Howard Ashman passed away 25 years ago, leaving behind a tragically truncated but almost impossibly memorable legacy of some of the best musical theatre scores ever created. He also wrote a song for an 80s anti-drug PSA, but we'll get to that later. Here is Ashman's oeuvre, ranked. Fair warning: I have an MFA in musical theater writing
- •Little Shop of HorrorsAn brilliant adaptation of an infamous B-movie crossed with a Classical Greek tragedy structure that Aristotle would be proud of (I'm talking about the stage version, not the "happy ending" film version. It drags a little bit in the second act, but there are so many highlights, it doesn't matter. Ashman also does a miraculous job of taking silly one-note archetypes and turning them into emotionally vibrant characters (see: "Suddenly Seymour" and "Somewhere That's Green").
- •The Little MermaidThe most complete Disney score from top to bottom. Even the silly songs ("Les Poissons") are golden. There's a lot in the movie that can be picked apart in terms of gender and even sexuality, but this is a score undeniably overflowing with passion but bereft of schmaltz. Let's not forget the incredible musical variety, ranging from "Under the Sea" to "Part of that World" to "Kiss the Girl." He also admirably refuses to dumb down his lyrics just because he's writing "just for kids."
- •Beauty and the BeastA teensy notch below Mermaid, but holy shit, is there any better "world-establishing" song than "Belle?" And man, the lyrics in "Gaston" are just virtuosic. I've never loved the title track, as prettily as Angela Lansbury sings it, because it doesn't really go anywhere lyrically, but everything else flows perfectly. Have you listened to the lyrics to "Be Our Guest" lately? You don't have to write innuendo into kids movies to get adults to love them, too. Just make them well-written!
- •SmileAshman's only collaboration with Marvin Hamlisch, composer of "A Chorus Line," "Smile" was a 1986 Broadway musical with book and lyrics by Ashman about the backstage goings-on of a beauty pageant. It flopped horribly, and the book was mostly to blame. However, there are some really fantastic songs here, including "Until Tomorrow Night" and "Disneyland," which is interesting not just because Ashman hadn't worked with Disney yet, but also because it was sung by a pre-Ariel Jodi Benson.
- •AladdinWe all love Aladdin, but Ashman's contribution was sadly limited to three songs (the other three were by Tim Rice). Ashman's songs are rock solid ("Friend Like Me," "Prince Ali," and "Arabian Nights"), though his original vision of the movie as a Hope/Crosby style romp was obviously drastically altered. The demos of songs like "Proud of Your Boy" (the song that a dying Ashman made Jeffrey Katzenberg promise to keep in the movie) are on YouTube and definitely worth a listen.
- •God Bless You, Mr. RosewaterAshman and Menken tackling Vonnegut in 1979 sounds like a dream combination, but Vonnegut's trademark ambiguity is incompatible with Ashman's more archetypal style (and probably not a great fit for any musical, to be honest). The result is a wishy-washy show without a notable score. Worth looking at for hardcore fans who want to see the earliest work of Ashman/Menken, but not otherwise notable by its own merits.
- •Oliver & CompanyOnly one song here ("Once Upon A Time in New York City") and it hasn't aged well. This was Ashman's first job with Disney, and he was little more than a hired gun.
- •Cartoon All-Stars to the RescueAshman wrote the song "Wonderful Ways to Say No" for this PSA and it's just...surreal. Here's the YouTube link: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=z6vY4gpsiSE