In 1985, Disney was reeling from the box-office flop, The Black Cauldron. Costing $44 million to produce, it was the most expensive animated film ever made at the time. It only made $21.3 million domestically, a large enough loss to put the titanic animation studio in jeopardy. Disney Studios was still struggling to find a voice and style after the death of creator and founder, Walt, in 1966.
This era was dubbed the Bronze Age of Disney, due to its library’s lack of critical acclaim and financial flops. Disney was hiring CalArts grads in droves, but viewed animation as a dying art form after a series of failed attempts to revive the industry, and was refocusing on live action films.
The last Disney film of the Bronze Age was Oliver & Company, an animal-centric retelling of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Playwright and lyricist Howard Ashman, who had seen a lot of success on Broadway with his musical collaborations with Alan Menken — God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater & the musical resurrection of Little Shop of Horrors — was approached to write a song for the movie, thus beginning a Disney tradition of poaching Broadway notables. His contribution to the Grammy-nominated soundtrack, “Once Upon a Time in New York City,” was performed by Huey Lewis and got Ashman an invitation to work on The Little Mermaid, Disney’s first fairy tale in 30 years and the studio’s Hail Mary — no, The Black Cauldron doesn’t count. It was based off the a high fantasy novel written a paltry 20 years before the film.
Originally, Ashman was only hired to write 6 songs for the Hans Christian Anderson adaptation. However, the lyricist was fascinated with animation and quickly became more involved. He brought on Alan Menken to help with the score, and taught the film’s directors — John Musker and Ron Clements — about musical theater while they in turn taught him about the animation process. Supposedly, Ashman helped inspire the design for Ursula, the film’s villain, who is based off of infamous drag queen Divine.
The Little Mermaid saw a few of Ashman’s innovations that would appear in future Disney films even after his death, including the “I Want” song — a song where the protagonist sings their desires. In an interview, Alan Menken said they jokingly called “Part of Your World” “Somewhere That’s Wet,” a nod to “Somewhere That’s Green” from Little Shop of Horrors.
The Little Mermaid was released in November, 1989, and was met with critical and financial acclaim. Ashman and Menken received 2 Golden Globes nominations and 3 Academy Award nominations, with Ashman winning 2 for “Kiss the Girl” and “Under the Sea.” It marked the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of Disney’s Renaissance, which many agree marks the pinnacle of the animation studio’s history. With a return to traditional animation techniques as well as new innovations in the genre, the next 10 years would see some of the most popular and highly praised Disney movies ever made, 3 of which, including The Little Mermaid, Howard Ashman worked on before his tragic death.
During production of The Little Mermaid, Ashman was diagnosed with HIV at a time when this was as good as a death sentence, and the disease was intensely stigmatized. He continued to work tirelessly until he was hospitalized in 1991.
The next chapter of Howard’s life is a little hard to pin down due to mixed accounts. After the success of The Little Mermaid, he pitched Aladdin to Disney. His website says that Disney initially rejected the idea and only gave the project the green light after he’d been working on Beauty & The Beast. In an interview with Animated Views for the Aladdin crew reunion, however, John Musker and Ron Clements say Aladdin was in production alongside Beauty & The Beast, only to be put on the back burner when Ashman and Menken were brought onto the production team for the struggling Beauty & The Beast.
Either way, Ashman ultimately began working on Beauty & The Beast, even though he was concerned with his health and his own project. The film had already been scrapped once in 1989 by Disney chair Jeffrey Katzenburg after seeing the initial storyboard reels. Initially, Beauty & The Beast wasn’t going to be a musical at all, which obviously changed once Ashman and Menken were introduced to the project. Producer Don Hahn said in an interview that the narrative became shaped by the music, and in turn helped to shape what storytelling meant to Disney in future films. “Did we have great directors? Absolutely. Did we have great art directors, and artists, and animators? Absolutely. But teaching us how to tell stories in music…” The film opens with a 7-minute opening number, for example, that Ashman was sure would get them fired. The dizzying sequence, with its flurry of characters and lyrics, marks the first real intersection between Broadway and animation. It reads just like the opening number to a theatrical musical.
Ashman’s condition was worsening. Even when bedridden, however, how would listen to cast recordings and offer notes. His struggle with HIV became a narrative undercurrent in the film. The song “Kill the Beast,” according to Hahn, was about the stigmatization of the disease, with angry villagers waving torches and pitchforks while singing, “We don’t like what we don’t understand, in fact it scares us and this monster is mysterious at least.”
Howard Ashman died due to heart failure mere months before Beauty & The Beast was released in 1991. It was dedicated to Howard, and became the most successful Disney movie and the most successful animated film of all time. It was also the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture. Three original songs from the film were nominated for Best Original Song, all written by Ashman. “Beauty & The Beast” won, and Ashman’s partner Bill Lauch accepted the award posthumously in a historical moment that brought a spotlight to the AIDS crisis:
Howard and I shared a home and a life together, and I’m very happy and very proud to accept this for him. But it is bittersweet; this is the first Academy Award given to someone lost to AIDS. In working on Beauty & The Beast, Howard faced incredible personal challenges, but always gave his best. And what made that possible was an atmosphere of understanding, love, and support. That’s something everyone facing AIDS not only needs but deserves. There’s an inscription on Howard’s grave in Baltimore. It reads: “O, that he had one more song to sing.” We’ll never hear that song, but I’m deeply grateful for this tribute you’ve given to what he left behind.
This left Howard’s swan song unfinished; Aladdin was still trapped in production limbo. However, it was released a year after Howard’s death, having undergone several narrative changes since Ashman originally pitched it. The film only features 3 of Howard’s original songs: “Arabian Nights,” “Friend Like Me,” and “Prince Ali.” The latter 2 showcase Ashman’s trademark quick-delivery lyrics and clever wordplay. While the movie was an overwhelming success, it leaves me wondering what an Aladdin driven by Howard Ashman would have looked like. Ironically, we can look to Broadway for at least some of the answer. The musical adaptation of Aladdin revived 3 of Ashman’s songs, including “Proud of Your Boy,” and resurrected many elements from Ashman’s original vision.
Of the 10 films included in the Disney Renaissance, 3 of them featured work by Howard Ashman. However, it is safe to say that all of them, and the new Disney classics of the Revival Era, have been influenced by Ashman’s work. He, along with his long-time colleague and friend Alan Menkin, not only revived the tradition of the musical fairy tale, but improved it. So many of us grew up with these movies. Beauty & The Beast was a personal favorite of my own childhood. Maybe it’s the quarantine talking, but I find myself thinking more and more about the Beast trapped in his castle. And then I think about Howard Ashman, who did so much in his short time, “who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul.”