How Howard Ashman’s Battle with AIDS Inspired Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’

How Howard Ashman’s Battle with AIDS Inspired Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’

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If you don’t know the name Howard Ashman, you already know every lyric he wrote.

When’s it my turn?
Wouldn’t I love
Love to explore that shore above?
Out of the sea
Wish I could be
Part of that world

His words are some of the most popular song lyrics ever, filling the sweeping scores of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Little Shop of Horrors and Beauty and the Beast. The latter is about to be imagined as a live-action remake, continuing Ashman’s legacy that helped shape one of the most powerful and enduring Disney classics ever.

The original 1991 animated film may have turned out much differently were it not for Ashman’s tragic struggle. On the night of the 62nd Academy Awards, he told his collaborator Alan Menken that they needed to talk when they got back to New York City. This is where he opened up that he was HIV positive. He had been diagnosed in 1988, midway through the making of The Little Mermaid.

His diagnosis and ensuing battle with AIDS would help shape his work on Beauty and the Beast:

Attitude explains:

“Disney had been developing Beauty and the Beast for decades. But there was a specific version they were working on developing in the Eighties.

On the heels of The Little Mermaid they showed it to [composer] Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Ashman had just found out he had AIDS, and it was his idea, not only to make it into a musical but also to make Beast one of the two central characters; until then it had mostly been Belle’s story that they had been telling.

And specifically for him 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.”

After the first screening for Beauty and the Beast on March 10, 1991, the animators visited Ashman in the hospital. He weighed 80 pounds, had lost his sight and could barely speak. The animators and producer Don Hahn told him that the film was incredibly well received by the audience.

Four days later on March 14, he died. He was only 40 years old.

Howard Ashman’s obituary reads:

Howard Ashman, an Oscar-winning lyricist and a librettist, playwright and director who wrote and staged the Off Broadway hit Little Shop of Horrors, died yesterday at St. Vincent’s Hospital. He was 40 years old and lived in Beacon, N.Y.

His companion was William Lauch, an architect.

Ashman’s heartbreaking story is one of great lose. Because of this horrible disease, there is so much great work he never got to create. However, his indelible mark on music and film is still felt today by the world. He gave a mermaid her voice, a beast his soul and he gave us stories to never forget.

Not just theirs, but his as well.

‘Beauty and the Beast’ opens nationwide March 17.

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