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"Howard Sings Ashman" showcases rarely-heard demos for "Mermaid," "Beast" and "Aladdin"

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"Howard Sings Ashman" showcases rarely-heard demos for "Mermaid," "Beast" and "Aladdin"

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A few days ago, I was talking with a friend about "Bolt." A film that -- me personally -- I liked quite a bit (I'd give that Byron Howard / Chris Williams film a possible ca-seven out of ca-nine). But -- that said -- it isn't doing nearly as well as Walt Disney Animation Studios had hoped it would.

"Why can't Disney make good animated movies like 'Mermaid,' 'Beast' and 'Aladdin' anymore?," my pal asked.

"Two words," I replied. "Howard Ashman."

Copyright 2008 PS Classics. All Rights Reserved

It's been almost 17 years now since we lost Ashman to AIDS, the man who " ... gave a Mermaid her voice and a Beast his soul." And though Disney has striven mightily over the past decade to try & find someone who might fill Howard's shoes, triple threats like that don't come along every day.

How important was Ashman when it came to Disney's Second Golden Age of Animation? Here. I'll let former CEO Michael Eisner (in an excerpt from his 1998 autobiography, "Work in Progress") explain:

"The most important creative decision we made on 'The Little Mermaid' was to work with the lyricist Howard Ashman and his composing partner Alan Menken ... It was then that the true renaissance of Disney animation began to take shape ... The process was entirely collaborative, but if any single person made a critical difference, it was Ashman. A Disney aficionado from his childhood, he knew more about our early animated classics than virtually anyone in the company, and he also had a rich sense of theatre history. As a writer, Ashman was evocative and accessible but also edgy and irreverent. It was his idea to transform Ursula into a larger than life character, as well as turn Sebastian the Crab, Ariel's guardian, into a clever wise-cracking Trinidadian ..."

Copyright 2008 PS Classics. All Rights Reserved

Mind you, Howard didn't just write the lyrics for "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin." As he and Alan Menken were working on the songs for these films, they'd often create these elaborate demo recordings with Howard performing most of the roles. Which Ashman & Menken would then pass along to their collaborators at Disney, so that the folks at the Studio would then make decisions in regards to casting, etc.

Alan Menken (L) and Howard Ashman (R) accepting
their Academy Awards for "The Little Mermaid"
Copyright 2008 PS Classics. All Rights Reserved

Now what's amazing about these recordings is that ... Well, Howard -- in addition to being a gifted lyricist, writer and director -- was a born performer. Which is why he'd invest these demos with so much passion and energy, delivering a full-blown performance of each proposed song.

According to his sister, Sarah Gillespie:

"Howard knew every character he wrote, initimately and completely. And a part of him was in every character, too. That's why (those) demos are so complete. He's the suave, debonair, oh-so French Lumiere and the warm, comfy, British as a cup of tea on a rainy day, Mrs. Potts. He's the camp, stinging Ursula and the naive, lovelorn Ariel."

So obviously these recordings are pretty special things. Which is why it's so great that PS Classics has recently released a 2-disc set, "Howard Sings Ashman" that actually collects & preserves these demos. And it's not just test recordings for Howard's Disney films that you'll find here. But also demos for Ashman's stage works like "Little Shop Of Horrors," "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" and "Smile."

Copyright 2008 PS Classics. All Rights Reserved

It's for "Smile" that his sister Sarah believes that Howard wrote the song that best sums up who this tremendously talented guy was, who Ashman really was inside. And the title of that song (Which I know is going to thrill all you Disney dweebs out there) is "Disneyland."

As Ms. Gillespie explained:

"It's in 'Disneyland,' though, that I think we most hear Howard. Written before he'd ever considered breathing life into a mermaid named Ariel, that song is Howard's anthem to a world he loved. Like theater, the magic of Disneyland he sings is made of papier-mache and mirrors. He invites us into that make-believe but charmed place, beckoning us to join him in the world a kid in Baltimore learned to love so many years ago; a world of illusion, a world of art, a world of theater."

Now I know that some of you are coming down to the wire right now, frantically trying to find just the right present for everyone on your list. Well, if you've a Disneyana and/or a musical theatre fan that you're shopping for, you'd be hard pressed to come with a 2-disc set that would be more appealing this holiday set.

I mean, you get Howard performing all of these great songs. Plus incredibly detailed liner notes that I'm sure the folks at Disney Theatrical aren't going to be thrilled with. Given that -- in one 1987 talk with WDAS staffers that reproduced here -- Ashman, while discussing the "Under the Number" from "The Little Mermaid" actually says:

"This is the only medium you can do that. I mean, what are you going to do? On the Broadway stage, you're going to dress people up like lobsters? ''Cats' notwithstanding, this is the only medium where you can have that particular kind of fun."

So you get all of this hugely entertaining Broadway / Hollywood history plus a dash of ironic commentary. What's not to like?

Copyright 2008 PS Classics. All Rights Reserved

Seriously, though. If you're still looking for a gift for a movie or theater fan on your Christmas shopping list and/or are looking to get yourself something special at the post-holiday sales, you can't go wrong with "Howard Sings Ashman." This 2-disc set is a treat.

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  • I totally agree with this review. I purchased this CD not only because of Ashman's Disney links, but he was a genius in his own right. The lyrics are smart and catchy. His performances of the song are delightful. Listening to "Disneyland" brought tears to my eyes because of the sentiment and the fact that we lost such an amazing talent. I love love *love* this CD set!

  • This post is old but still so relevant! This weekend I watched Tangled and the duet really bothered me, it sounded eerily similar to "A Whole New World," sure enough, a little research proved Alan Menken composed them both! My digging led me to discover how amazing Howard Ashman was. I'm purchasing the CD. Thanks for this post. I'm glad I'm not the only one analyzing these songs and their history.

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