I grew up in the 90s, which meant I loved playing with my Pogs, Playmobil and Tamagotchis while watching The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast on repeat. I’ve had every word to every song memorized from both of those movies for as long as I can remember, and Ariel and Belle were far and away my favourite Disney princesses. What I didn’t know until years later was the tragic story about the man who wrote the lyrics that were the soundtrack to my childhood.
To say Howard Ashman was a master lyricist would be an understatement. Ashman and writing partner Alan Menken were responsible for expertly weaving song into narratives that would appeal to nearly all audiences. They won Oscars for such classics as “Beauty and the Beast (Tale as Old as Time)” and “Under the Sea”, they wrote the seven-minute camptastic opening number “Bonjour” to set up the universe of Beauty and the Beast, and they coached singers such as Paige O’Hara (Belle) and Jodi Benson (Ariel) to sound earnest and soulful, bringing life and complexity to their cartoon counterparts. Angela Lansbury recorded that version of “Beauty and the Beast” IN ONE TAKE. Ashman coached her through it.
Ashman was also a reprise genius. Everyone remembers those Ariel-on-the-rock and Belle-picking-dandelions moments. In both scenes the leading ladies reprise an earlier song to belt out what they want – what they so badly want – to express dissatisfaction with their circumstances. So. Much. Love.
“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”
– Lyrics from “Bonjour” reprise sung by Belle
In 1988 Ashman was diagnosed with HIV. It was in 1990 or 1991 that he contracted the AIDS virus and his health began to decline quickly. Ashman kept his diagnosis a secret to everyone except for Menken, who he reportedly told on the night of the 62nd Academy Awards, after they had just taken home the Oscar for Best Song for “Under the Sea”.
Toward the end of the production of Disney game-changer Beauty and the Beast, some of the production team moved to Fishkill, New York to work with Ashman so that he could continue to work from his apartment, as he was too sick to travel.
The first screening of Beauty and the Beast was on March 10, 1991. Ashman was in the hospital by that time and had lost his sight. On March 14th 1991, Ashman died at the age of 40 as a result of complications related to AIDS. He never saw the finished film.
26 years later, I, along with millions of others will watch the new live action Beauty and the Beast movie hitting theatres this weekend. I think we should all remember that the only reason why this film exists is because of the brilliance of Howard Ashman. His words had a profound influence on me and thousands of others, and his brilliance continues to move audiences to this day.
So let’s take a moment this weekend to think about what we lost when we lost Ashman, and what we lose when thousands still needlessly die of AIDS every day.