Be Our Guest: The Howard Ashman Papers

The following is a guest post from Archivist Janet McKinney.

Howard Ashman

Mesdames et Messieurs, it is with deepest pride and greatest pleasure that we welcome you to the In the Muse blog. And now, we invite you to relax, pull up a computer chair, as the Music Division proudly presents: The Howard Ashman Papers.

Howard Ashman (19511950-1991) was a playwright, lyricist, librettist, and director, best known for his collaborations with composer Alan Menken. This successful partnership launched with their Off-Broadway musical adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1979), after which they wrote the award winning Little Shop of Horrors (19821986), which was subsequently released as a feature film (1988).

Their Broadway endeavors translated well into the realm of animated film, and together they helped to create the extraordinarily successful and exceedingly popular Disney films The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), and Aladdin (1992; with additional lyrics by Tim Rice). Earlier in his career Ashman also served as the artistic director of the WPA Theater, and in 1986 was lyricist, librettist and director for Smile! the musical, with composer Marvin Hamlisch.

“Important Stuff,” notes in the hand of Howard Ashman for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Howard Ashman Papers, Music Division, Library of Congress.

From November 2009 – March 2010 the Music; Motion Picture, Broadcasting & Recorded Sound; and Prints and Photographs divisions of the Library of Congress mounted an exhibit of scores, lyrics, drawings, and film and sound clips to demonstrate the magic of music and animation working together to bring art to life. Molto Animato! Music and Animation is now a digital exhibit where select materials from the Howard Ashman Papers can be viewed online. Most recently, the finding aid that documents the contents of scripts, correspondence, notes, and other materials detailing Ashman’s life and career has been updated and can be accessed online.

As I was a young girl who grew up watching these films and avidly listening to their soundtracks, it has been a sheer joy reliving them through the materials in the Ashman Papers. There is a great deal of interesting material in the collection, but I particularly appreciated perusing a notebook he kept while working on Beauty and the Beast. It included thoughtful character descriptions, random notes and doodles, and insightful questions concerning the broader moral of the story (“What is a beast? What is human?”). I hope Mr. Ashman would be pleased that, though many years have passed since I had last listened to the soundtrack, I still remember every. single. word.

One Comment

  1. Sarah Ashman Gillespie
    September 23, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    Thanks for this lovely tribute. Just for the sake of accuracy, Howard was born in 1950, the Little Shop film premiered in 1986 and Rosewater was first produced in 1978. That said, this is a lovely piece, thanks once more for sharing with us.

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