Content Heroes: Howard Ashman

How a content craftsman with a passion for detail created the Disney we know today

July 1, 2019

How a content craftsman with a passion for detail created the Disney we know today

It’s hard to believe today, but in 1987 very few people believed that Disney would ever produce another blockbuster animated movie. The last Disney animation to take over $100 million at the global box office had been The Rescuers, released a decade earlier. More recent films had struggled to make the same impact, facing intensified competition from the rival Don Bluth Productions, which had been started by a team of disgruntled Disney animators. Disney itself had narrowly escaped a hostile takeover, had moved its animation studios to a temporary lot to make more room for live-action filmmaking, and was getting the lion’s share of its income from theme parks. It seemed a classic case of a once-great brand on borrowed time, and being forced to abandon its core strength.

The studio did have a classic animated fairy tale in development – but it had been in development for a long, long time. The Little Mermaid had been one of the first films planned by Walt Disney in the 1930s but had never made it off the ground. Even with production moving ahead again, studio executives were managing expectations and warning it would underperform their last animated feature, Oliver and Company.

Then somebody decided to persuade Howard Ashman and Alan Menken to write the songs for the film. And everything about the future of Disney changed.

A song-writer who did far more than write songs
Howard Ashman was the lyricist in this song-writing team. He and Menken had made their name on Broadway, and were best known for the stage hit, The Little Shop of Horrors. He could have taken his brief at face value, delivered some tunes for the new film, and left it at that. Only that wasn’t the way Howard Ashman operated. He was a craftsman, supremely passionate about every detail. And that meant taking an active interest in how those songs would be delivered. Ashman had views about the role his songs played in a plot, the characters that were delivering them, and whether that whole experience would add up for the audience. He couldn’t help but influence the films he was contributing to. In just a few short years, that would make him one of the most important figures in movie history.

One of the first things that Ashman insisted on was a voice cast for The Little Mermaid that had serious musical theater credentials, who could act through their singing. Then he reworked the plot of the film so that it revolved around showpiece songs that moved the events forward. The result was a Disney movie that recaptured the magic most had thought long gone, and which went on to take more than $200 million worldwide – a spectacular return at the time. Disney CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg knew where a lot of the credit rested. He approved Ashman’s pitch for a musical version of Aladdin, complete with the three songs he and Menken had written for it.

Before production could kick off on Aladdin though, Disney had another ask. Another animated film, Beauty and the Beast was going nowhere as a non-musical. Could Ashman fix it?

It turned out that the timing was terrible – because in a tragic twist, Ashman’s health had started to fail badly. He’d been diagnosed as HIV Positive in 1988. The development of Beauty and the Beast would involve Disney animators flying out from California to Ashman’s home in New York, where he was growing progressively weaker. However, his determination to create the best possible songs and the best possible film around them, never changed.

Howard Ashman’s masterpiece – Beauty and the Beast
It was Ashman who insisted that the Beast’s castle should be filled with friendly talking objects – because otherwise, who would be there to sing the songs he was writing? It was Ashman who demanded a village full of people to perform his opening number – and the villainous Gaston to deliver another of his show-stopping tunes. He took what had been a sombre, moody piece and turned it into one of the most complex, intriguing and infectiously joyous Disney films of all time.

Ashman took the standards he set for The Little Mermaid and raised them to new heights. He cast opera singers (Richard White as Gaston) and accomplished Broadway performers (Paige O’Hara as Belle, Jerry Orbach as Lumiere and Angela Lansbury as Mrs Potts). He demonstrated emphatically that a commitment to perfecting every detail delivered something so much more than the sum of those details. Because Ashman took such ownership of the content he created, Disney produced a film that was unlike any animation previously seen – and the first to be nominated for The Academy Award for best picture.

If you want a sense of this creative leader and instinctive craftsman at work, watch the backstage clips of Orbach and Lansbury recording Be our Guest (arguably the most famous Ashman song of all) and feel the respect, passion and attention to detail of everyone involved. It’s very hard to imagine that this was all co-ordinated by a man with only months to live. Ashman lived and breathed his craft so completely that to stop work because he was dying would just have meant dying earlier.

Howard Ashman never got to see the final version of Beauty and the Beast. He passed away in March 1991, shortly after Disney executives had visited him to say just how well the press screenings had gone. His contribution to the studio was tragically short – but hugely profound. Katzenberg has referred to Walt Disney and Ashman as the two guardian angels touching every note and frame that Disney produced from this point onwards. Just think about that for a moment: the idea that the Disney media powerhouse you see today might owe as much to the man asked to write a few songs for a low-priority film as it does to its famous founder.

A content hero for content marketers
Why is Howard Ashman my content hero? It’s partly because I’m a huge Disney fan, and the mother of another huge Disney fan. It’s partly because the feeling of unbridled joy I get watching Beauty and the Beast still almost brings tears to my eyes. However, it’s also because I am a content marketer and as a content marketer, it’s easy to feel torn between the demand to get content out there – and the demand to make sure that content is the best it can possibly be. I think that the story of Howard Ashman and Disney makes it a whole lot easier to deal with this dilemma.

For Ashman, content was never something you pushed out when it had reached a standard you could get away with. No detail was unimportant, and it was his attention to every one of those details that elevated his songs, his films and the studio he created them for to another level. He proves that, when you’re a great content creator, you can create far more than just content. You create value – and that value can last for a very long time.