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Disney genius Howard Ashman's untold story and battle with AIDs

Howard tells of the tragedy and triumphs of Howard Ashman, the lyricist behind some of Disney's biggest hits before he died from AIDs.

Howard Ashman's untold story
Published: Friday, 7th August 2020 at 8:30 am

Nearly 30 years ago Disney's Beauty and the Beast premiered at the New York Film Festival.


The film was unfinished, but the audience didn’t seem to care. They let it whisk them off to a reality where princes transform into beasts, and love can break the strongest of spells. Disney had cast its magic spell again.

The movie was met with rapturous applause that wouldn’t have been out of place at a concert and, well, you know the rest. Except, perhaps you don’t - there’s far more to the story than the Disney fairytale that we all know and love.

Behind the Oscar, the awards and acclaim, there was a heartbreaking reality unravelling that very few were aware of.

Howard Ashman, the lyricist behind it all, had died before he could see it premiere - he would never get to see the success of his masterpiece, though his legacy would live on in his work, from The Little Mermaid to Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Little Shop of Horrors.

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His passing was marked with the now famous poignant dedication in Beauty and the Beast credits: "To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful."

Dedication to Howard Ashman
Dedication to Howard Ashman Disney

In Howard, a new documentary on Disney+ directed by Don Hahn (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Beauty and the Beast), his friends, family and colleagues share the untold story of a genius whose life was cut short.

While working on The Little Mermaid right through to Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, Ashman had been struggling secretly - then later, more openly - with AIDS.

“To have Howard going through that and facing life and death, I can’t imagine what it was like, and yet I think it was his life and his work that allowed him to escape and allowed him to enjoy those last years of his life,” Hahn told ahead of Howard's release.

“He was literally writing songs in his hospital bed and you think really? There’s that human spirit and drive to talk about humanity and love, hate, and all those things that really drove him. We’re the beneficiaries of that.”

Howard Ashman
Howard Ashman Disney+

In the documentary, we hear how Howard Ashman had always been drawn to storytelling and music from plays in his backyard as a kid to adapting The Little Shop of Horrors, first for Broadway then the movies. It was off the back of the latter’s success and the disappointing reviews for his follow-up, Smile, that Jefferey Katzenberg visited Ashman and asked him to come and work with Disney Animation.

In a letter to Ashman, he wrote: “The prospect that you and Disney will be able to co-conspire on some projects is exciting to all of us. The combination of Ashman’s talent and Disney name is a home run waiting to happen.”

But Disney wasn’t quite in the state it is now. In the late 80s, Disney animation had fallen out of favour, not just at the cinema but at the company. The Black Cauldron and The Great Mouse Detective hadn’t done as well as hoped, and the department had been moved off the main Burbank lot to trailers. When Ashman arrived, he was probably expecting a nice campus a la Hollywood, instead, he was sent three miles down the road to an industrial lot and a trailer.

But once Ashman was over the initial shock, he got stuck in.

“There’s something about cartoons,” he explained later. “I grew up on Pinocchio and Peter Pan. There are all these library books on the shelf, and to try to make something that comfortably fits on the shelf with those - what a difficult thing to do.

“Maybe the last great place to do Broadway musicals is animation.”

John Musker and Ron Clements, who still work at Disney, were the directing duo behind The Little Mermaid. They soon realised they should run with Ashman's creativity - like when he suggested changes.

Ron said: “One of the first ideas Howard had after reading the treatment, we had this crab character Howard said ‘why not make him Jamaican?’ Our first reaction was like ‘Jamaican?!’ It was like a total twist on what we were thinking.”

Ashman brought with him the early treatment where he’d scribbled in the margins with ‘suggestions’ - in reality, he’d written all the songs probably “5 minutes after he got the treatment".

In another clip, Ashman is seen earnestly explaining the concept of the ‘I Want’ song - something that Disney still uses today.

Animator Mike Gabriel remembered the lesson: “What, what did he just say? Your lead character needs a want.

“They have to have a strong want and a want song. We didn’t have a clue about that stuff before Ashman was around and you’d think we would have known that.”

Speaking to Hahn, said: “[Ashman] was much more than a lyricist and his biggest legacy with Disney was reminding us, or teaching us, how to tell a story in the context of songs. It might be something that was done back with Snow White or Pinocchio but it was a little bit of a lost art.

"It wasn’t happening and that wasn’t really happening on Broadway at the time either in the late 80s early 90s.

"He was just the right person at the right time to plug that into us and do three movies back to back that were really important at a time when we were young and hungry and wanted to show people that we could have our generations Snow White and Pinocchio also.”

It became clear that Ashman was more than a lyricist, he offered his input on character design (he backed Ursula inspired by drag act Divine), saved songs from the chop (Part of Your World) and coached the voice actors (he’d play all the parts and act them out).

But while Ashman was teaching - or reminding - the Disney crew, he’d started to notice white patches on his throat and tongue. At a time where AIDS was all over the media, even if a lot of misinformation abounded, he knew what it meant.

It kept him believing and almost willing him to continue to live.
Sarah Gillespie

Ashman asked for a test of his white cell count - and he pushed on.

“With the diagnosis, everything changed, but the work really did keep him going,” his sister Sarah said. “It kept him believing and almost willing him to continue to live.”

But as Ashman pushed on, others had issues with his way of doing things.

His friend Nancy found a memo when she went to get a coffee that revealed how tense things had got. “I picked it up and thought I better return this to whoever left it. And when I read it the memo was all about Howard taking too much time and asking for redos and costing the studio time and money...and maybe he needed to be fired.”

Ashman stuck to his guns and soon the team saw he was right - his songs stayed and his push for perfection paid off. The Little Mermaid was a hit that smashed the box office.

But behind the scenes things had got even worse. Ashman was hooked up to IV equipment and his living room became something like a hospital room.

His partner Bill Lauch said: “He seemed fine for a year or two he was functioning pretty well. It was a gradual thing.

“It had to be a secret that all of this was going on. For the longest time we couldn’t tell anyone. It makes you want to go away, hide, not have to explain.”

Despite how ill Ashman was getting, he was determined to keep it a secret but there were signs.

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken work on a song
Howard Ashman and Alan Menken work on a song Disney+

“If he wasn’t getting what he wanted he’d get frustrated,” said Alan Menken. “He had a walkman pro, he had this little microphone, but the connection was intermittent...He took the pro and smashed it against the wall. He shouted ‘Don’t go near it, don’t touch it!”

For Menken, it was confusing: “I thought ‘Is it me?’ but [Ashman ] just said ‘Excuse me for a second I have to go do something,’ and I’d go cry.”

By the time the Oscars came around, Ashman knew he had to tell his writing partner. The pair accepted their award - Best Song for Under the Sea - to rapturous applause and pats on the back, and Ashman finally told Menken they had to have a “serious talk”.

“I was thinking why, do you not want to work together anymore?” said Menken. “My brain couldn’t form that something was wrong with Ashman . The Oscars were Sunday night, we met Tuesday at his house and he said ‘well…’

“I said ‘what do you want to talk about.’

“‘You know I’m sick’ he said.

“All of a sudden a million dominoes went .. [makes noise] he said ‘Look I feel good that I’m telling you this now because I know you’re taken care of.’

“He was basically saying I’m going to die. He wasn’t even 40 yet.”

Menken - and Ashman’s - reaction isn’t a surprise. At the time, having AIDs was a death sentence and it meant time was short.

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken with their awards
Howard Ashman and Alan Menken with their awards Disney+

In the meantime, the studio had started work on Beauty and the Beast, a movie Walt Disney had started planning for years before, but never had got off the ground down to story issues.

Katzenberg told director Gary Trousdale to put “Howard and Alan on it and they’ll do what they did to The Little Mermaid and it’ll be great”.

As Ashman couldn’t travel, the filmmaking came to him.

Don Hahn was among the team working at Ashman's house.

“Howard came in every morning, he brought donuts with him and we’d get to work. He had specific points of view, some days it went great, other days not so much.”

For director Hahn, some of his favourite moments come from delving into the Disney archival footage. “In retrospect looking back you’re like ‘wow Howard was really getting thin.’

“But I also love and remember how involved he was - there’s some great scenes of him coaching and giving notes to Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury. You realise he was producing and right in the centre of all those songs. Yes, it was a team, but he was driving the bus.”

Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach recording Be Our Guest
Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach recording Be Our Guest disney+

By the time they went back to working on Aladdin, Ashman was openly sick. He was losing his eyesight, and voice.

For some, the subtext in Ashman’s work echoed his personal battle, the Mob Song in Beauty and the Beast is often seen as a metaphor for AIDS.

“For me the mob song in Beauty and the Beast is trying to just imbue some point of view through a very subtle way,” Ashman’s partner Bill Lauch said.

The gay community were a “scapegoat for their problems” and according to Lauch became the “villain”.

This is an AIDS metaphor, metaphorically done in a time when I don’t know if the creators knew they were creating it.
Thomas Schumacher of the Disney theatrical group

“There was a lot of ignorance about AIDS and people did still believe you could get it from casual contact and the only people who got it were degenerates or they deserved it,” he adds in the documentary.

When it’s pointed out, it seems to be glaringly obvious - the Mob bay at the moon, riding into the woods towards the castle determined to take down the Beast based on Gaston’s prejudiced speech.

“You can never take Beauty and the Beast away from the AIDS epidemic because it speaks to its time,” Thomas Schumacher of the Disney theatrical group, argues. “This is an AIDS metaphor, metaphorically done in a time when I don’t know if the creators knew they were creating it.”

Howard Ashman directing Paige O'Hara
Howard Ashman directing Paige O'Hara who played Belle Disney+

Though Ashman’s sister, Sarah, disagrees. “People question Kill the Beast, and was he talking about AIDS, I believe it’s a bunch of hooey. I don’t think he put his personal life in anything he wrote or did. But what there really was with Howard was great empathy which means he could put himself in the other person's place.

“It’s not that he really wanted to be a mermaid... but he put himself in Ariel’s position and Ariel’s life and that’s empathy and from that place you can write that character, that’s the definition of an artist.”

While Sarah may not agree with the metaphor interpretation, for Hahn the answer is a little more complicated.

“It may seem incredible,” he told, “But we really didn’t think about that until the movie was over. I think it was a journalist who wrote an op ed piece in the LA Times about it and said this is clearly a metaphor for the AIDS crisis. I think we all went ‘really?’

“I think part of that is your head’s down and we were making the movie and worried about telling the story and getting it right. We were either naive or clueless when it came to Howard and his health for a long time.

“We went to New York to work with him and thought he was being a diva," he added.

It wasn’t until after the film was released that the connection was even made.

“That whole idea of it being a metaphor was something that we [the filmmakers] didn’t realise until afterwards,” he added. “I think probably, Howard, didn’t do political theatre, he wasn’t an AIDS activist, but he was so damn clever that he had layers of writing in his work sometimes.

...He was well aware and trapped in this terrible curse of this AIDS crisis at the time.
Don Hahn

“So if you ask people they will say clearly there is no AIDS metaphor and others will say it’s all about that. I don’t know how I come down, the songs like Kill the Beast are plot songs, songs that belong in the Beauty and the Beast story, but again Howard was a clever boy and he was well aware and trapped in this terrible curse of this AIDS crisis at the time.”

The Mob Song
The Mob Song in Beauty and the Beast has been called a metaphor for AIDs Disney

No one ever got to ask Ashman. By the time Beauty and the Beast was finishing up production, he was already bed ridden in hospital having lost his sight.

Hahn went to visit him in his final days. Beauty and the Beast was months away from being done, and the whole team was aware this was probably the last time they’d see him.

“It was obviously heartbreaking when you go to visit someone in the hospital like that,” he says. “There were four of us, Jeffrey, Peter, David and myself. Everyone got a chance to say their goodbyes… I’ve never had to do that in any other time of my life.

“It’s probably the only time I've had to say goodbye to someone I knew wasn’t going to last beyond that week or so.

“You feel that powerfully at the time, revisiting it, I wanted to include that in the movie. It was very real to Howard’s life. He had a very fun, interesting and smart life that had a tragic ending and I think that’s the story I wanted to tell about Howard. It’s not all tragedy, he brought a lot of joy to people and it had a tragic ending.”

And while Ashman never got to see the world’s love for his work, or that second Oscar, he knew he’d created a lasting legacy.

“I bent over to say my goodbyes and tell him what he meant to us,” Hahn said.

“‘You wouldn’t believe it,’ I said. ‘I mean people love this movie. Who’d have thought?’...and Howard said ‘I would have'.”

Watch Howard on Disney+ on 7th August. Sign up to Disney+ for £59.99 a year and £5.99 a month.

For more Disney+ suggestions check out our best movies on Disney+ guide or visit our TV Guide.


Want more Disney? Watch our Frozen 2 Q&A with the animators and directors or find out more about the "guardian angel" that inspired a Frozen 2 character's name.


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