At the Movies

Tale As Old As Time

This year marks 30 years since the death of Howard Ashman, the music genius behind Disney's greatest songs and the man whose biggest fight has inspired generations.

MAY 17th, 2021



here are many Disney songs which have stood the test of time, but only one is as old as time - "Beauty and the Beast". Soothing, romantic, emotive and instantly recognisable simply by the first few dulcet notes, the theme song to one of Disney’s greatest masterpieces has become a staple of the film studio’s magic touch. Yet, behind every great masterpiece is an even greater creative master, and in this case there were two, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.

Ashman and Menken’s collaborative relationship was one of unique talent - Ashman was a gifted lyricist and Menken was a formidable composer. The two of them together created some of music's greatest melodies. And whilst their success was prolific within the world of Broadway and musicals, it was their transition to movies that truly ignited their gifts to the watching world.

Howard Ashman - © Disney

Alan [Menken] has been fortunate enough to experience the continuing success and high reputation of his collaborative work. Sadly for Howard [Ashman], fate, as it usually does, intervened with tragedy. That tragedy, according to Alan, is highlighted when it comes to the partnership’s greatest successes, as there is only one man responsible, Howard.

“No one could write a lyric like Howard,” said Alan in a 2017 interview with Hollywood Reporter. The iconic Disney composer was promoting the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson as Belle. “After all these years since the original version [released in 1991] to hear those words sung by a new cast and yet still feel the magic in the lyrics is the greatest testament to his skill.”

The skill Alan references was one grounded in real-life. Howard was known for, and enjoyed, taking the mundane aspects of the real world; the everyday world, and adding a sense of unique enchantment to it through music. Even if the world the characters inhabited was far-fetched he would still find the normalcy of their predicament and create human experiences. In the broadway show Little Shop of Horrors - a story following a hapless florist shop worker who raises a plant that feeds on human blood and flesh - Ashman created what is arguably one of his most recognisable theatrical ballads, “Somewhere That’s Green”.

The song is sung by Audrey - a young woman longing to leave her abusive husband and wishing to live an ideal suburban life with the lead character Seymour, complete with a “tract home, frozen dinners, and plastic on the furniture”. In the lyrics of the song, against such a wacky story, her humanity, bravery and pain is perfectly combined in a moving ballad.

Howard’s continued success with theatre earned him plaudits, and also the eyes of the movie world - in particular Disney. The juggernaut movie studio hired the lyricist to write songs for their upcoming animation Oliver & Company, and although he delivered on the film’s brief, there was another movie waiting in the wings which would not only change Howard’s life, but cement his position as a world-leading songwriter.

It would be Disney’s first fairy tale in thirty years and a project which had been in progress for a number of years - The Little Mermaid. Alongside his former creative partner Menken, Howard began to write numerous songs for the Disney musical. Unlike Oliver & Company, where production had been almost seamless, The Little Mermaid wasn’t. Jeffrey Katzenberg, Chairman of Disney Studios at the time, was less than impressed with the movie, and more so its music.

“Jeffrey felt that the movie would earn less at the Box Office as it appealed to a female audience,” explained Ron Clements, co-director of The Little Mermaid. “He specifically hated some of the songs Alan and Howard had written.” One of those songs was a ballad which would cause an almighty row between Howard and Jeffrey. The song was called “Part of Your World” and was sung by Ariel (voiced by Jodi Benson) as she declares her longing hope to be human. Katzenberg believed the song was unsuitable and that the younger audiences would find it boring. Ashman on the other hand felt differently, and was unafraid to say so. The standoff eventually ended with Ashman winning, along with Menken and acclaimed Disney animator Glen Keane.

Howard directing Paige O'Hara, the voice of Belle in "Beauty and the Beast". - © Disney

“Jeffrey was determined to see the song removed, Howard was equally determined to see it included,” explained Keane to Hollywood Reporter. “Howard won in the end by playing the song to test audiences and because they loved it so much, Jeffrey had to include it.”

It was a smart move by Howard to implore that the test screenings of the movie include “Part of Your World”. He believed that ultimately audiences were the harshest and yet fairest critics. “If a song can capture the heart of an audience, it never dies. If it doesn’t, then it won’t live long enough to take a breath,” he said at a convention in 1989.

Upon listening to the song in its entirety and seeing the full movie at the premiere, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s initial prediction of a Box Office flop for The Little Mermaid was quickly changed. Suddenly Disney Studios’ Chairman was backing the musical as a potential hit, and more so Disney’s biggest ever.

His change of heart would be proved right. The Little Mermaid became one of Disney’s biggest successes and unparalleled critical acclaim. For many, the work of Howard and Alan was the catalyst for what is commonly known as the Disney Renaissance period - when the movie studio was at its best.

After the success of The Little Mermaid and Howard and Alan picking up two Academy Awards - one for ‘Best Original Song’ (“Under the Sea”) and another for ‘Best Original Score’ - Howard looked to his next project. Ashman pitched a musical based on Aladdin and the Lamp - a play he had starred in as a child at school. With an initial film treatment and cacophony of songs - co-written once again by Alan Menken - Disney greenlit the production. Yet due to countless rewrites and a final film treatment which failed to impress, the production was dropped and Howard and Alan were sent onto another project, one which had plagued Disney since the 1930s.

Disney’s upcoming project Beauty and the Beast was in trouble. After a failed attempt to make the film in the 1930s, Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg had attempted to strike gold again after the success of The Little Mermaid. However, due to the original pitch of the movie being a simple fairy tale with no musical numbers, Katzenberg dismissed the idea and brought in Ashman and Menken to see if they could add some “magic” to proceedings. Ashman also took the position of Executive Producer as well as songwriter, though he was initially reluctant to join the project, preferring to continue work on Aladdin.

As production began, Ashman wanted to push the limits of musical animation and felt Beauty and the Beast would be the best place to start. He had two challenges which he set himself - one, make the movie a complete musical, this meant ensuring that the music score was present throughout the entire runtime of the film. And two, that the movie opened with an elaborate five minute musical number. He achieved both.

Howard with Alan at the 1989 Academy Awards. - © AP News

Yet, whilst production had been gathering pace and Beauty and the Beast was emerging as a potential box office hit, Howard had been facing a greater challenge than any he had faced before. Away from the music and the movies, since 1988 (halfway through the production of The Little Mermaid), he had been living with HIV/AIDS. For Alan Menken, as well as the rest of the people in his life, Howard had kept his terminal prognosis secret. It wasn’t until the 62nd Academy Awards that he took Alan to one side and informed his long-term creative partner that they needed to talk when they returned to New York.

“I never suspected he would tell me he was HIV positive,” admitted Alan in the documentary Howard. “It was a shock because he had been working so hard throughout his illness and although sometimes he looked a little tired and slimmer than usual, we all initially put it down to the natural stresses of creating a movie.”

Howard’s life-long partner Bill Lauch, who remained by his side throughout his entire treatment, described his reason for remaining quiet over his diagnosis. “He didn’t want to be seen as a problem, and you have to remember this was the late-80s, HIV/AIDS were still demonised as this dirty disease.”

As time passed by, Howard began to grow weaker and weaker, and his temper began to fray more frequently. He would occasionally berate the animators and filmmakers that production wasn’t right or not moving fast enough, leading many to draw unflattering cartoons of him. Eventually more and more of the crew were let into the secret and production was adapted to ensure Howard could continue his work in comfort. Production was moved to his home in Fishkill, New York.

“I remember being slightly annoyed with him,” says Donn Hahn, “because if he had told us he was ill earlier we could have made his life that little be easier and less physically painful, but he never complained.”

Beauty and the Beast finished production and was shown at its first screen on March 10, 1991. By this point Howard had become increasingly frail as the HIV/AIDS began to ravage his body. Now weighing just 80 pounds (36 kg), the musical maestro had lost his sight and could barely speak. Upon hearing the news of his deterioration, the animators visited him after the first screening and were left heartbroken by his condition.

Alan Menken, who had seen Howard at his best, was devastated at seeing him at his worst. “It suddenly became very real when he was taken into hospital,” he said in an interview with Huffington Post. “When we were making The Little Mermaid I didn’t know he was ill, yet when Beauty and the Beast came along I knew then that he was sick, so I remember it being this emotional roller coaster of an experience being there. In another part of your brain, you’re going, “Oh my, what’s going on? Howard’s going to be gone.” Because there was no doubt about AIDS then, what it did.”

Howard pictured with his life-long partner Bill Lauch - © Getty Images

Don Hahn, the producer of Beauty and the Beast, was amongst the animators who had travelled to be by Howard’s hospital bed after the first screening of the movie. Ashman was weak and could barely talk, yet as the animators left saying what would be their final goodbyes, Don was left alone with a failing Howard. He noticed that he was whispering something. Don leaned closer.

“What did they think of the movie?” whispered Howard.

Don smiled gently. “They loved it, Howard, absolutely loved it!”

“Was it a tale as old as time?” he asked.

Don felt his voice break as he answered. “Yes Howard, yes it was.”

Aged forty, Howard Ashman died four days later on March 14, 1991, due to heart failure caused by HIV/AIDS at St. Vincent's Hospital in Manhattan. He never got to see Beauty and the Beast. Months later the movie opened to audiences and became an instant classic. The film was dedicated to Howard with the words: ‘To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful. Howard Ashman 1950–1991.’

It has been thirty years since Howard’s passing and for many his music continues to both inspire and delight. He created lyrics and music which has stirred the souls and electrified the hearts of audiences around the world. And although many are saddened he never lived long enough to witness the impact of his work, in one way he did.

After the release of The Little Mermaid Howard visited Disneyland as part of the promotional tour for another Disney production. In the traditional parade, which features numerous Disney characters, Howard noticed the familiar characters from the The Little Mermaid, and blaring from the float was his iconic song, “Under The Sea”.

“He had tears in his eyes,” recalled Alan to Hollywood Reporter, “and I think it suddenly dawned on him that his music would live on forever, even if he didn’t. There is true magic in that.”

That magic continues unwavering today. Generations after generations still sing his songs, hum his melodies and sob to his ballads. He faced his battles and was forever humbled by his achievements, and broke boundaries even after his death. Upon winning the Academy Award for ‘Best Original Song’ for Beauty and the Beast, his partner Bill Lauch collected his award posthumously saying in a short speech: “This is the first Academy Award we’ve ever given to someone we’ve lost to AIDS.”

Howard pictured working on "Beauty and the Beast". - © Disney

For Alan, his enduring memory of Howard is one of inspiration, specifically for those young people affected by HIV/AIDS. “I guess the most important thing to know is, if anybody has feelings that AIDS is God’s punishment, or something, then just look at the man, at what he created, and what it is in our lives, and think again about that,” he said.

The work and music of Howard Ashman is very similar to the presence of Disney, he will always be with us as long as there is magic, imagination and music in the world. Howard’s time on this earth was fleeting, tragically so, but his impression on the world of movies and music is consistent with the great masterful maestros throughout history, and the songs which never leave our hearts. He has become and will forever remain a “tale as old as time.”

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