The remarkable story of Howard Ashman, who changed Disney forever while battling AIDS
The lyricist passed away 30 years ago, but we'll always be part of his world
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
In November of 1989, I had perhaps my most definitive cinematic awakening when I sat down in a movie theatre for 83 marvellous minutes and witnessed — for the first of at least 10 times that winter — Disney's The Little Mermaid. I became instantly obsessed, particularly with its music. At any chance I got, I would float around my childhood living room to its soundtrack, belting out every word to every song, all of which I still have memorized by heart to this day.
There was one song in particular that I would request on repeat, and it doesn't take a psychiatrist to decipher why a five-year-old gay boy would be so drawn to its lyrics:
When's it my turn?
Wouldn't I love, love to explore that shore up above
Out of the sea
Wish I could be
Part of that world
As subconscious as it may have been at the time, The Little Mermaid was, for many queer kids born in the 1980s, a pre-coming out of sorts. It certainly was for me. And what I didn't know then — and something I have thought about so often in my adult life — was that the man responsible for those lyrics (and in so many respects, that entire movie) was a gay man who would die of AIDS a little over a year after I first heard "Part of Your World."
Playwright, stage director and lyricist Howard Ashman died on March 14, 1991. He weighed 80 pounds, had lost his sight and could barely speak. What he left behind was an unparalleled legacy that goes well beyond being the genius behind the lyrics in The Little Mermaid. And on this the 30th anniversary of his death, I'd like to briefly attempt to relay the magnitude of that legacy to anyone who might not be aware (or to anyone who might need a reminder).
Born in Baltimore in 1950, Ashman would rise to prominence in the musical theatre world when he became the artistic director of New York City's WPA Theatre in 1977. An off-off-Broadway theatre with 99 seats, this is where Ashman would begin collaborating with composer Alan Menken. The pair first adapted Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater into a musical in 1979 (which Vonnegut himself approved of) and then would become the talk of New York's theatre scene when 1982's Little Shop of Horrors began a wildly successful five-year run before becoming a hit movie in 1986.
"I remember the visceral sense of what it was like to sit in front of a Howard Ashman lyric for the first time," Menken recalls in the documentary Howard (which is a must-watch and currently available on Disney+). "When Howard and I were in the room, it was pure creative energy. It was no-holds-barred wrestling. There was only one rule and that rule was don't leave the room without a good idea and a good song."
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Ashman's only full-on Broadway production (and according to some, his only full-on failure) came in 1986 when he decided to team up with renowned composer Marvin Hamlisch instead of Menken for the musical Smile. It closed after bad reviews and just 48 performances, prompting Ashman to reconsider whether New York's theatre world was where he really wanted to grow — and taking up an offer from Disney to come work for them in Hollywood instead.
Here's what you need to know about Disney in 1986: it was a total mess. The 1970s and 1980s are what many refer to the company's "dark period," peaking with 1985's massive financial disaster The Black Cauldron. The future of Disney's animated output was in jeopardy just as Ashman showed up. And when they showed him one of their prospective projects — an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid — he took charge, asking if Alan Menken could come and join him.
On The Little Mermaid, Ashman was not just a lyricist. He was a leader in its artistic development and really guided the conceptual framework that would come to define the next decade of Disney's output, kicked off by Mermaid and known as the "Disney Renaissance." Initially, for example, the character of Sebastian was supposed to be a British lobster.
"Why not make him a Jamaican crab?" Ashman famously asked the production team.
He also encouraged the development of sea witch Ursula's characterization to be based on Baltimore drag legend Divine. And really, to think that an openly gay man inserted a queer icon into the essence of a lead character in a Disney film in the late 1980s is incredibly radical. It would be even today.
Essentially, Ashman pushed hard to infuse the film with a Broadway sensibility and a queer sensibility, even when that put him at odds with his bosses.
In the documentary Howard, Ashman is seen tying to convince the team why "Part of Your World" was so important to the film. "I was interested, just for myself, in trying to give more specific information and yet keep it feeling like a ballad," he tells them. "It's her dream. You're not going to miss what the film's about. That's the central issue of the entire film. By having her sing it, it makes that point indelibly. She wishes she were human. And at the end of the film, she will become human and live happily ever after. That's what she wants."
The song wasn't what Disney execs wanted, and there was even consideration of his firing when he wouldn't budge at their desire to have it excluded from the film. It had tested poorly with children, and Disney head Jeffrey Katzenberg wanted it gone. But Ashman — with many members of production team having his back — fought and won the battle to keep it, and "Part of Your World" would become an iconic Disney classic. And when The Little Mermaid was released, it became the company's first undeniable success in decades. It grossed $233 million worldwide and won two Oscars, including one for Ashman and Menken's song "Under The Sea."
What absolutely nobody knew on the set of The Little Mermaid was that in 1988 — midway through production — Ashman was diagnosed with fairly advanced AIDS. He told his longtime partner Bill Lauch and his close friends and family, but no one at Disney. And knowing that he was likely going to not survive more than a few years likely contributed to how forceful he was at ensuring his vision of the film was realized.
"I think the work really did keep him going and kept him believing, and almost willing him to continue on and to live," his sister Sarah Ashman Gillespie says in Howard.
Ashman would work all day and then would go to an "at home hospital" afterwards. During the The Little Mermaid press junket at Disneyland, he had a catheter in his chest. He was expected to go on rides, and was too afraid to tell people that it would be too painful.
Finally, on the night they won their Oscars, Ashman told Menken when they got back to New York they needed to have a serious talk. Two days later, they did.
"I didn't want to tell you because I didn't know how Disney would react," Menken recalls Ashman telling him. "Here I am, a gay man, and I'm working on a movie for kids, and I didn't want to be fired."
As the folks at Disney began to find out, they already knew what an asset Ashman had been to The Little Mermaid, and certainly didn't want to cut ties. Instead, they wanted to give everything they could to have him come in and save their next film, Beauty and the Beast. Ashman was too ill to travel, so Disney packed up their storyboards and came to the home he and Lauch shared in upstate New York.
On what was close to his deathbed, Ashman completely revamped what Disney had in mind for Beauty, giving significantly more focus and humanity with regard to the character of The Beast. Many have read into this as being Ashman's coded response to how he and so many like him were treated like beasts during the AIDS crisis, something that is certainly hard to deny in the lyrics of "The Mob Song," which is sung by a group of men trying to destroy The Beast:
We're not safe until he's dead
He'll come stalking us at night
Set to sacrifice our children to his monstrous appetite
He'll wreak havoc on our village if we let him wander free
So it's time to take some action boys
It's time to follow me
Howard Ashman completed his work on Beauty and the Beast, and even contributed several songs and visual ideas to Aladdin (he famously offered a 30-page treatment for the latter well before it went into production, including the lyrics for "Friend Like Me" and "Prince Ali"). But he would pass away at the age of 40 before either film — both massive hits on levels Disney had never seen before — was released. And yet it's undeniable that without him they wouldn't exist, or at least they wouldn't have been the universally beloved sensations that they, along with The Little Mermaid, all were.
Howard Ashman was a gay man, secretly dying from a disease that most of society refused to even acknowledge, who mustered something within himself to alter the course — and essentially save — Disney. Without him, would we have had The Lion King? Or Frozen? It's very unlikely. But more importantly, an entire generation would have been denied his specific, glorious contributions. Where would we all be without The Little Mermaid? Thanks to Howard Ashman, we'll never have to be part of that world. If only Howard was still part of ours, because one can only imagine what he could have done with the last 30 years.