Spare a thought today for Howard Ashman (May 17, 1950 - March 14, 1991)
Howard may have suffered in silence, but he did have a voice. No doubt he was secretive and tortured, but he is all too easily pigeon-holed as a tragic martyr. I implore you - please, please do not condense him down to something so simple. Howard was brilliant. A funny, complex, warm, strong-willed, loving, sensitive, intensely bright man; often sarcastic and moody, but always caring, and a wonderful friend. Do not remember him the way most choose to. He once was a child, who put on plays with the children in his neighbourhood. He was once a young man, who fell in and out of love. He once laughed, loudly and fully, losing control with happiness. He had a rare true artistic vision. Do not misremember. He was a man, he was whole, he was loved.
I was very lucky from the beginning.
Nobody can deny that Howard’s work was so uniquely funny, and clever, and entertaining. Yet at his most poignant, Howard wrote about the unifying existence of beauty and pain, of secrets and understanding, of darkness and love. Drawn in by the cleverness of his lyrics and then struck by his work’s truth, we are all represented in Howard’s often simple but ever-effective verse as we are confronted with the parallel need for home and purpose in a world full of cynicism and greed. Through song he gently fanned the sparks that ignite the human soul, turning them into burning flames, illuminating even the most mysterious corners of the human existence. Howard’s distinctive voice that remains so alive in his work, triggers a remembrance of the most instinctual and elemental emotions that drive us, at times seemingly evoking an older than ancient feeling of what it means to love and be loved. We are sarcastic, cynical, and troubled, but in those seldom-illuminated dark corners of ourselves, we are basic, we are children.
Beneath the puppetry and games beats the heart of a romantic idealist longing for a world that doesn’t and never did exist.
The true tragedy of arguably Howard’s greatest and most heartbreaking song, Disneyland, is not at all that Doria believes in the fakery of the titular idyllic fantasy world. Not at all. The greatest tragedy of that song is that she knows the magic world she craves isn’t real, but she wants to live there anyway. What happened to Howard makes it painfully clear how cruel and unjust the world can be. But, and perhaps this is the greatest tragedy of all, against all reason we still believe in the beauty of our own wants, desires, and dreams. Against our better judgement, we still get lost in those safe imaginative realms of possibility. Because of Howard, there is still somewhere to which we can for a time escape, just like children - children who are acutely and disturbingly aware of the dark cruelty of our world.
“This is a magical land,” Howard said, “you may now make a wish”