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Howard Ashman; Oscar-Winning Lyricist

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Howard Ashman, whose lyrics were given voice by creatures ranging from man-eating plants to hypersensitive crabs, died Thursday of the complications of AIDS at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York.

The recipient of last year’s Academy Award for the song “Under the Sea” in “The Little Mermaid,” who had won several other critical honors for the musical adaptation of “Little Shop of Horrors,” was 40.

A spokeswoman for Walt Disney Pictures said Ashman had just finished work on the upcoming pictures “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin.”

With his prime collaborator, composer Alan Menken, the Baltimore-born Ashman had won two Golden Globe Awards and two Grammys in addition to their Oscar.

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Ashman’s earliest mark in the entertainment world, however, came as a writer.

After graduating from Indiana University, he moved to New York in 1974 and wrote plays, including “Cause Maggie’s Afraid of the Dark,” “The Confirmation” and “Dreamstuff,” a musical version of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

He became artistic director of the Off-Off Broadway WPA Theatre in 1977 and in 1979 collaborated with Menken on a musical version of Kurt Vonnegut’s “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.”

But this interpretation of the story of an eccentric multimillionaire bent on giving away his fortune didn’t prove nearly as successful as their collaboration on “Little Shop of Horrors.” Their spoof of Roger Corman’s horror film and its star, the man-eating Audrey, became a classic.

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It became the highest-grossing musical in Off-Broadway history, the third-longest-running musical Off-Broadway and won a Tony nomination.

Productions eventually were seen throughout the world and brought Ashman and Menken the prestigious Evening Standard Award for Best Musical for a London production.

Ashman and Menken won an Academy Award nomination in 1986 for the song “Mean, Green Mother From Outer Space” from the film version of “Little Shop of Horrors.” Additionally, Ashman was nominated with Marvin Hamlisch for a Tony in 1987 for their book on the musical “Smile.”

But it may be one of Ashman’s last songs for which he will be best remembered, “Under the Sea,” in which the hypersensitive crab Sebastian tries to persuade the mermaid to stay at home. As Ashman advises through the crab: The seaweed isn’t necessarily greener “undah somebody else’s lake,” and “everything’s bettah down where it’s wettah. . . .”

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Ashman is survived by his longtime companion, William Lauch of New York, his mother, Shirley Gershman of Baltimore, and a sister.


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