Spare a thought today for Howard Ashman (May 17, 1950 - March 14, 1991)
Howard may have suffered in silence, but he did have a voice. No doubt he was secretive and tortured, but he is all to easily pigeon-holed as a tragic martyr. I implore you - please, please do not condense him down to something so simple. Howard was brilliant. A funny, complex, warm, strong-willed, loving, sensitive, intensely bright man; often sarcastic and moody, but always caring, and a wonderful friend. Do not remember him the way most choose to. He once was a child, who put on plays with the children in his neighbourhood. He was once a young man, who fell in and out of love. He once laughed, loudly and fully, losing control with happiness. He had a rare true artistic vision. Do not misremember. He was a man, he was whole, he was loved.
I was very lucky from the beginning.
Nobody can deny that Howard’s work was so uniquely funny, and clever, and entertaining. Yet at his most poignant, Howard wrote about the unifying existence of beauty and pain, of secrets and understanding, of darkness and love. Drawn in by the cleverness of his lyrics and then struck by his work’s truth, we are all represented in Howard’s often simple but ever-effective verse as we are confronted with the parallel need for home and purpose in a world full of cynicism and greed. Through song he gently fanned the sparks that ignite the human soul, turning them into burning flames, illuminating even the most mysterious corners of the human existence. Howard’s distinctive voice that remains so alive in his work, triggers a remembrance of the most instinctual and elemental emotions that drive us, at times seemingly evoking an older than ancient feeling of what it means to love and be loved. We are sarcastic, cynical, and troubled, but in those seldom-illuminated dark corners of ourselves, we are basic, we are children.
Beneath the puppetry and games beats the heart of a romantic idealist longing for a world that doesn’t and never did exist.
The true tragedy of arguably Howard’s greatest and most heartbreaking song, Disneyland, is not at all that Doria believes in the fakery of the titular idyllic fantasy world. Not at all. The greatest tragedy of that song is that she knows the magic world she craves isn’t real, but she wants to live there anyway. What happened to Howard makes it painfully clear how cruel and unjust the world can be. But, and perhaps this is the greatest tragedy of all, against all reason we still believe in the beauty of our own wants, desires, and dreams. Against our better judgement, we still get lost in those safe imaginative realms of possibility. Because of Howard, there is still somewhere to which we can for a time escape, just like children - children who are acutely and disturbingly aware of the dark cruelty of our world.“This is a magical land,” Howard said, “you may now make a wish”
This article includes a clip from the Howard’s Lecture bonus feature which will be on The Little Mermaid Blu-ray!
“To our friend, Howard,
Who gave a mermaid her voice
and a beast his soul
We will be forever grateful.
(1950 - 1991)”
Gaston really is the most terrifying Disney villain because he could be anyone in the world.
Later he convinces the whole town to set up his wedding with the knowledge that the would-be bride would be thrown into it. Everyone finds his creepy-ass tactics as cute and “boys will be boys” esque. So yeah, he is terrifying.
Yeah, the truly scary thing about Beauty and the Beast isn’t that Gaston exists, but that society fucking loves him. People who deride the movie by saying it’s about Stockholm Syndrome are ignoring that it’s actually about the various ways that truly decent people get othered by society. People don’t trust the Beast because of the way he looks, which only feeds his anger issues and pushes him further away. Gaston isn’t the only one who criticizes Belle for being bookish, either; the whole town says there must be something wrong with her. And her father gets carted off to a mental asylum for being just a little eccentric.
Howard Ashman, who collaborated on the film’s score and had a huge influence on the movie’s story and themes, was a gay man who died of AIDS shortly after work on the film was completed. If you watch the film with that in mind, the message of it becomes clear. Gaston demonstrates that bullies are rewarded and beloved by society as long as they possess a certain set of characteristics, while nice people who don’t are ostracized. The love story between Belle and the Beast is about them finding solace in each other after society rejects them both.
Notice how the Beast reacts when the whole town comes for him. He’s not angry, he’s sad. He’s tired. And he almost gives up because he has nothing to live for. But then he sees that Belle has come back for him, and suddenly he does. In the original fairy tale, the Beast asks Belle to marry him every night, and the spell is broken when she accepts. In the Disney movie, he waits for her to love him, because he cannot love himself. That’s how badly being ostracized from society and told that you’re a monster all your life can fuck with your head and make you stop seeing yourself as human.
Society rewards the bullies because we’ve been brought up to believe that their victims don’t belong. That if someone doesn’t fit in, then they have to be put in their place, or destroyed. And this movie demonstrates that this line of thinking is wrong. It’s so much deeper than a standard “be yourself” message, and that’s why it’s one of my favorite Disney movies.
Howard Ashman songs: Be Our Guest from Beauty and the Beast (lyrics by Howard Ashman, music by Alan Menken)
It’s not “show-stopping”. This is the show.
Where The Little Mermaid's “Under the Sea” is spirited, Beauty and the Beast's “Be Our Guest” is sophisticated. In the song, the beautiful young possible suitor and destined saviour Belle is serenaded by the Beast’s castle’s dining instruments, entertaining her with their extravagant, Broadway-style show. It is something that is easy to describe in its purest essence - it’s entertainment. "No-one’s frowning or complaining while the flatware’s entertaining!"
The high splendour of the “culinary cabaret” is matched with the supreme lyrical mastery of Ashman’s writing. A distinct classical musicality sets the tangible backdrop to which Ashman’s lyrics playfully exhibit their cleverness with a knowing and joyful shrill of a thousand kitchenwares. Full of clever puns and divinely delectable rhymes, the piece plays out like a wonderful flashy stage number, almost too decadent and perfect through the magic of animation than anything that could be produced on the stage.
It has a distinctively Busby Berkely feel - it is to silverware what Berkely is to the glorified chorus girl. Kaleidoscopic patterns of visual animation and of lyrical rhyme team up and dazzle. The swirling, twirling, catchy ring to the chorus-like chanting of “be our guest!” enchants the audience as they themselves are invited to wine and dine in the fantastical extravaganza of this musical fairytale.
"Be Our Guest" may not say too much about character or theme, but it is a lavish, soaring example of Ashman’s wordy lyrical genius at its most impressive and popular. To explain them would be futile - the fun of the fast rhythmic bounce and clever culinary reference of the lyrics speaks for itself. Ashman’s love for his kitchen characters bleeds with classic Disney magic. He brought such sleek (and only slightly silly) sophistication to the production with this 3.5 minutes of pure showmanship.
The acknowledgement of the song and the show itself adds to the shameless enjoyability of it all. And everyone’s showing off - the cutlery and candlesticks are showing off what they can do, the Disney animators are showing off what they can do, and Howard shows off to the world what he can do. And boy do they impress. This is how you put on a show.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY HOWARD ASHMAN ♥ Born May 17, 1950
I first met Howard when he came to my apartment to meet about collaborating on Rosewater. My first impression was that he seemed edgy and guarded. He wore torn jeans and a bomber jacket. He talked with a tight, intense energy, chain-smoking the entire time. And he was clearly very smart.
When Howard worked it was a total commitment. And every fiber in his being was brought to bear.
I wanted to throttle him on a regular basis. When we were working he could be controlling, impatient, demanding, cutting, arrogant and condescending. And yet, he was actually the most considerate, thoughtful, smart, compassionate, wise, generous and supportive friend I’ve ever had.
Howard was a brilliant, complicated artist. I was not as close to him as some, but I saw him happy and I saw him mad. I saw him frustrated, and I saw him howl with laughter. I saw him caustic, and I saw him be disarmingly vulnerable. And Howard was a wonderful actor.
We learned a great deal from him. Ron [Clements] and I felt that songs should advance the story, but Howard’s ways of doing that were revelatory. He liked his songs to have information and to carry essential plot material. To take the key story beats and through the use of music to underline them and drive them home. From Howard, I learned the importance of grounding your writing in the specific, rather than the general. I watched Howard’s zealous defence of his material and ideas, anchored by their relationship to the story being told. All ideas are not created equal. There are definite reasons why some support the story more strongly, and we learned from Howard that those ideas must be defended. We saw inventiveness and passion from Howard in equal measure, qualities that produced art that has stood the test of time. We learned lessons of showmanship, of staging and characters, of using subtext to put ideas over more powerfully. We saw how Howard could tap into his own vulnerabilities and humanity and empathetically invest those in characters and songs that revealed those emotions. And dammit, Howard was funny. And he had a gift for effortlessly weaving comedy and vulnerability in a seamless way that made his creations (and ours and others) live.
He has touched me, and far countless others. He was a leader, a mentor, a collaborator, a musical genius, and a friend.
The reason he could [perform] so believably wasn’t only that he was a great mimic – he was also empathetic. He really did “feel your pain” and it didn’t matter if your pain was that of a Mermaid who longs for legs, or, back when we were young, the pain of a kid sister who thinks she is friendless and alone. I think that was maybe his best trait, the one I appreciated and miss the most.
Howard didn’t often wear his heart on his sleeve, he could be tough and prickly as the best and worst of them, his humor could sting while it sent you rolling in the aisles. No, he didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, but those of us who knew and loved him and felt the warmth of that heart never had to look far to find it.
-Sarah Ashman Gillespie
Beauty and the Plague: The AIDS Tragedy Behind Your Favorite Disney Love Songs
Above: Howard Ashman in 1977. Archival photos courtesy of Kyle Rennick.
The first week of November 1989, filmmakers and executives from the Walt Disney Company gathered in a crowded room in Disney World in Orlando, Florida, to promote their latest cartoon to a group of pessimistic reporters. The press had reason to be skeptical: after two decades of critical and commercial flops following the death of its founder, Disney was bordering on bankruptcy, and the company’s new CEO, Michael Eisner, had threatened to shut down the animation unit unless The Little Mermaid, its fall 1989 release, turned a profit.
As you probably know, they didn’t need to worry. The film was a huge hit, at least partly on the strength of its soundtrack. The New York Times praised the film’s music, and the movie won Oscars and Golden Globes for Best Song (“Under the Sea”) and Best Score. Two decades after the its release, Disney World remodeled Fantasyland to create an entire section devoted to Mermaid. But back then in the crowded conference room, nobody knew this. The room was grim, and for good reason—if the filmed flopped, their careers might follow.
The panel that sat in front of the press that day included Ron Clements and John Musker, the geeky animation-directing team whose last film, The Great Mouse Detective, had performed reasonably well but not well enough for Eisner’s taste; Jodi Benson, the Broadway veteran who voiced Ariel; and Alan Menken, a composer from Westchester, New York. In this crowd, the last member of the panel, Alan’s collaborator lyricist Howard Ashman, stood out like a sore, sickly thumb.
Skeletally thin and speaking in a soft but firm voice, Howard looked worn-out and effeminate, more like one of the gay men you’d see drifting around New York’s Lower East Side than someone who made family movies. He spoke with passion about Disney’s rich musical history, but after the panel, it was clear something was wrong. After the press conference, when the attendees adjourned to try out some of the park’s attractions, Howardlimped up the Dumbo ride’s ramp and had to call for his boyfriend, Bill Klaus, to assist him. Once Howard reached his Disney associates, he rode Dumbo, smiling like he was just another Hollywood native touring Disney World. As usual, he was doing the best he could to ignore that he was dying of AIDS.
“He was completely focused and energy driven,” Jodi recalled to me 23 years later. She didn’t realize the extent of his illness until 1991: “I got the call to fly to New York City from Los Angeles. When I arrived, I was able to visit him in his room as he was listening to auditions for the voice of Aladdin. Then it really hit me: This was very serious.”
i’ve been reading for most of the day now about howard ashman, the lyricist for the little mermaid & beauty and the beast. he was one of the biggest creative forces behind both films, helping to shape their characters, narrative arcs, and themes as well as their music; he was also a gay man who was diagnosed with aids during the production of the little mermaid and died shortly after beauty and the beast was finished. alan menken, the composer who collaborated with him on both movies, said that beauty and the beast is heavily influenced by ashman’s experiences and perspective.
and i can’t stop thinking about it. i’ve always considered beauty and the beast to be one of the darkest films in the disney canon, as well as its most beautiful. it’s entirely about monsters, about the ways that people are determined to be wrong and dangerous: there’s the beast alone in his castle in the forest, and belle mocked and sneered at by her village, and even maurice carted off to an asylum.
and that it was written and conceived of in part by a gay man who, according to his sister, trained himself out of “effeminate” physical mannerisms when he was young because he was bullied for them, and who as he wrote it was dying of an incredibly stigmatized illness— like, god.
i mean when you just listen to those songs he wrote, the mob song (“the beast is] set to sacrifice our children to his monstrous appetite / he’ll wreak havoc on our village if we let him wander free”), belle (“it’s a pity and a sin / she doesn’t quite fit in”)— and there was a cut song, human again, where the castle servants looked forward to rejoining the world.
like it’s obviously queer, but more than that, it’s the self-identification and self-validation of a man who knew this was this work was probably his last. at the end of the film, the beast is so sad, has succumbed entirely to despair and death. his society is coming to destroy him, and he can’t even be angry, because he doesn’t have anything left. but then he does. and he is still precious, and his life is still meaningful. he’s a person, and he can be loved. he can find happiness.
in the original beauty and the beast, the beast proposes marriage to belle every night and it’s her acquiescence that breaks the spell. in the disney movie, the beast only waits for belle to love him, because he cannot love himself. it’s such an unexpected blessing for both belle and the beast that they can find acceptance in each other, after both are so othered and dehumanized by their communities. their vulnerable joy in each other and themselves is so important, and their love song so wonderingly sweet. at the end, it is only when someone loves and accepts you that you stop being a monster.
john musker, one of the directors of beauty and the beast, told this story about how ashman cried at disneyland when the little mermaid’s music was integrated into a parade and said that he was glad to know that his music would outlive him. beauty and the beast was my favorite movie when i was young and trying not to be queer, when i felt very wrong and very alone. it has been unbelievably important in my life. and so i am also glad— and so grateful— that howard ashman’s music outlived him, and that he lived at all.