Howard Ashman: A Queer Legacy Not to be Forgotten

Friday 31 May 2019

On the 6th May, 1982 at a small theatre in New York City, a booming voice, reminiscent of God (or a sci-fi B-movie), delivered a prologue.

A jazzy piano riff played to a room of three-hundred-and-forty-seven audience members.

A trio of singing women, a ’la The Supremes or The Ronettes, became the show’s Greek chorus as they harmonised the opening lines: ‘Little shop, little shop of horrors’.

And it was in that moment that a musical theatre classic was born.

The musical was the brainchild of two men in their early thirties, whose stars were firmly on the rise. Alan Menken, a young composer from New York and Howard Ashman, a playwright and lyricist from Baltimore, had met a few years before in 1977 during a Workshop for lyricists and composers. Their first collaboration, a musical adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel ‘God Bless You Mr. Rosewater’, opened in 1979 to lukewarm reviews. It didn’t stop them however as they dove into working on Little Shop of Horrors – which would go on to loudly announce the arrival of two new major talents in the world of musical theatre.

The show very quickly transferred to the Orpheum Theatre Off-Broadway in Manhattan’s East Village where it ran for 2209 performances over five years and became the highest-grossing off-Broadway production of all time and the third-longest running in history.

Their stars were ascending and both have made a lasting impact on musical theatre. However, it was Howard Ashman, the young gay Jewish lyricist and playwright, who apart from being the driving force behind saving a major film studio from financial ruin, would go on to create some of the most enduring and well known songs ever heard on film.


Howard Ashman was born and raised in Baltimore. He moved to New York in 1974 where he worked as an editor for a publishing house and wrote plays during the evenings and weekends. He arrived with his lover and first love, Stuart White, who he’d met in a summer theatre programme in 1969. The two, despite the prejudice and hate, did very little to hide their romance. Howard’s sister, Sarah, commented, ‘As much as two men in 1970 could be together as a couple, they were, without ever saying they’re a couple.’

His relationship with Stuart was rife with drama and conflict until it ended in 1980 with Howard moving out of their shared apartment. Stuart, a handsome man whose charming demeanour and wit made him popular on the gay scene in the city, slept around with other men, some of whom he’d pick up while out with Howard. In a post-Stonewall and a pre-AIDS New York City, sexual freedom was common amongst queer men, as they used the act of sex as a form of defiance and protest. They were shirking the rigid norms of heterosexuality and exploring options outside of monogamy. But that may not have been what Howard wanted…

Toward the end of their relationship and the time that followed, Howard was writing the lyrics for Little Shop of Horrors – which within this context have the potential to reveal something interesting about Howard’s personal views.

In the song Somewhere That’s Green, Audrey, the female lead, sings about escaping to a better place. She wants to get away from dump that is Skid-Row and go to a place where she can be free to live the life she wants. She dreams of an ‘ideal’ American home accompanied by the lush American family life. However, as Howard was in a relationship in which various social norms were being pushed and tested – he was engaging in group sex as a means of trying to save his relationship – these lyrics could be more telling than they may seem:

A matchbox of our own /
A fence of real chain link /
A grill out on the patio /
Disposal in the sink /
A washer and a dryer and an ironing machine /
In a tract house that we share /
Somewhere that’s green.

There’s nothing extravagant about Audrey’s desires. She doesn’t long for millions of dollars or a mansion with an eighty-foot swimming pool. She yearns for the ‘normal’ life she is being denied. She pines for things most people take for granted: a small house, appliances, and a simple patio. In the show, these desires evoke sympathy for Audrey; a woman who is misunderstood and trapped in an abusive relationship. In the context of Howard’s personal life at the time of writing it, is it possible he felt the same way too?

Growing up in the sixties Howard must have been aware of the core American family values that were blasted into homes across the country via advertisements, public service announcements and conservative politicians. Was there a desire for that normal life when he was faced with the new, more radical, frontier of queer life? It’s not hard to imagine that a lot of young queer people in the fifties and sixties grew up with a desire for what was considered ‘normal’. In fact, the free-love attitude Post-Stonewall was likely a direct response to that.


Howard directing Ellen Green (Audrey) in the original production of Little Shop of Horrors

Somewhere That’s Green not only focuses on that image of American life but also on gender roles in that ideal American home. Audrey imagines Seymour as her perfect partner and the perfect father. Someone who, by the standards of the era, is the perfect man. He mows the lawn, keeps the house in order and eats dinner with her in front of the TV.

The song closes with this:

I’m his December Bride / He’s Father, he Knows Best 
Our kids play Howdy Doody / As the sun sets in the west 
A picture out of Better Homes and Gardens magazine /

Far from Skid Row 
I dream we’ll go / Somewhere that’s green.

Paired with Menken’s delicate piano and arrangement of strings, the simple and poignant final lines, sang in Ellen Green’s shaky and subtle vocals, is a touching moment in the show. When read in the context of Howard’s personal life, the song is one that is wholly emotional and filled with yearning. It not only exists as one of the more memorable songs in the show but as one that could easily be reimagined as an ‘I Want’ song for a generation of queer men who weren’t sure what a future and a family would look like if they were to ever have one.

Somewhere That’s Green is, in musical theatre terms, an ‘I Want’ song – something which Howard would become synonymous with writing. In his own words, an ‘I Want’ song is ‘[i]n almost every musical ever written there’s a place, it’s normally about the third song of the evening […] [T]he leading lady usually sits down on something. Sometimes it’s a tree stump in Brigadoon. Sometimes it’s under the pillars of Covent Garden in My Fair Lady. Or, it’s a trash can in Little Shop of Horrors. But the leading lady sits down on something and sings about what she wants in life. And the audience falls in love with her and roots for her to get it for the rest of the night.’

Somewhere That’s Green is intentionally written as such and Howard is not only letting us know what Audrey wants but is perhaps, on some level, letting us know what he wanted. After all, art is often a manifestation of the personal. Though it can be masked by the façade of fiction or hidden beneath layers of subtext, art comes from what the artist knows, from what they’ve experienced and how they view the world. So it’s not a stretch to argue that Somewhere That’s Green, or any song written by any person about the human condition, comes a deeply personal place.


Not long after Little Shop of Horrors premiered Howard got a call from Stuart. Had be heard about the ‘gay cancer’? In 1981 The New York Times published a short article with the headline ‘Rare Cancer seen in 41 Homosexuals’. It reported that doctors in New York and California had diagnosed 41 cases of ‘a rare and often rapidly fatal form of cancer’.

Stuart was calling to say that he had it.

Howard visited Stuart regularly at St Vincent’s hospital. The two reconciled their differences and put to bed any resentment as Howard watched Stuart, the first man he loved, shed weight and become weaker and weaker until his death in July 1983.

Shortly after Stuart’s death, David, a man Howard had been with briefly after Stuart, also found out he had the disease. David was from a conservative and old-money family who him cast out when they learned he was ill. Howard, without hesitation, took up the mantle to care for David until he died. He was watching the two men he had known and love die in front of him. He was disillusioned and downtrodden.

On Valentine’s Day weekend 1983, Howard met Bill Lauch in a gay bar in the Village. Bill was new to the city and was working as an architect. Bill said that he could see Howard was looking to settle down and, despite reservations about commitment, he thought Howard was the kind of man he could spend his life with. Howard courted Bill, they went for walks and had dinner together. They spent a lot of time in Howard’s apartment – a converted Fire House on Hudson Street. They fell in love.

Now Howard was romantically satisfied but creatively, he was struggling. Howard’s other projects had failed to reach the heights of Little Shop of Horrors and he considered leaving New York for greener pastures. The combination of a show underperforming and the desire to get away from all the death and illness that surrounded him in New York led him to think about life elsewhere. Bill said ‘[Howard] had seen so many healthy young men around him deteriorate.’ The effects of this was to the extent where he’d left a screening of Jeff Goldblum’s The Fly in tears because he couldn’t watch a young man succumb to an infection and be forever altered. Howard was ready to leave and find a new adventure and it was nearly 3000 miles away, on the West Coast of America, that a new life was slowly coming into focus.


1984 was a big year for the House of Mouse. Michael Eisener was brought in as CEO of the Walt Disney Company and he himself brought in Jeffrey Katzenberg to take over Disney’s motion picture department, which had slowly fallen into ruin over a period of years (as chronicled in the 2009 documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty). It was especially their once famed animation department which was having trouble keeping things fresh. It was haemorrhaging money and the shadow cast by their historic early achievements, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), loomed large over their recent output. Indeed, films such as The Black Cauldron (1985) and The Great Mouse Detective (1986) underperformed as they skewered a lot darker than their previous hits.

Katzenberg called Howard on the recommendation of David Geffen, a music producer who had worked with Howard on Little Shop of Horrors. He wanted Howard to assist on the lyrics to the song ‘Once Upon a Time in New York City’ for a film called Oliver & Company (1988) which was an animated re-telling of Charles Dickens Oliver Twist but with stray cats and dogs standing in for Victorian orphans.

The film faired quite well financially but critically the reviews were mixed. Many critics were once again echoing the notion that Disney was no longer able to match its earlier ground-breaking work. However, that didn’t stop Katzenberg from pressing on and asking Howard to come on board with him at Disney and come up with some new, fresh, and exciting ideas. Howard, who had not long finished work on the film adaption of Little Shop of Horrors, brought with him Alan Menken and the two began working on a project Disney had in the pipeline: The Little Mermaid.


 

Howard flew back and forth to Los Angeles to work on the music for the film and edit the script. He enjoyed his new life in LA, the creativity and freedom it allowed him and, in 1987, decided he wanted to make the move to LA for good. He used his pay cheque from Disney to begin work on his dream house. A place where he and Bill could live together on a plot of land in Cold Springs.

Shortly after he made that decision, after he’d decided to plan for the future, Howard was diagnosed by a doctor in New York. He had AIDS. One morning he’d woken up with white patches in his mouth. The doctor confirmed it was oral thrush – a well-known symptom of the virus. The doctor also told Howard his T Cells were very low, much lower than both of his ex-boyfriends had been when they were diagnosed.

Howard decided to keep the news to himself. He didn’t want executives or his colleagues at Disney to take away what he now had. He told Bill who, having seen the devastation the illness could cause, wondered if they should build the house. Was it was sensible to build a future together when that future was seemingly going to be cut short? Howard persisted. He didn’t want to let the disease, the one that had already stolen so much from him, ruin his chance at happiness or a future. So he continued to work.

When Howard took the job at Disney he seemed different from everyone else in the animation department. The animators considered themselves to have nothing in common with this Jewish, gay, musical theatre fan who was now a major voice in their creative process. But, Howard had a very clear vision for what Disney animation could be. He gathered all the animators and writers together into one small screening room to set it out. He gave an oral history of the American musical and the Disney animated film. He believed the two mediums were intrinsically connected and that they would complement each other perfectly. In that small room, Howard sold the idea that Disney animated movies moving forward should be musicals, plain and simple. This was the beginning of what would become known as  ‘Disney Renaissance.’


Howard’s work at Disney differed in tone from his work on Little Shop of Horrors. It was lighter and less campy. He brought his love for classic musicals and wrote songs for film that would just as comfortable  on a Broadway stage. And he continued to channel his feelings and emotions in his songs.

When Howard received his diagnosis, AIDS continued to go largely ignored by the government and vilified by the press, in fact it was still considered by some to be ‘God’s Gift to Fags’. In this context, if you look at the lyrics to the song ‘Part of Your World’ from The Little Mermaid you can draw some interesting theories by queering the reading.

The lyrics go:

Up where they walk, up where they run / Up where they stay all day in the sun / Wanderin’ free, wish I could be / Part of that world

There is a strong desire from Ariel, the mermaid, to be somewhere she is not, to be part of a world that she loves but can’t get to, that is so affecting. These lyrics show the anguish, pain, desire, inquiry, hope, dreams, and everything in between that creates her character.

Howard was still hiding his own feelings from almost everyone and was still longing for acceptance, for a world where people cared that he was ill and where the president of America would say the word AIDS on TV. A world where he could be with Bill and live in the house he was building for them. He wanted freedom to express himself and live. Just like Ariel, Howard felt like he was on the outside looking in and he had a secret that pushed him out even further. It’s possible that his experience led him to feel like he wasn’t part of any world other than the isolated one he was living and he wanted, desperately, to be take part in the rest of the world.

It’s interesting also to look at the lyrics to the reprise of the song:

I don’t know when / I don’t know how
But I know something’s starting right now / Watch and you’ll see
Someday I’ll be / Part of your world

The certainty and the hope within these lyrics are touching and far from the wishing and hoping of the earlier song. Ariel is no longer asking permission to be accepted into that new world and she is no longer wishing she could a part of it. She is defiantly saying ‘I will be’, it is what I want and shall achieve. In this sense, the lyrics show determination – something that was integral to the early queer rights movements. The fight to be where you want to be, where you deserve to be, is something that is built into almost every queer person and Howard’s defiance and determination comes out in this song.

The Little Mermaid is also a story of transformation. Ariel transforms herself for the man she loves – which a lot of feminist critics have condemned as problematic but a queer reading of the text might find it more relatable. Change is integral to queer life. For a lot of queer people that is a transformation from the person they pretend to be in their early years to the person they actually are. As they grow older, find a community and acceptance, they’re able to complete that transformation and be part of a world that they choose

For Howard’s generation of queer people, they would have grown up with the idea that they would get married and have children in the heteronormative style. The only way they might be with the person they loved is to physically transform, as Ariel does, to live happily. However, as Ariel points out, the physical change could mean being separated from your family forever. Something that queer people know all too well is a risk of being themselves. That longing for a life without drama or trouble but simply getting what they desire without danger and the fear of losing family can hit close to home to some queer people.

The Little Mermaid was released in 1989 and was a gargantuan hit. It outperformed Oliver & Company by 64%, something executives hadn’t predicted. They had written the film of as a ‘girls’ film’ and didn’t have any faith in its box office chances. The reviews also pointed to success, as critics praised the return of fairytales and musicals. Those reviews led to Awards attention. Even though Disney were no strangers to the Academy Awards, they hadn’t received a nomination for any of their animated features since Dumbo in 1941 so when, nearly fifty years later, Howard and Menken both received their first Academy Awards for their song ‘Under the Sea’ it was something to celebrate.

In contrast to the overwhelming success of The Little Mermaid, Howard’s health was deteriorating fast. He wasn’t able to move easily, he was losing weight rapidly and his voice had become soft and raspy. He needed round the clock care and couldn’t travel. Before production began on their next project, he told Katzenberg and Menken that we he was sick. He said that if they wanted Howard to work on their next film he’d have to do so from New York. Katzenberg agreed and hired a twenty-four hour nurse for Howard and fought to make sure he was getting the most advanced medicines available.

Every couple of weeks, Katzenberg would fly the production team out to New York to work with Howard on their next two projects that it was hoped would build on the success of The Little Mermaid.

They were Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.


 


Beauty and the Beast had been in works at Disney for a long time. Walt Disney himself had handpicked the story years before but the project had never really gotten off the ground. There had been a non-musical version of the film in the works but that was quickly scrapped and Katzenberg brought Howard in to make it into a success, just like The Little Mermaid had been.

But Howard had some issues with the script. He felt strongly that the Beast was being unfairly treated. At the time it focused largely on Belle, and after the success of its female-led predecessor that made sense, but Howard wasn’t happy about it. During the pre-production stage he developed a kinship to the character. After all, the Beast was misunderstood and separated from society which was something Howard could relate to in his New York apartment, too ill to do most things. When Beauty and the Beast was remade in 2017, its director, Bill Condon, spoke to his interpretation of Howard’s Beast. ‘[The Beast] was cursed,’ Condon said, ‘[A]nd 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.’

In terms of the lyrics Howard wrote for Beauty and the Beast, his lyrics to ‘The Mob Song’ are the most enlightening and can be open to be read as an outpouring of Howard’s anger. As the townsfolk gather together, egged on by Gaston, they form a mob and attack the Beast’s castle with torches and pitchforks. The Beast, who is deflated and feels like fighting back is pointless, lets them in having seemingly given up on all hope of reversing the spell that cursed him.

The lyrics go:

We don’t like / What we don’t understand / In fact, it scares us / And this monster is mysterious at least. 

It doesn’t take much work to see these lyrics as outrange and anger towards a world that was demonising queer people. The attitudes towards queer people during the AIDS crisis were hateful and disdainful. Not to mention the fact that gay men were continually being portrayed as murderers and sex offenders on film, continuously adding to the disgust from society. It is easy to see that any queer person would be angry and feel like a mob mentality had been adopted by most of the world to actively fight against the progress of the queer community.

If you consider this anger and rage, that fills a lot of Queer people to this day, it’s interesting to look then at the context of the song ‘Beauty and the Beast’ for which Howard once again wrote the lyrics.

Lyrics such as:

Tale as old as time/ Tune as old as song
Bitter-sweet and strange / Finding you can change
Learning you were wrong

In under three minutes, Howard’s lyrics combined with Menken’s music and Angela Lansbury’s elegant and dignified vocals, the song serves not only as a central narrative point but also an ode to love. The song talks of love from a perspective that is wise and experienced. It addresses the legacy, the lasting nature of love, the certainty, and the security that come with love.

It is something to note that this is often a duality within the queer experience. There is a longing for love that exists, both romantically and platonically, within the queer community that sits side-by-side with a rage and anger from years of oppression.

This duality still exists today.


Beauty and the Beast became one of the most successful films in Disney history. It was the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and be released and reissued over and over again. But Howard didn’t live to see that success.

Howard Ashman died on March 14th 1991. The film premiered, in an unfinished state, at the New York Film Festival that same year. It was advertised as a work in progress, with roughly only 70% of the film completed and the other 30% was made up of storyboard images and pencil tests. Despite being in this state, the film received a ten-minute standing ovation. The finished film was released on November 13th 1991, nine months after Howard’s death. The following year it was screened out of competition at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival.

At the Academy Awards ceremony, Beauty and the Beast was nominated for five Oscars. Winning two, Original Score for Menken and Best Original Song for ‘Beauty and the Beast’ for both Menken and Howard (the category was made up of five nominated songs, three of which were from Beauty and the Beast). Liza Minnelli, adorned with an AIDS ribbon, presented the award with Shirley MacLaine. Bill accepted the award on Howard’s behalf. ‘Howard and I shared a home and a life together,’ he said on stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. ‘This is the first Academy Award given to someone we’ve lost to AIDS.’ His speech was moving and poignant. It was a moment that reached the hundreds of people sitting in the theatre and the millions watching at home. It was a moment at which people had to consider everything we lost and were continuing to lose at that time. Great artists, thinkers, writers, musicians, and so many others were dying and as a result we were never seeing the work they could have created. They were looking at the reality: because the government had not taken action and had ignored and denied AIDS, they had caused a whole community to be slowly killed by an illness that showed no mercy.

 

Before he died Howard had already began work on the studios next project, Aladdin, and contributed the lyrics to ‘Friend Like Me’ and ‘Prince Ali.’ He  penned the song ‘Proud of Your Boy’ and a few others which were  cut from the final film but were added back into the Broadway adaptation.

Howard Ashman was a crucial part of Disney and a unique voice in musical theatre. From Little Shop of Horrors to Beauty and the Beast he created art that moved and inspired countless generations. He was a talented song writer who could bring out an emotion or feeling in you that you didn’t even know you had. He was smart and kind but also fiercely creative and bold. If we had been able to see more of Howard’s career, I have no doubt that he would have built an empire of music, film, and theatre that would have been adored by generations.

The AIDS epidemic took so many great people from the world. One way in which we can examine its effect upon society, culture, and the world today is through Howard and people like him. How many young queer artists would have died of AIDS related complications? How many stories, songs, films, plays, novels, and collections of poetry would we have had if the government hadn’t done the most immoral and disgusting thing they could have done by ignoring it? When we talk today about representation and queer people within the various sectors we can often talk about the lack of diversity in those spaces such as the lack of out queer actors, writers, and directors in the film industry. Is it any wonder that queer people aren’t as visible when a whole generation of queer people were wiped out? When people who would have become role models and icons died too young.

It’s also important that honour their work and analyse it through queer eyes. The modern queer experience can be vastly different from the experience of twenty years ago but that doesn’t mean that writers and artists who couldn’t express themselves were any less queer. If we queer the reading of their work, if we look at it through new and different eyes, we can find glimpses of a shared experience and a bravery we owe so much to.

On Howard’s grave, in his home town of Baltimore, it is engraved: Oh, that he had one more song to sing.’

It is a song we will never get to hear.

Words by Jon Paul Roberts.

To see more of Howard Ashman’s work brought to life, book now for Disney’s live action reboot of the classic Aladdin, for tickets click here.

This article was written by one of our Young Content Creators, an initiative ran in conjunction with Young Storyhouse to provide budding content creators paid opportunities to showcase their unique voices within Storyhouse’s digital channels.

Young Content Creators are supported by Film Hub North, awarding funds from The National Lottery.