How the Disney Plus Doc About Howard Ashman Captures His Whole Legacy (Exclusive)

The award-winning lyricist was responsible for some of Disney’s biggest animated hits before dying of AIDS-related complications.

Most well known for his work on Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid, lyricist Howard Ashman has become synonymous with his time spent on the animated classics. However, as Beauty and the Beast director Don Hahn tells ET, Ashman’s life isn’t defined purely by his work at Disney. That’s why he created Howard, the documentary film about the untold story of Ashman’s life, from childhood to his humble beginnings in New York theater, to his longtime partnership with Bill Lauch and secret battle with AIDS, and his successes in creating Little Shop of Horrors and award-winning musical partnership with Alan Menken

“There’s no novel, there’s no biography,” Hahn says of Ashman’s life, adding he thought “it would be a really interesting story and something that people hadn't heard before.”  

He adds that “there are plenty of movies about the Michael Jordans of the world, and rightly so, about political heroes or sports heroes or historic heroes. But to tell a story about an artist who is heroic in his approach, who is learned in his craft, who understands musical theater like the back of his hand... to show that kind of heroism is something I think is really important.”

Arriving on Disney+ nearly 30 years after his death, Howard offers an intimate look at the musical theater legend’s life, creative drive and process behind the music through never-before-seen archival footage, personal photographs and all-new interviews with Ashman’s friends, family and colleagues. 

While Hahn tried to make the film as factual and dispassionate as possible, it was hard to erase the passion that emerged from the interviews, especially those with Ashman’s sister, Sarah, Lauch, Beauty and the Beast actress Paige O’Hara, Little Mermaid actress Jodi Benson and Menken, who insisted on composing an original score for the documentary. 

“There were very raw emotions to come out, even 30 years after his death,” the director says, adding that “Howard was a complicated character. He was incredibly smart and actually collaborative and fun to work with for the most part. But I wanted to get as much truth out of people as I could. And some of that truth ended up being pretty emotional.”

Opening with footage of Ashman in the studio working on Beauty and the Beast, audiences quickly learn that this moment was just weeks before his death. The film then goes back in time to start chronicling his journey from the beginning. While Hahn didn’t want the documentary to convey a sense of pity, the feeling of losing somebody at the prime of their career is inescapable. 

The circumstances leading up to Ashman's death were also crucial to his story. An openly gay man in a long-term relationship with Lauch, Ashman never hid in the closet. He did, however, hide his HIV/AIDS diagnosis for as long as he could, after first learning he tested positive in 1988 during the making of The Little Mermaid. He wouldn’t even tell Menken, whom he shared an Oscar with, until after the Academy Awards in 1990 -- just one year before dying at the age of 40. 

Having worked at Disney most of his professional career, Hahn has a real awareness of Disney’s audience, which is why he sought to initially make Howard as an independent film. “It freed me up just to be fairly factual about it,” he says, adding that it allowed him to capture moments like Lauch’s frankness about Ashman’s final days. “It was about following protocol and about meds and taking care of him. And then he said goodbye, long before Howard left.”

Howard Ashman and Paige O'Hara in the recording studio. - Disney+

Hahn adds, “I can't help but to think they were personal to other people’s stories going through that crisis. And there’s an odd echo of all that going on now with this epidemic we’re dealing with.” 

Touched by the fact that Disney ultimately didn’t shy away from Ashman’s full legacy behind the scenes and in his personal life, the director credits former Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger for championing the film. Hahn recalls sending Iger a copy of the film soon after it first premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival while fielding calls from Netflix and other distributors. 

“I wanted him to see it at least,” Hahn says. “He called back and said that is so much a part of what Disney is as a culture, and it’s also a part of Disney’s audience. You know, we do have LGBTQ members of our audience that are extremely loyal and plugged in to Disney. And we want to tell stories about our audience. And that made me feel like, ‘Yes, that's exactly the right answer.’”

Howard is now streaming on Disney+.