Howard Ashman's colleagues pay tribute

April 18, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Ariel. Beauty's Beast. Seymour, the florist's assistant in a littl shop on Skid Row, and his curvaceous heartthrob, Audrey. What do these assorted two- and three-dimensional characters have in common?

One man wrote the words they sang. He was the late Howard Ashman, the Baltimore-born lyricist and director whose credits included "Aladdin," "Beauty and the Beast," "The Little Mermaid" and "Little Shop of Horrors."

Tonight, some of his most famous characters -- or, more accurately, the actors who portrayed them -- will be in Baltimore to honor his memory in "A Salute to Heroes -- 10 Years of Courage Anniversary Gala."

The highlight of the evening will be a musical tribute at 8 p.m. in the Fifth Regiment Armory; proceeds benefit the Health Education Resource Organization (HERO), the Maryland organization dedicated to providing service to those with AIDS, the disease that took Ashman's life at age 40 two years ago.

Tonight's cast includes a half-dozen performers who originated some of the best-known roles in the live and animated musicals dTC Ashman created with composer Alan Menken. Recently, several of the participants spoke on their feelings about Ashman and his work.

Jodi Benson (Ariel, the title character in Disney's "The Little Mermaid"; currently starring in "Crazy for You" on Broadway as well as providing the voices for a number of children's cartoon shows):

"[Howard Ashman] would never settle for less than excellence on the part of the actor and himself. . . . It would kill you sometimes, but he was challenged to bring that out. He would say, "There's more. There's more. I know you can do better.

"I'd get so mad at him sometimes because I'd say, 'There's nothing more to give.'

"And he'd say, 'No. I disagree, Jodi. I see that you have a much greater potential in this scene than you're giving.' He was always right.

"He was the reason I got [the 'Mermaid'] job, and every job since then has been because of 'The Little Mermaid.' . . . 'Mermaid' made me a voice-over, animation actress. It's just fabulous."

Lee Wilkof (Seymour in the original New York production of "Little Shop of Horrors"; currently rehearsing for the Broadway revival of "She Loves Me"):

"I don't think [Ashman] ever wanted anybody to think he was particularly deep. I think that would have embarrassed him, but he had so much depth and was so wise and knew about so many things, and he had such a deep well that he could draw from, and he was kind of self-effacing about it. . . . It all became apparent particularly with his lyrics. You just saw his wealth of knowledge and his incredible sense of humor. . . .

"[Seymour] was one of my favorite roles. It changed my life, brought me my wife [Ashman's assistant, Constance Grappo] and my daughter, put me on the map, so to speak. . . .

"I don't think I'll ever have a role quite as large. I will certainly always be grateful to Howard for that. . .

"I like the fact that Howard is labeled a hero. . . . The last couple months in Howard's life, we went up to the country and spent a lot of time with him and his companion, Bill Lauch. . . . He was unbelievably brave. He never complained, and when we visited him, it was always about us. . . . He was really heroic, and he was working until the very end of his life, and he certainly didn't have to, not for financial reasons. He liked to finish whatever he started."

Ellen Greene (Audrey, Seymour's girlfriend, in both the original stage and the movie versions of "Little Shop of Horrors"; currently appearing on Broadway in "Three Men on a Horse"):

"[Audrey] was the most beloved of all the people I made. People really loved Audrey, and I loved her first.

"[Ashman] had a wonderful gift of giving freedom. I was fortunate Howard enjoyed my sense of humor. He just 'got' me, and he gave me a lot of room to create. He gave me support, but he also gave me laughter. It's a wonderful balance. . . .

"[At the audition for 'Little Shop'] I sang 'Somewhere That's Green' and Howard, Alan [Menken] and I all cried. It was like a kindred spirit. . . .

"I've got about five pictures of [Ashman] in my dressing room for 'Three Men on a Horse.' . . . Howard was a very close friend besides being somebody I collaborated with. . . .

"Nothing was the same after I met Howard and Alan. . . . It changed my life."

Richard White (Gaston in "Beauty and the Beast"; currently in pre-production for Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit's "Phantom of the Opera" at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J.):

"One of the most salient things about 'Beauty and the Beast' was that it was [like] a Broadway show. In fact, it's soon to be a Broadway show. That was one of its strong points. It brought all of the wonderful qualities of the American musical theater to an animated classic . . .

"The piece really reflects [Ashman's] vision. He was so creative and such an enthusiastic collaborator. It was really very exciting to work with him because he brought all this enthusiasm. . . .

"He had such an understanding of the theater and the genre in which he was working that he was also able to focus all of those creative abilities very skillfully for the service of the piece. He was really quite unique."

A SALUTE

What: "A Salute to Heroes -- 10 Years of Courage Anniversary Gala."

Where: Fifth Regiment Armory, Howard and Preston streets.

When: Musical presentation tonight at 8.

Tickets: $35. (A limited number of tickets to the 5 p.m. cocktail reception and dinner will be available at the door for $150.)

Call: (410) 243-6509.

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