March 29, 1992

Howard Ashman put words in the mouths of an ugly beast, a beautiful girl, a little mermaid, a man-eating plant and a teapot.

Yes, a teapot. This Baltimore-born lyricist, director and producer had the magical power to animate the inanimate.

The strength of his magic will be evident tomorrow night, when "Beauty and the Beast" -- the Disney animated feature on which he served as executive producer as well as lyricist -- competes for six Academy Awards, including best picture. (The other nominations are for three original songs, score and sound.)

Although "Beauty and the Beast" is likely to win many of these, chances are it won't take the top prize. Being the first animated film ever nominated for best picture will probably be considered ample honor. Much of that honor belongs to Ashman, who died of AIDS at age 40 a little more than a year ago.

The period in which Ashman's talent was recognized by a widespread public was sadly brief: It began in 1982 with the opening of his off-Broadway smash hit, "Little Shop of Horrors," and continued through the recent release of "Beauty and the Beast." But in that short time, he conveyed a lifelong love of fairy tales to an entire nation. In less than a decade, Ashman reawakened the child in us all.

"Little Shop," based on a 1960 grade-Z Roger Corman horror movie, might not seem like your standard fairy tale, but it was to Ashman, who not only wrote the libretto, but also directed the stage show. In a 1984 interview, when the touring production played the Mechanic Theatre, he took issue with those who labeled the show "camp."

"Camp has a nasty edge," he said. " 'Little Shop' is more humanistic than that. 'Little Shop' is a fairy tale. Camp doesn't ask you to love its characters."

And Ashman did love his characters; whether they were flora, fauna or crockery, he imbued them with dignity. In "Under the Sea," his 1989 Academy Award-winning song from "The Little Mermaid," the aquatic creatures not only sing, they form a hip calypso band.

But even more than a basic respect for everything from newts to carp, a recurring theme in Ashman's work is improbable love -- the love between the nerdy assistant in a florist shop and a real babe in "Little Shop," between a mermaid and a human in "The Little Mermaid," and, of course, between a beautiful girl and a hideous beast in "Beauty and the Beast."

Underlying all of these love stories is the lesson that appearances are unimportant, and more significantly, that the unlikely is possible. On a deeper level, as Bruno Bettelheim points out in his classic analysis, "The Uses of Enchantment," the union of seemingly polar opposites is what "permits us to attain complete human fulfillment." In other words, embracing the unknown is one of the ways we grow up.

"There's something sweet and almost kind,

But he was mean and he was coarse and unrefined.

And now he's dear, and so I'm sure

I wonder why I didn't see it there before?"

"Something There" (from "Beauty and the Beast") **

And, now that "Beauty and the Beast" has become the best-selling soundtrack album in Disney history, Ashman's lovely, clear statement of these themes is virtually omnipresent on radio, in shopping malls and even on elevators.

But it would probably be a mistake to over-analyze these fairy tales. Granted, a major reason for the popularity of Ashman's work is that he chose material that strikes a common chord. But an equally significant reason is the humor and playfulness with which he approached it.

His interest in animation harks back to early childhood, when his maternal grandmother would take her grandchildren downtown to the movies on Saturdays. (These excursions must have made a strong impression because Ashman's only sibling, Sarah Gillespie, also ended up working with cartoons, as vice president and director of comic art for the United Media syndicate.)

Ashman got his first taste of theater from the Children's Theatre Association, a group with which he was active from age 7 until he graduated from Milford Mill High School in 1967. Patterns were forming in his life even then. When he was a teen-ager, the group produced a play he'd written called, "The Snow Queen," based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen, author of "The Little Mermaid."

Ashman's knack for creating speaking parts for objects and animals was almost as long-standing as his fascination with fairy tales. At Milford Mill, he co-wrote an original musical called "The Brat's Meow," loosely adapted from "Dick Whittington's Cat." "I was into anthropomorphizing even then," he recalled in 1984. "The cat was played by a strapping 6-foot-2-inch fellow."

In fact, Ashman was so adept at granting the power of speech -- and song -- to everything from cats to cactuses that when I interviewed him in New York in the heyday of "Little Shop," I half expected to hear a few words from the houseplant in the next room.

Alas, Ashman confessed, "Plants and I don't get along. I've done so much for them, and they're so ungrateful."

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