Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were approached to write music for a Disney film of their choice. Ashman chose The Little Mermaid and wrote all seven songs. Ashman not only wrote the music with Menken but he also served as the film's producer. Ashman also conducted Jodi Benson to sing Part of Your World right and he also dressed up as Ursula to show Pat Carroll how to sing "Poor Unfortunate Souls". Ashman and Menken won three Academy Awards for original songs in the movie in 1989.
Ashman and Menken were bought into team writing songs again for another project called Beauty and the Beast. Howard really wanted to work on another project called Aladdin, but with the studio in need of help, he reluctantly agreed. The original story was early selected by Walt Disney in the 1940s and 50s but was scrapped when the animators couldn't find the right story. Ashman solved the biggest problem Disney himself faced with the story. The original story involves a maiden who is kept prisoner by a beast and transforms him by love. Howard said, "The Beast is the guy with the problem. He's got to redeem himself by the movie's end. His act of love allows the girl to leave his castle." Walt's nephew Roy Edward Disney decided to give Beauty and the Beast another shot. Ashman and Menken wrote all six songs. Since Beauty and the Beast was a musical Ashman chose many Broadway actors and actresses including Paige O'Hara, Jerry Orbach, and Angela Lansbury to voice the characters and he also coached them very well to sing the songs just perfectly. The song Human Again was planned to be in the original film, but due to story problems, it had to be cut out. Menken fixed the story problems for the 1994 Broadway production and the song was a success. The song would later be animated and brought to life in the 2002 IMAX release.
When The Little Mermaid was almost done, Ashman and Menken pitched a treatment of the story of Aladdin and wrote many songs. But after being asked to help out with Beauty and the Beast, Ashman reluctantly agreed. Three of Ashman's songs made it into the final version, Arabian Nights, Friend Like Me, and Prince Ali. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker talked to Menken and Ashman about writing a song for the Magic Carpet ride but sadly didn't have the time to write it. Lyricist Tim Rice, who was working on a project known at the time as King of the Jungle, was asked to help finish the songs for Aladdin.
Death and Legacy
At the 1989 Oscars for Little Mermaid Ashman told Menken they needed to talk when they got home to New York City about something important that couldn't be mentioned at the Oscars. When they got back to Ashman's house in New York, Ashman told Menken that he was sick and was HIV positive, and revealed during the production of Beauty and the Beast that he had been diagnosed with AIDS which made him weaker every day but never stopped him from writing songs. Before he passed away, they showed him an unfinished version of Beauty and the Beast. He then died four days later on March 14, 1991, at a hospital in New York City, at the age of 40. Ashman never married, but he was survived by his life partner Bill Lauch, his sister Sarah Ashman-Gillespie, and his mother Shirley. Beauty and the Beast was dedicated to Ashman during the end credits, reading:
TO OUR FRIEND, HOWARD,
WHO GAVE A MERMAID HER VOICE
AND A BEAST HIS SOUL,
WE WILL BE FOREVER GRATEFUL.
In 2001 he and his musical partner Alan Menken were named Disney Legends, their plaques are presented together on the same post at the Team -- Disney Michael D. Eisner Building
In 1996, one of the reprisals he wrote for Arabian Nights was featured in Aladdin and the King of Thieves.
In 2019, all three of the songs he wrote for Aladdin were featured in Aladdin.