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Why Every Musician Should Watch “Howard”

The film pays tribute to a visionary writer whose legacy, though not widely known, is universally felt.

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By Richie Angel

“We knew something very special was happening that day. But what we didn’t know was that in nine months, Howard would be gone.”

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Hanging his hat at Disney as a young man in his early twenties, Don Hahn received his first full “producer” credit on 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, and by the time of its 2017 live-action remake, Hahn had been wearing his “executive producer” title for almost two decades. As an accomplished overseer of the production process at the House of Mouse, Hahn was perfectly poised to write and direct Howard, the impactful documentary about the lyricist who revolutionized musical storytelling and reinvigorated Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Howard honors the legacy of the late Howard Ashman, a Broadway lyricist and director responsible for God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and Little Shop of Horrors. Ashman would eventually usher in the golden decade known as the Disney Renaissance, but an AIDS diagnosis at the height of his influence would cut short his unparalleled career.

A young Howard Ashman, photographed on the set of his musical Little Shop of Horrors. Photo courtesy of Disney.
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There is little that can be done to transform the medium of documentary, particularly one meant to hold up the light of one man’s life. And aside from minimizing stale talking heads with a combination of voiceover, title cards, and B roll, Howard does little to try to. But in a genre designed to appreciate the under-appreciated, there has rarely been as fitting a subject for artistic praise than Ashman. Told through appearances from Disney executives, fellow songwriters, and doting performers, Howard captures the magic of a real-life fairy tale about a kingdom close to ruin saved by the enchantments of a Broadway bard.

Perhaps one reason Ashman has gone overlooked is because his contributions are now second nature, even common sense to the modern musical storyteller. But just over thirty years ago, one man transformed an industry by positing a single suggestion: the heroine should sing about what she wants. Through plotting and wordsmithing, Ashman patented a simple, winning formula, one that moved musicals from stories punctuated by songs (like The Jungle Book and Peter Pan) to movies where the music drives the plot along. Without “Part of Your World,” there is no “Go the Distance.” Without “Friend Like Me,” there is no “Hakuna Matata.” As one colleague remembers, “He literally taught us how to tell a story with songs.” Ashman was so transformative at Disney that Aladdin entered production because of his songwriting, not the other way around.

Hahn took a subject deserving of recognition and thankfully captured his story in a meaningful, moving way, paying tribute to a visionary writer whose legacy, though not widely known, is universally felt. And that’s why every musician should watch Howard.

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