The untold story of the man who gave Disney’s beast its soul

Howard Ashman’s story is part of Hollywood’s new awareness of its own diverse history

Alan Menken and Howard Ashman  won the Oscar for Music and Original Song with the toe-tapping Be Our Guest from Beauty and the Beast. 

Alan Menken and Howard Ashman won the Oscar for Music and Original Song with the toe-tapping Be Our Guest from Beauty and the Beast. 

 

In 1992, nobody was surprised when, at the Academy Awards, presenters Liza Minnelli and Shirley MacLaine called out the names Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.

Menken and Ashman had won the Oscars for original score and for original song, for Beauty and the Beast. 

Ashman, a lyricist and playwright, was a key figure in the Disney renaissance of the early 1990s. He died two weeks before the 1992 Oscars from complications of Aids. His statuette was accepted by his domestic partner, Bill Lauch, with one of the most memorable speeches in the history of the awards.

I didn’t think you could talk about Howard in a book. He is a musician, so you have to hear his songs. We have 25 songs in this movie, and I feel like that was the right approach

“Howard and I shared a home and a life together,” he said. “And I’m very happy and proud to accept this for him. But it is bittersweet. This is the first Academy Award given to someone we’ve lost to Aids. In working on Beauty and the Beast, Howard faced incredible personal challenges but always gave his best. And what made that possible was an atmosphere of understanding, love and support.”

Don Hahn, who worked with Ashman as a producer on Beauty and the Beast, remembers that night very clearly.  “We were nominated for best picture, and that was the first time that an animated film was ever nominated for best picture,” Hahn says. “I was sitting down front with celebrities. You never get into animation to sit down the front with stars. You get into animation to sit in dark rooms with a pencil. So it was exciting and terrifying. And then Bill made that really wonderful speech. This is the first time a person who died of Aids or was openly gay received an Academy Award. It had so many levels of meaning.

“And, from 30 years’ distance, maybe it has even more meaning. Because, thank God, we’re seeing the academy’s new awareness of gender diversity and ethnic diversity. And I think Howard’s story is part of that.”

There’s a tribute to Ashman in the final credits of Beauty and the Beast: “He gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul.” But the story of the “incredible personal challenges” faced by Ashman has, until now, never been elaborated.

Oscar winner: Howard Ashman
Oscar winner: Howard Ashman

“It was an untold story,” says Hahn, whose documentary, Howard, drops on Disney+ this month. “People had talked about writing a book about Howard, but there is no book. There is no biography. His sister runs a blog and a fan site, and that’s it. I want to do something that was more expressive. I didn’t think you could talk about Howard in a book. He is a musician, so you have to hear his songs. We have 25 songs in this movie, and I feel like that was the right approach.”

Hahn has form (and diplomatic skills) in this regard. His documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, from 2009, chronicled the boardroom tussles behind Disney’s animation, and was made with the co-operation of Roy E Disney, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Howard, like the earlier doc, uses audio interviews, archive footage, recording sessions and recollections from Ashman’s sister, domestic partner and artistic collaborators.

“I wasn’t even sure when I started I had all the elements that we needed,” says Hahn. “But the one thing I didn’t want to do was to shoot a lot of talking heads. I didn’t feel like we needed an animation expert or Broadway musical experts to talk about Howard.

“One of the reasons I do the movie with audio interviews is because when you show up with a camera and lighting and everything, people shut down a little bit and get more mannered with the responses, but, if you set up a microphone, within five minutes people forget they are being recorded. And I really tried to get Howard to tell his own story, so that meant a lot of research and trying to find as many radio interviews with him telling his own story of explaining how he approaches his work.

“I know [the acclaimed US documentary maker] Ken Burns a little bit, and he talks about the joy of bringing his subjects to life. I wanted it to be in a room watching Howard work for 90 minutes.” 

Howard was a catalyst for us at Disney to open our minds up to the opportunities that music brought to storytelling

Don Hahn began his career at Disney as an assistant director on The Fox and the Hound, the 1981 movie, at a moment when the animation department had been unceremoniously relocated outside the Disney lot. The animators had moved again on to an industrial estate by the time a young refugee from Broadway named Howard Ashman arrived.

“For a long time at Walt Disney everybody said, ‘What would Walt do?’” Hahn says. “After a while you have to say, ‘Well, Walt’s not here, and we need to move ahead.’ Howard was a catalyst for us at Disney to open our minds up to the opportunities that music brought to storytelling. At the time the Broadway musical was a dying art. And Howard was able to rejuvenate that art form in Los Angeles in a way that he wasn’t able to do on Broadway.

“He had tremendous empathy towards the characters. He found ways to tell stories that were funny and unexpected. Like using ’60s-girl-group rock’n’roll in The Little Shop of Horrors or making the crab sing calypso music in The Little Mermaid. That was very, uniquely Howard.”

Born in Baltimore, Howard Ashman was performing and writing musical theatre from an early age. In 1978, he came to New York and opened an off-off-Broadway theatre where he scored an early success with a musical adaptation of a Kurt Vonnegut novel, God Bless You, Mr Rosewater.

He teamed up with his future Disney songwriting partner, Alan Menken, to adapt the Roger Corman film Little Shop of Horrors for the stage. Ashman preferred smaller, black-box theatre and, towards the end of his life, was going to retool his treatment for Aladdin as a small children’s-theatre piece if Disney turned it down. (It didn’t.)

Ashman worked with the Chorus Line composer Marvin Hamlisch on the musical Smile, but it flopped on Broadway, and Ashman went to work for Disney Studio’s Jeffrey Katzenberg. He was joined by Menken, and the pair produced the Oscar-winning songs and score for A Little Mermaid.

In 1988 Ashman submitted a 40-page treatment for an animated musical adaptation of Aladdin, with a 1930s big-band sound and a flamboyant genie based on Cab Calloway and Fats Waller. While that project was written (and rewritten), Ashman and Menken were asked to save the flailing, nonmusical animated version of Beauty and the Beast, a job that required the animators to decamp to Fishkill, New York, where Ashman was battling HIV/Aids.

After the first screening for Beauty and the Beast, in March 1991, the animators visited Ashman in hospital. He weighed 80 pounds, and had lost his sight and the ability to speak. He died on March 10th, 1992, aged 40. It’s not necessarily the most obvious fit for Disney +.

I wanted the audience to appreciate what it meant being a gay man during the Aids crisis and the suffering that Howard went through towards the end of his life

“I honestly had very little pushback from Disney,” says Hahn. “I did what Hamilton did when it’s green on Disney+ and I beeped a couple of words that were colourful. But, contentwise, I didn’t make any changes. I can’t speak for the Disney company, but a large section of our audience is from the LGBTQ community, and that’s a very loyal and wonderful audience.

“You want to be able to tell the stories and tell them openly and honestly. I wanted to be honest about Howard’s life. And I wanted the audience to appreciate what it meant being a gay man during the Aids crisis and the suffering that Howard went through towards the end of his life.

“He’s writing songs like Prince Ali from this hospital bed. That’s a real testament to his humanity. And I think it was a coping mechanism for him as well. So it’s a story of heroism and of how the arts – and music in particular – can help us through some of the most difficult times in our lives.”

In Howard, his sister Sarah expresses scepticism about the much-parroted idea that Beauty and the Beast is an allegory for Aids. Hahn is a little more open to the theory.

“I think there is some validity to it,” he says. “When we were making the movie we never talked about his disease. He was clearly sick. He lost his voice and his eyesight by the time we were done working with him. And he never saw the completed movie. Howard never did want to do political theatre. I don’t believe he consciously put himself into those songs. But we are all the product of our times.

“I’m sure there was some subtext in Howard’s writing. Beauty and the Beast is about a character who is horribly cursed and he was trying to break that spell.”    

Howard is on Disney+

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