'Little Shop' playwright Howard Ashman dies at 40

March 15, 1991|By New York Times

HOWARD Ashman, an Oscar-winning lyricist and a librettist, playwright and director who wrote and staged the off-Broadway hit "Little Shop of Horrors," died yesterday at St. Vincent's Hospital in New York. He was 40.

He died of AIDS, Kyle Renick, the artistic director of the WPA Theater, said.

Ashman, who was born in Baltimore, was the WPA's artistic director in 1982 when he collaborated with composer Alan Menken on "Little Shop of Horrors," the tale of a timid flower store clerk who sells his soul to a man-eating plant.

The show, based on a low-budget movie, ran five years and became off-Broadway's highest grossing and third-longest-running musical. A later movie version of the musical won Ashman and Menken an Academy Award nomination.

With Menken, Ashman won an Oscar in 1989 for "Under the Sea," a popular song in the Disney film "The Little Mermaid." It is sung to a calypso beat by a crab who wants to persuade a lovelorn mermaid that it is better to live in the sea than on the land.

Menken and Ashman also received a Golden Globe Award and two Grammy Awards for their work on the film. Ashman had recently completed work on two other animated Disney features, "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin."

Ashman attended Goddard College and Boston University and received a master of fine arts from Indiana University. He moved to New York in 1974 and worked as an editor at Grosset & Dunlap while writing plays.

These included "Cause Maggie's Afraid of the Dark," "The Confirmation" and "Dreamstuff," a musical version of "The Tempest" that began his association with the WPA Theater.

He and Menken wrote a musical version of Kurt Vonnegut's "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," which Ashman directed in 1979.

His greatest success at WPA was the musical version of Roger Corman's 1960 movie "The Little Shop of Horrors." The show received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for the Best Musical of 1982-83. A 1986 film version was directed by Frank Oz.

Despite his success, Ashman did not consider himself part of the theater establishment. " 'Little Shop' would never have been produced had I not had my own theater," he said in 1986. "In order to reach the public, it had to get past the New York theater establishment. And if that establishment had had its way, it also would have roadblocked 'Smile.' "

He was referring to a musical about to open at that time on Broadway under his direction. He wrote the book and lyrics for the show, collaborating with the composer Marvin Hamlisch. The show opened in 1986 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater and ran for 48 performances after trying out at Baltimore's Mechanic Theatre.

Surviving are a sister, Sarah Gillespie, of New York City, and his mother, Shirley Gershman, of Baltimore.

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