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Rooster Revue #7 • Hahn on Howard
An interview with acclaimed producer Howard Hahn and look at "Howard."
In this issue we open up the Disney+ Vault (of musicals), we revisit Howard, the Howard Ashman Documentary, and we interview its director, Don Hahn, who also produced a few small films including Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
• Dear Evan Hansen dropped a trailer and Vanity Fair wrote a great piece about the adaptation. [Vanity Fair]
“I think the main change, other than the fact that there are two new songs, is a kind of extended third act of the film in which we get to see a little bit more of Evan’s repentance and redemption and the work that he does subsequently to make amends.”
• Soon all the MGM musicals will be owned by Amazon, as they are in talks to buy the studio and it’s library. [Variety]
• Take a look back at Shrek, the pioneer of the animated “Needle Drop” musical [The Ringer]
• First look at Camila Cabello in Cinderella, which will feature original songs from Cabello. [EW]
• Jon Chu might be the next big name in movie musicals with In The Heights, Wicked up next, and now says he’d like to take on Hamilton. [ScreenRant]
• In the vein of Ratatouille and Bridgerton, we’re now getting a fan-made Avatar: The Last Airbender musical. A fascinating trend to follow. [Fansided]
Jazzy chords, indie pop vibes, and one of the most versatile powerhouse voices I’ve ever heard. Smoke Machine is the newest album from Barrett Riggins—friend of The Barn and star of our musical, Steam!. It’s worth a listen.
[Spotify] [Apple Music]
We’re taking a look at Disney+ this week, focusing on the best of live-action, with a couple animated gems you might have forgotten about.
Beauty and the Beast (2017)
This remake is divisive but it at least added some new flavor to the original story, gives LeFou a character arc, and I will fight anyone who says “Evermore” doesn’t soar.
Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella
Disney did something revolutionary with this movie, with a wonderfully diverse cast and Brandy and Whitney Houston at the helm. Check out this behind the scenes clip which highlights the loving relationship between the two leads.
Forever and always Mandrew’s favorite musical because cream of the crop, tip of the top—it's Julie Andrews, and there we stop!
Mary Poppins Returns
This movie succeeded in continuing the Mary Poppins legacy, with some absolute bops that I still can’t get out of my head.
Yes, we were surprised to find this movie hiding among the Disney properties as well, a gift of the Fox acquisition. It was the first of the huge roadshow musical films that would eventually overrun Hollywood in the 1960s. Still mad they cut my favorite song, “Lonely Room.” FUN FACT: You can hear “The Surrey With the Fringe On Top” playing daily on Disneyland’s Main Street.
Sound of Music
Another gift of the Fox acquisition, it remains one of the greatest movie musicals of all time.
High School Musical Franchise
Did these movies make an indelible mark in your lives like they did for us? Read Mary Bonney’s review of the original film in Issue 4.
If Oklahoma was the film that launched the roadshow musical, this is the film that killed it. Critics love to hate this movie, and I love to ignore them while watching Barbra Steisand duet with Louis Armstrong.
This live-action musicals was a box office bomb and nominated for 5 razzies, winning worst song for "High Times, Hard Times.” But since, the film garnered a cult following on home video, is a regular attraction at Disneyland California Adventure, has a Tony winning Broadway adaptation and is beloved by many, especially Jeffrey.
Into The Woods
Disney attempted the impossible and made a very watchable movie. Sondheim gave it his seal of approval, but so much is lost by turning an entire second act into a short dense third act, as well as losing some of the more adult themes. It’s not bad, not great.
A Goofy Movie
The millennial classic that made dogs sexy is full of some really great plot-focused musical songs, and a bop that stands out about the crowd.
The Greatest Showman
A revisionist history, boring, formulaic story, but the songs are bops. Particularly spectacular is Keala Settle. Check out the presentation of “This Is Me” they did for the Fox Execs to get the show greenlit. It’s better than the movie.
One of those strange movies to see on Disney+ as it was created in direct competition to the Disney renaissance films, and Disney tried to drown it in the box office by re-releasing The Little Mermaid a week before it’s release. But this beautiful animated musical stands on its own and is worthy of a rewatch.
Highlighting this made-for-tv movie for one reason—it was Rob Marshall’s feature film debut. Followed 2 years later by Chicago, an incredible feat considering this movie is not good.
Howard (2020) - The untold story of Howard Ashman, the brilliant lyricist behind Disney classics like “Aladdin,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid”
Directed by: Don Hahn
Streaming now on Disney+
Ever since I saw Waking Sleeping Beauty, Don Hahn’s doc about the “Disney Renaissance” period, I wanted more. I specifically wanted more about Howard Ashman. There’s a tiny clip in the film from a lecture he gave to the Disney animators about how songs in musicals work and I became obsessed with it.
Don’s newest doc, Howard, does not disappoint. It’s not a fluff piece pulling punches, rather an intimate look at the joy, the pain, and the magic of one of greatest American lyricists who ever lived.
It’s worth watching for the archival footage alone. In one notable recording session there’s a tense discussion between Howard and Jerry Orbach about how to phrase a particular lyric. The Little Mermaid was NOT a surefire hit when it was being made. It was arguably a low-budget movie. At the time, the animators had been kicked off the Disney lot and were working from trailers.
But the film is not only about Howard’s years at Disney. You’ll see the story of his childhood, his years struggling off-Broadway, the complicated experience that was working with Marvin Hamlisch on the Broadway flop turned cult classic, Smile. And we all know how it ends, but it’ll still make you cry. It did for me, even on second viewing.
An Interview with Don Hahn
Spanning a prolific career producing many of the films that shaped our childhood, we were so excited to ask Don about his new documentary Howard, how the Disney animated musical process works, and his experiences working with Ashman, Menken, Rice, Schwartz and Elton. He could not be nicer or more giving with his time, insight, and experiences.
How did the Howard documentary come about?
It's funny because I didn't ask anybody if I could make it and I didn't go out and raise funds because I didn't want anybody to say “no.” I just operated as cheaply as I could. I started gathering together all the film clips and recordings and audio things and talked to [Howard’s] sister and his mate, Billy, and got as many photographs as I could.
And after a year I had to put the movie together in rough cut form and that was all before there was a Disney+ and all before there was a market for it. But I thought, even if it ends up on PBS or American Masters, it's worth telling regardless.
Luckily I sent it to [Bob] Iger and he saw it and loved it and thought it was an important piece of history to save. And that's why it ended up on Disney+.
Did it change at all from the festivals to Disney+?
In the original cut that we showed at Tribeca, the Aladdin section was kind of short-changed. I think it was kind of natural because I ended up narcissistically dwelling on the movies that I made with Howard. I felt like we can't run away from Aladdin, so I rebuilt that section to make it stronger.
The studio never asked for changes. They gave me some notes, which were really minor and not about anything in terms of content really.
And Menken did a whole unique score for the film too?
Yeah, he did. We had budgeted like $10 to do the score and I sent him the film to see it because I just thought, it's his story as much as anything. I wanted [his] feelings on things I got wrong or whatever. He called back and said, “I’ve got to score this.” I said, “I can't afford you.”
He makes, you know, a million dollars a movie. And he said, “I'll just do it.” So he did, he just wrote it over a long weekend and sent piano tracks to his collaborator Chris Bacon, who orchestrated it and we recorded it, but that was just a gift from God. And the score really, really made the movie. We wanted the movie to have a voice of its own. And Alan supplied that.
What is the process of animating a song? Do you write the song first? Did you storyboard first? Or is it a script first?
It can be a little different every time. Like the beginning of Beauty and the Beast, we would storyboard Belle going to town and doing her shopping. Then we would pitch that to Howard knowing it would probably be a song, and that would give him a lot of information. So you really have to feed the lyricist and give him or her a lot of content to work with.
It's a process of taking baby steps and not trying to step out with some big idea right away, because you just have to allow room for iteration and failure and adjustments and all that.
In Howard’s songs, there were always these in depth book scenes in the middle of them. Howard, more than anybody, believed songs were about the story and they couldn't just be pasted on or couldn't just be a bathroom break. So once we’d storyboard, he wrote the lyrics, he sent back a demo, then we would adjust the boards and we'd all look at it.
And then you eventually get to the point where you feel like, okay, this is locked, this is good enough. And then you can go off and record the orchestra with the singers, which we always did together.
It seems like you wouldn't do that anymore. Has there been magic lost now that we aren’t tracking orchestra and vocalists at the same time?
It goes back to Howard again. You know, there's an energy you have in the room when you have everybody there. It makes the singers sit up and pay attention.
We would always hire actors who could sing, not singers who could act, and so it gave the actors an audience to play to so they're not just sitting in a glass booth.
Were a lot of songs cut in the early stages of the process or were Howard's instincts spot on in most of the cases?
Howard’s instincts were pretty good. I mean they changed a little bit. [In Beauty and the Beast] he had the objects sing about being human.
Aladdin famously had a lot of songs cut. The movie was redone when Robin Williams was cast. When it went to Broadway, it became much more like Howard's original. More of a Cab Calloway kind of Genie. And so a lot of those songs came back again.
We cut more Elton John songs probably than we did Howard songs, because Howard was just more specific about how the songs would tell the story. And so all we did with Howard's really was cut verses because he would overwrite things. When you're making an animated movie, it's expensive, and they're [only] 90, 85 minutes, so they really fly. And so to take an extra minute or two to sing another verse about Gaston and his antlers was too much. So that's the kind of nip and tuck we would make in Howard’s stuff.
Elton John's one of my other heroes.
Elton’s strength is his melodies and he's fearless about throwing stuff out. Like the first version of “Circle of Life” was not that great. We just said, “you know, we'd like to make it more of an anthem,” and he did.
It's easier for him to sit down and write another two minute song than it is for him to figure out how to change the third modulation to whatever—you know, all that stuff. He's just so damn good. And then Hans Zimmer was the key to re-orchestrate all that and turn it into something that felt like it grew out of the movie.
In the documentary, Howard talks about how he was really nervous about the opening “Belle” song being this five, six minute medley. Do you remember anyone pushing back or being shocked by it’s length or having doubts?
No, he was just insecure. He was not an insecure guy, but behind the mask that he was wearing—that we all wear—he was insecure.
What he was really good at was blending a style or a pastiche with the story in a way that would be very unexpected. The last thing you would think about would be putting a fifties doo-wop girls group with a Roger Corman movie or telling a Danish Little Mermaid fairy tale in the Caribbean with Caribbean music.
So those first songs were always a leap because they're not just songs. They're setting a style and a pastiche and a tone for the movie. Beauty and the Beast was very musical theater, very Gilbert and Sullivan, very operetta, for lack of a better word. So the songs were longer and they did have more breaks for spoken verses in the middle of them, all the songs did. And so that was a risk in a new direction that he was just worried about.
Our reaction was, you know, like you can imagine when you get a song in like that, you're just—
I would feel overwhelmed.
We were too. I remember listening to it on my car radio driving to work. I had a half hour commute and I would just listen to it again and again and again and again and again.
The demos were so well produced, but it doesn't always happen that way. Like Elton and Tim’s demos were not, they were a little more of a head-scratcher. It would just be Elton playing at the piano and you'd go, this is not very African. But like Hunchback of Notre Dame, it was very exciting to get something from Alan and Stephen because you could just picture what the visuals are going to be.
How much say does the lyricist have in what we see on screen? Are they involved in the direction of the songs at all?
Whenever we could have the lyricist in the story meetings we would, because they would come up with ideas too, or they would say, gee, I'm stuck on what to do here.
“Be Our Guest” was originally written for Belle’s father Maurice. And one day, one of our story guys said, I think we're singing this to the wrong person. So we changed all the pronouns, lifted it up and moved it over to sing to Belle and sure enough, it was the wrong person.
So you just have to let the movie kind of go where it wants to go.
What were the differences between working with Ashman and Rice and Schwartz?
Just as with anybody you would work with, they had different personalities, different strengths. Howard was a one-stop-shop and Stephen's very close to Howard. Actually Stephen has the added benefit of being a musician and Howard was a musician of sorts, but he wasn't somebody like Stephen who could actually compose and score a movie if he wanted to.
Howard was unique and very story focused, very plot focused, and really understood how to put the songs at the peaks of the plot when the characters were most down and destroyed or when the character was most in love. He was kind of fearless about that.
Tim was more of a poet and more of a generalist, if that's a word. That's not bad either because that allows you to put a lot of different images to things, but it's nowhere near as specific.
And Stephen was more specific too. Even though they had all written for the stage, they had different styles, different approaches.
I know you didn't work on Aladdin, but I was wondering if you picked up on how the animators felt about the cutting of Howard songs. Was there any sense of betrayal?
Well, I don't know that it was betrayal because Howard knew that the process was brutal and he was the hardest on himself. He would leave songs behind on every project he did. It was so unfortunate and so sad really that he couldn't be around to kind of lead it. His take on Aladdin, like all of his takes, was a very strong pastiche pasted on Arabian nights. Without a steady hand on that idea, it just couldn't move forward. So it dissolved really quickly after he passed away.
Then Robin Williams came up, and that was not a bad thing. It was a huge, huge plus. And I think that everybody weighed that against the songs that had to go.
How do you think Howard would feel about the live action remakes?
Wow. I don't know. I can tell you how I feel about the remakes. Maybe he would feel the same way. They're flattering and terrible, and at the same time they're necessary. I see them, as I think Howard probably would, as commerce. It’s a money-making proposition and to retell a story like Cinderella works really well, Beauty and the Beast works really well. The Lion King is a little too literal for my tastes.
Also, I think it's a good idea in terms of a company. A publicly held American company has to use their assets and those movies are huge assets. If you don't remake them, somebody else will cause we made all these movies on public domain ideas.
I understand it and don't feel negatively towards it. And I don't think Howard would either. I mean, he made a live action version of Little Shop—even though he kind of suffered through that—but he understood the commerce of having to do that.
Do you have other documentaries in the pipeline?
I am doing a documentary about a 90 year old ceramicist for PBS, who's this English ceramics artist teacher who is like this philosopher and talks about clay and the healing properties of clay and working with earth and all that stuff. So it's a very touchy, feely, non-musical straight documentary.
After years of working with animation—which is so collaborative and I don't regret a second of it—it's refreshing to be able to work with documentaries, which is a very small team of people.
We made the Howard documentary with three people. It's, you know, me and my producer, Lori Korngiebel. And my editor, Stephen Yao. And we'll bring people in to consult or to do final color or mixing or whatever, but it's all in the spirit of telling a story on a little budget.
At this point in my life, I really enjoy that cause you get tired as you age, you get tired of meetings, you get tired of executives that don't know what they're doing.
Life is short. How can I really focus on spending my time doing the things I want to do instead of what other people want me to do?
We couldn’t agree more.
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"Rooster Revue" is edited by Matt Andrews, Mary Bonney, and Jeffrey Simon with contributions from the entire team at The Barn.