This celebrated producer and stage director is remembered as the lyricist for three of Disney animated blockbusters of the late 1980s and early 90s, including "The Little Mermaid" (1989) and "Beauty and the Beast" (1991). Howard Ashman actually began his professional career as a book editor at Grosset & Dunlap before becoming artistic director of the newly-revived WPA Theatre in New York in 1977. Despite his administrative duties, he found time to write and direct. His first two efforts, "'Cause Maggie's Afraid of the Dark" and "Dreamstuff" (both 1976) were met with mixed results. After a directing stint at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC, Ashman returned to Manhattan and launched "Little Shop of Horrors." The hit Off-Broadway musical based on Roger Corman's 1961 minor classic centered on the improbable relationship between a nebbish and a man-eating plant. Working with composer Alan Menken, Ashman wrote the book and lyrics and directed the original 1982 production. The show was a hit, and the film version of "Little Shop of Horrors" debuted in 1986. A modest success at the time and now a beloved cult classic, the film brought Ashman and Menken their first Oscar nomination for Best Song for their original, rhythm-and-blues tinged "Mean Green Mother From Outer Space." The Walt Disney Company approached the pair in 1986 about collaborating on an animated feature; the result was 1989's "The Little Mermaid." Menken and Ashman produced seven songs for the film, including "Part of Your World," "Kiss the Girl" and the Oscar-winning "Under the Sea." Ashman's lyrics brought a contemporary tenor to the project and in his function as one of the film's producer, he brought a unifying concept, utilizing standard conventions of Broadway musicals. Their follow-up, "Beauty and the Beast" (1991), was acclaimed as one of the year's best films and earned a surprising Best Picture Oscar nomination. With strong, well-defined characters and a classic, timeless love story, the creators again approached the material more as a stage musical than an animated feature. From its spirited opening number ("Belle") to the showstopper ("Be Our Guest") to the lovely eleven o'clock title tune, "Beauty and the Beast" followed the contours of a book show. (These three songs garnered Oscar nominations, with the award going to the latter.) It was not unexpected when Disney announced its first theatrical production would be a stage version of this instant classic. Suffering with complications from AIDS, Ashman still persevered and began working on a third animated feature, "Aladdin" (1992). While he died before the film was completed, he nevertheless had completed half the irreverent lyrics, earning another posthumous Oscar nomination for the Genie's showstopping "Friend Like Me." Four years after his death, the lyricist was saluted with "Hundreds of Hats," a revue of his songs produced by the theater he had co-founded, the WPA.
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