“If you cannot teach me to fly, teach me to sing.”– Sir James Barrie, Peter Pan
Alums from Goddard College’s 1971 class remember Howard Ashman as “a beautiful soul”, a vibrant theater undergrad who would spontaneously erupt in song in the College’s dining hall- Broadway show tunes at full voice.
This was at eight o’clock in the morning.
“We knew the lyrics to a hundred Broadway musicals.” recalls friend Susan Rowley (BA RUP ’70), “My favorite memory of him was singing full scores at breakfast. He invented all new lyrics as we moved along. It was always obvious that he was a star.”
This enthusiastic early riser was Howard Ashman, future Grammy and Oscar-winning lyricist for Disney. It was Howard who had the carnivorous plant Audrey II beg for blood in Little Shop of Horrors. He lifted Ariel’s voice above the surface in The Little Mermaid, invited everyone to “be our guest” in Beauty and the Beast, and welcomed Prince Ali to the royal court in Aladdin.
A new documentary released by Disney+ titled Howard features the life and work of Howard Ashman, who with his collaborator Alan Menken, brought Disney’s mojo back after a downward spiral in the animation department that had the studio losing traction at the box office.
It was Howard Ashman who used his theatrical wit to inject the fun and character-driven urgency of show tunes back into Disney animated musicals.
And his confidence was nurtured in the green hills of central Vermont.
Before he penned the songs for princesses, talking candelabras, fancy teapots and unloved beasts, Howard’s creative journey took shape in a “provincial town” of Plainfield, Vermont.
Plainfield was more forested hills than plains or fields. There was also nothing plain about the students who rollicked in the counter-cultural landscape that was Goddard College in the early 1970s.
Some may have described Goddard as “hippy dippy” but it doesn’t mean students weren’t serious about honing and experimenting within their theater craft.
Howard would dive into directing at Goddard with an open-to-the public performance of Peter Pan, a musical that was familiar from his days as a child stage actor performing in youth theater in Baltimore.
He cast Tim Johnson (BA RUP ’71) in the role of Captain Hook:
What an amazing spring term it was, working under Howard’s direction. (1969?) I was completely unaware that there was a number of gay students attending Goddard. Being a closeted gay student (no longer closeted, thank the gods) I would have so loved it if Howard and I could have chatted about our sexuality. Howard and I shared a similar raucous humor and we both had flamboyant mannerisms when the occasion called for such. Howard had quite the number of stage and cast challenges, not the least of those being how to get Wendy to fly. Our stage manager/set creator (first name was Fred, but I can’t recall his last name) rigged up a pulley system which indeed got Wendy off the stage floor, but without a track Wendy could run in a circle and take flight, But going in circles was the extent of it. I remember Howard invested a lot of time in getting me costumed, right down to getting me fitted for a hooked nose.
Rebels in a Haybarn
Howard’s experimental theater work would take flight at Goddard’s Haybarn Theatre. The 280 person venue was flooded with radical student output, rock concerts, Igmar Bergman film viewings and a gamelan troupe conducted by musical guru and faculty Dennis Murphy. Fellow Goddard student William H. Macy (BA RUP ’72) conceived of solo performance art that featured nudity. Theater faculty and playwright David Mamet’s Duck Variations were workshopped. The protest and pageantry of Peter Schumann’s Bread & Puppet Theater, all recruited young rebellious artists into their provocations. On top of all this the 1970 Alternative Media Conference drew thousands of radio journalists, political cartoonists, activists and musicians to the summer sun in Plainfield.
The vibe at Goddard College in 1969-1971 was ripe for experimentation. Howard mentioned in an interview in The Sun, “I could be in all parts of the theater. I could do everything I wanted to do.”
Howard’s student work concluded at Goddard with two senior thesis productions of Caligula and YourOwnThing: A Pre-Tribal Bubblegum Rock Musical Based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
Jon Gottlieb (BA RUP ’74) who was involved in his production of Caligula remembers, “lots of blood and sex. An ambitious undertaking for a college production and Howard put his own stamp on the approach.”
He remembers many Haybarn Theatre experiments in the early 70s, but adds, “none were as intense as Howards.”
Howard was able to design his own major in theater, earning a Bachelor’s degree. graduating from Goddard in 1971 before setting off Indiana University for his Master’s degree. Then it was off to NYC to start his own off-off-Broadway non-profit theater company, the Workshop of the Players Art Foundation, Inc. or WPA.
Howard’s sister Sarah Gillespie, who also manages his website, recalls Howard’s feelings about Goddard:
He was a curious man. He loved theater first and foremost, but I believe Goddard allowed him to explore and learn in a way that was probably truly appealing.
While at Goddard, Sarah remembers, “Howard wrote two one acts either at Goddard or soon after, both became his first foray into Manhattan Theater. One was called Mud Season and the other was ‘Cause Maggie’s Afraid of the Dark. Mud Season is self-explanatory to anyone who has spent a spring in Vermont.”
Alas, Sarah has no existing copies of Mud Season. (If there are alums out there who remember Mud Season, we’d love to hear from you.)
Prolific as a lyricist, Howard went on to create many musicals for Broadway, including Little Shop of Horrors with music collaborator Alan Menken. The duo would go on to write lyrics for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. The song Beauty and the Beast earned them Best Original Song at the 1992 Oscars.
But Howard sadly, was not there to accept.
His post-humous Oscar was received in his stead by his long-time partner Bill Lauch, who in his reception speech said, “This is the first Academy Award given to someone we’ve lost to AIDS.”
The Howard documentary speaks of his struggles keeping his gay identity and his diagnosis secretive for fear of losing his job at Disney.
Howard died of AIDS in 1991. He worked relentlessly on the fine-tuning of lyrics for Beauty and the Beast as the effects of the disease began to take hold. Looking back at Howard’s early days as an undergrad, we see a prolific artist driven by perfection and an urgency in enrapturing audiences with deep empathy for his characters.
As Howard concludes the introduction of this Goddard thesis: “The performance speaks for itself. The rest is reporting.”
The legacy left by Howard Ashman endures in songwriting, Broadway, and Disney.
Songwriter and native Vermonter, Anaïs Mitchell attended Goddard’s MFA in Writing program for one semester in 2018 before her musical Hadestown was swept to Broadway. Hadestown went on to win 8 awards at the 2019 Tonys including Best Musical and Best Original Score.
Howard’s Broadway influences were asserted into the musical tropes that are now the keystones of Disney’s animated musicals. This has returned Disney not just to the forefront of animation but has dominated the last two-and-a-half decades of Broadway productions.
Anaïs reflects on Howard’s brilliance:
Howard Ashman’s … lyrics are absolutely perfect and what I love about what I’m now identifying as his “voice” is that— he’s a lyricist capable of real virtuosity but also real restraint. A song like “Under The Sea” shows him to be just a bonkers rhymer. I always loved “Even the sturgeon and the ray / They get the urge and start to play” (I mean come ON who rhymes sturgeon like that?) But then take a song like the title track from “Beauty and the Beast”… now that is a real timeless authentic heart medicine song. Not flashy, deceptively simple, plaintively honest.
For some reason these are the lines that get me:
“Tale as old as time / Tune as old as rhyme / Bittersweet and strange / Finding you can change / Learning you were wrong”
There’s no imagery here, no virtuosic wordplay, it is just a perfect series of words that invokes both the ancientness of the fairytale and also exactly what it means to me/you/us/lovers/humans of the present day.
Ready to begin your journey of experimentation? Design your own curriculum and lay your path for the future that only you can chart. Only you can truly assess your learning. Still no grading, tests, or lecture halls. Goddard continues its mission to empower student-centered learning, allowing for deep personal inquiry and interdisciplinary study. Inquire about Goddard’s unique programs and methods today.
This blog may contain updates and edits. Thanks to Sarah Gillespie, Jake from Dreamsounds, Susan Rowley, Tim Johnson, William H. Macy, Jon Gottlieb and Anaïs Mitchell for their contributions.