Howard Ashman was a native of Baltimore who grew up loving theater.
In 1974, after graduating from Goddard College in Vermont and receiving his MFA from Indiana University—where he was also a member of the professional acting company—Ashman moved to New York. In 1976, his play, The Confirmation, was produced at Princeton’s McCarter Theater.
A founder of the WPA Theater, Ashman was also its Artistic Director. At the WPA, he conceived, wrote and directed a musical adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You Mr. Rosewater with music by Alan Menken.
In 1982 he conceived, wrote and directed Little Shop of Horrors, again with music by Mr. Menken. The musical, based upon Roger Corman’s 1960s-era horror flick was immediately successful, indeed it soon became a New York “must see” playing for five years off-Broadway at the Orpheum Theater in lower Manhattan. The show played LA and London’s West End, Japan, Scandinavia and Europe and continues to be produced to great acclaim around the world. In 2003, Little Shop was revived on Broadway and in 2007 it was revived on London’s West End. It is currently one of the most-produced shows in American High Schools.
In 1986, Ashman wrote and directed the Broadway musical, Smile, which featured music by Marvin Hamlisch. Little appreciated at the time, Smile is now considered a lost gem of musical theater and is performed by high schools and amateur groups around the US.
Turning his talents toward film, Ashman was pivotal in the renaissance of Disney animated musicals and in the development of Disney’s The Little Mermaid (Producer and Lyrics), Beauty and the Beast (Executive Producer and Lyrics) and Aladdin (Lyrics), all with music by Alan Menken.
Ashman’s contributions to the revival of classic Disney animated musicals were perhaps best expressed by his colleagues, who dedicated the film Beauty and the Beast to his memory: “To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul. He will be forever missed.”
Ashman’s numerous awards include two Oscars, two Golden Globes, four Grammys, a Drama Desk and a London Evening Standard. He died in 1991 at age 40 from complications arising from AIDS.