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BWW Review: HOWARD, Disney+

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This powerful documentary celebrates lyricist Howard Ashman

BWW Review: HOWARD, Disney+BWW Review: HOWARD, Disney+If you've never heard of Howard Ashman, you'll definitely be familiar with his work. A supremely talented lyricist with a passion for theatre, his words can be heard on Disney classics including The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. He was also the talented creator behind cult-hit musical classic Little Shop of Horrors. Without him, there would be no "Part of Your World", "Be Our Guest" or "Suddenly Seymour".

Howard is a 2018 documentary, now on Disney+, which lovingly tells his story. Directed by Don Hahn (Beauty and the Beast), the film goes from Ashman's early years in Baltimore, setting up his own theatre company and moving to New York, and takes you to the heights of winning Golden Globes and Academy Awards for his work with Disney.

As well as his critical successes, the documentary also bravely focuses on his failed shows and his low points, including his tragic battle with AIDS that he kept secret for many years, and his untimely death that the film and theatre community is still grieving.

An incredibly intimate film, it features never-before-seen archival footage, personal films and photographs, as well as interviews with friends and family - including musical legend Alan Menken, Ashman's husband Bill Lauch, Ashman's sister Sarah Gillespie, Paige O'Hara (who voiced Belle in Beauty and the Beast) and Jodi Benson (the voice of Ariel in The Little Mermaid). You really couldn't ask for a better line-up of contributors, who between them know Ashman as a family member, colleague, friend and partner, so every possible strand of his life is covered with incredible detail and knowledge.

You don't actually need to be a huge Disney fan to enjoy this film, as what makes this documentary so unique is how quickly it draws you into Ashman's world and keeps you there. It keeps complete focus on him throughout, with contributors appearing as voiceovers rather than talking heads. This allows you to fully invest yourself into Ashman's story and not get sidetracked, as well as providing more time to show personal photos and film clips that have never been made public before.

This could have so easily been an upbeat documentary for animation fans, full of behind-the-scenes glimpses of Angela Lansbury in the recording session, or Jodi Benson taking tips from Ashman about bringing Ariel to life (and those moments do exist in this film, and are exquisite). But by telling a deeper, more candid story, it doesn't shy away from discussing difficult topics - including how Ashman almost got fired from several jobs, and how his decision to hide his AIDS from Disney affected both him and those around him. You really get no-holds-barred access into the mind and life of a creative legend, and it makes the film more powerful.

Particular standouts include the comparisons between lyrics written by Ashman and what was happening at the time of their creation, with divided opinions on this from his family and friends. For example, linking the AIDS protests and the misinformation about how it spread in the 1980s, to the mob scene in Beauty and the Beast (something not all contributors in the piece agree with), gives it a whole new meaning and perspective.

The most moving moments of the piece overall though come via contributions from his musical partner-in-crime Alan Menken and Ashman's husband Bill Lauch. Both provide voiceovers that are more than just throwaway anecdotes, and reveal the most personal elements of Ashman's life from two completely different perspectives. Menken details the inner workings of being a friend and colleague, while Lauch shares the memories of his husband, their love for each other, and the heartbreaking regret he feels about how they spent Ashman's final months.

As the film comes to its conclusion, it grows in intensity, and the final moments are sure to stay with you, as the voiceover starts to break with emotion and the credits roll under Ashman singing "Part of Your World".

This is a stunning and powerful must-see documentary that beautifully celebrates Howard Ashman and leaves you thinking what marvellous and magical work he would have created if he'd had more time.

Howard is available to watch on Disney+ now. Check out the trailer below!


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From This Author Eleni Cashell