May 17, 1950– Howard Ashman:
“I want adventure in the great wide somewhere.
I want it more than I can tell.
And for once it might be grand
To have someone understand
I want so much more than they’ve got planned…”
Despite spending my childhood, adolescence and even young adulthood as grade A+ berserk Musical Theatre fanatic, living and breathing the musicals, collecting the original cast albums for the most obscure shows, I mostly got off that Musical Theatre ride in the early 1980s. I was less than enchanted with the offerings. I didn’t move easily into the Cats–Miss Saigon–Phantom Of The Opera era. I found more enjoyment in appearing on stage in a musical than listening to one on my stereo. My personal tastes moved towards Elvis Costello, The Police and The Clash.
The exception was Little Shop Of Horrors from 1982. I listened to this original cast album until the LP was worn through. I knew every song from the score and I was convinced that I could play any of the roles. I always wanted to do the tune Somewhere That’s Green in my own act, but I never got the chance to work it up. It remains a favorite musical of mine, certainly in the Top Five.
Ashman first worked with creative partner Alan Menken on a 1979 musical adapted from Kurt Vonnegut‘s novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. They next collaborated on Little Shop Of Horrors with Ashman as director, lyricist, and librettist. It was produced by Ashman’s own WPA Theatre. Ashman left the team only once, as director, lyricist and book writer for the 1986 Broadway musical, Smile, with music by the late, great Marvin Hamlisch.
As of yesterday, Disney’s new live action version of Beauty And The Beast has grossed $500 million in North America, with worldwide gross of $1.210 billion. With a production budget of $160 million, it is the most expensive musical ever made. It is the 10th highest-grossing film of all time. I wonder if Howard Ashman would have ever dreamed such a thing was possible.
At #BornThisDay, I honor lyricists and Ashman is one of the best. Ashman collaborated with his artistic partner Menken on three notable animated features for Disney Studios with Ashman writing the words and Menken composing the scores.
In early 1989, Disney Studios was teetering on the brink bankruptcy. New CEO Michael Eisner had threatened to shut down the famed animation unit unless The Little Mermaid, its Fall 1989 release, turned a profit. David Geffen, who had produced the Off-Broadway run of Little Shop Of Horrors, had brought the Menken/Ashman team to Disney in hopes of making a hit musical out of The Little Mermaid, originally conceived as a non-musical. It proved to be a hit, thrilling little girls and winning two Grammy Awards, two Golden Globes and two Academy Awards. Just days after he won the Oscar for Best Song for Under The Sea, Ashman confided to Menken that he had HIV/AIDS.
His illness made him weaker each day, but Ashman never stopped writing the tunes. He managed to produce the witty and warm lyrics for another Disney animated film Beauty And The Beast, and turned out even more songs for a third Disney animated musical, Aladdin. Ashman’s last Academy Award in 1992 was awarded posthumously for Best Song for the title song of his most famous project. It was accepted by his longtime partner, architect Bill Lauch.
Ashman first fell in love with musicals when his grandmother took him to see a Disney animated movie, Lady And The Tramp (1956). The financial success of The Little Mermaid ended up saving Disney Studios, but the plague had already found Ashman. Because of his failing health, Ashman decided to stay near his NYC doctors in his hometown of Fishkill, NY, 60 miles away, and the rest of the creative team had to be flown in to work. Don Hahn, the film’s producer:
“We weren’t quite sure why we were doing it. We thought, ‘Well maybe Howard’s just being a diva and he just won an Oscar, so let’s go out to work with him.'”
While terribly sick, Ashman still provided the lyrics for Beauty And the Beast’s songs; three of them would be nominated for Best Song Oscars, with that title song winning. The film was the first-ever animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture, but Ashman didn’t make it long enough to enjoy the success. He never got to see the finished film.
The new live-action Beauty And The Beast offered something that the original animated film did not: Josh Gad’s fey portrayal of LeFou, the sidekick to the film’s bully character Gaston, played gay actor Luke Evans. As soon as the trailer was released and some of the footage was released, film fans were abuzz with the notion that Disney was providing its first obviously gay main character. In the Spring issue of Attitude Magazine, the film’s gay director Bill Condon confirmed that LeFou is, indeed, intended to be seen as gay. And, Condon suggested that Gad’s interruption is an homage to Ashman.
Disney had already had a history of presenting more ambiguously gay characters. The studio won the Oscar for Best Animated Short for Ferdinand The Bull, about a bull who doesn’t conform to expectations of masculinity, The Reluctant Dragon (1941) with a sissy fire-breathing main character; Peter Pan (1953), portrayed Captain Hook as a prissy dandy who is obsessed with boys. And Shere Khan, the villain in The Jungle Book (1967) seems especially queer. The Lion King’s (1994) Timon and Pumba are obviously a male couple, plus John Water’s muse Divine was the inspiration for Ursula in The Little Mermaid.
“LeFou is somebody who on one day wants to be Gaston, and on another day wants to kiss Gaston. He’s confused about what he wants. It’s somebody who’s just realizing that he has these feelings. And Josh Gad makes something really subtle and delicious out of it.”
Ashman had decided that Disney’s version of Jean Cocteau’s film of Beauty And The Beast (1946) served as a parable for the virus that was ravaging his body as he and Menken started working on their film. Forces beyond his control turned the prince into a grotesque beast. Ashman’s lyrics: “We don’t like what we don’t understand / In fact it scares us / And this monster is mysterious at least” are a nod to paranoia surrounding HIV/AIDS during Ronald Reagan’s administration.
“The period, from 1981 through 1995, was like living through a war, with unthinkable casualties and no end in sight. Something was wrong in the universe. I felt it strongly in my gut. It cropped up in dreams, before I knew what was to come. And then the avalanche hit. Directors, writers, producers, designers, choreographers, musicians. And those of us who knew and loved Howard said to ourselves ‘But, please, not Howard’ And he would reassure us all that he was fine, and we all happily believed him.”
“Specifically, for Ashman, it was a metaphor for AIDS. He was cursed, and this curse had brought sorrow on all those people who loved him, and maybe there was a chance for a miracle—and a way for the curse to be lifted. It was a very concrete thing that he was doing.”
Ashman wrote the film’s now-famous, much loved lyrics while he was dying in his home, attended by a private nurse paid for by Disney studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg. The end credits of the animated film pay homage to his legacy:
“To our Friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful. Howard Ashman, 1950-1991”.
Ashman’s headstone reads:
“O’ that he would have but one more song to sing.”
Ashman would have been 67-years-old today.