney and brought Menken with him. They worked together on “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Aladdin.” As the live-action adaptation hits theaters, learn more about the man who was essential to the creation of “The Little Mermaid.”

Howard Ashman and “The Little Mermaid”

Ashman jumped into “The Little Mermaid” with both feet, according to “Howard,” and he quickly had ideas for songs and ways to improve the film. In the doc, his collaborators remember that he had the idea to make Sebastian the crab Jamaican, and he helped them nail Ursula’s final, iconic look.

The crew of “The Little Mermaid” also recall in “Howard” how Ashman fought to make sure “Part of Your World” was part of the film because it was so important as the emotional core of the film. Disney higher-ups thought it would be too boring for kids; instead, it’s one of the most beloved Disney songs of all time.

“There had never really been an ‘I want’ number before in a Disney film,” Menken told Entertainment Weekly in 2015 about the drama over the song and Disney’s discomfort with it. “Subsequently everybody at Disney would ask, ‘Where’s our “I want” moment?!’ But it’s that important moment where you engage the audience in the quest of the central character so you know what you’re rooting for.” Menken remembered during the May 2022 Tiny Desk Concert for “Little Shop of Horrors” how that show’s “Somewhere That’s Green” was a precursor to “Part of Your World,” and he and Ashman used to joke that Ariel’s song was basically “Somewhere That’s Wet.”

The movie was a major hit, and “Kiss the Girl” and “Under the Sea” were both nominated for best original song at the 1990 Academy Awards. Menken’s score was also nominated, and the score and “Under the Sea” won. “The Little Mermaid” was the first Disney movie to receive any Oscar nominations since “The Rescuers” in 1977.

For the new live-action film, Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote four new songs, and Ashman’s work was always on their minds. “I think it was probably the most intimidating for Lin because he felt like it was really stepping into Howard’s shoes,” Menken told Vanity Fair in March.

What Other Disney Movies Did Howard Ashman Work On?

Ashman and Menken also worked together on “Aladdin” while “The Little Mermaid” was in production, though the movie changed a lot over time. But some of Ashman’s work did make it to the final film: namely, the lyrics to “Arabian Nights,” “Friend Like Me,” and “Prince Ali.” “Friend Like Me” was nominated for the Oscar for best original song in 1992. In “Howard,” Menken remembers working on “Prince Ali” with Ashman while he was in the hospital.

Ashman and Menken were much more heavily involved in “Beauty and the Beast,” and Ashman was credited as a lyricist and executive producer. Production of “Beauty and the Beast” actually moved to Fishkill, NY, so Ashman could continue to work on it while he was battling his illness. Menken remembered to EW in that 2015 interview that Ashman was initially hesitant about the opening song of the film, “Belle.” “Howard Ashman was HIV-positive and wasn’t telling anybody – he had been very quiet,” Menken said. “And, here, we had written this crazy seven-minute opening number that was much more ambitious than anybody had asked for, and I remember his fear [about everything] in that moment. I remember Howard was very, very reluctant to send it out, thinking that we were going to be laughed at.” Disney loved it.

Three songs from “Beauty and the Beast” – “Beauty and the Beast,” “Be Our Guest,” and “Belle” – were nominated for best original song, and “Beauty and the Beast” won, giving Ashman a posthumous Oscar. It was the first movie to be nominated in that category three times. “Beauty and the Beast” was also the first animated film to be nominated for best picture, and it’s the only animated film to be nominated in that category before it expanded to 10 nominees.

When Did Howard Ashman Die?

Ashman died of complications from HIV/AIDS on March 14, 1991. He was 40. Ashman died before “Beauty and the Beast” was released, though he did see cuts of it before his death. The film is dedicated in his honor; a message in the end credits reads, “To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice, and a beast his soul. We will be forever grateful. Howard Ashman 1950-1991.”

How to Watch the Howard Ashman Documentary

“Howard” is streaming now on Disney+. “Waking Sleeping Beauty,” which also talks about his legacy, is also available on the streamer.

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