How 'Beauty and the Beast' 's Lyricist Addressed His Struggle with AIDS with the Musical's Songs

Beauty and the Beast lyricist Howard Ashman used many of the musical's lyrics to address his own struggle with AIDS

It’s a whole new world.

Beauty and the Beast director Bill Condon confirmed in the April issue of Attitude that Josh Gad’s take on LeFou in the live-action reboot is intended to be Disney’s first openly gay character.

Condon, who is gay himself, points to B&TB as a deeply personal work for Disney lyricist Howard Ashman — also a gay man — whose partnership with Alan Menken yielded some astounding work, including the Little Shop of Horrors musical (which Ashman directed) and songs from The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.

There are various Disney characters (usually villains) that have been chalked up as veiled LGBTQ references in the past (Aladdin‘s Jafar, The Little Mermaid‘s Ursula and The Lion King‘s Scar come to mind, though Twitter user @meakoopa pointed out that “[The Lion King‘s] Timon and Pumbaa are social outcasts who adopt and raise a child then overcome their predators with the power of drag … also one of them is NATHAN LANE,” which is a very compelling argument). But Condon goes into explicit detail about how B&TB has a far richer context for many of its lyrics than any of us knew.

Hamlisch Ashman
Nancy Kaye/AP

First of all, Ashman and Menken were hugely important to Disney. Ashman was first brought into the House of Mouse to write lyrics for 1986’s Oliver & Company, and while there, he was told about a project the company had in the pipeline, The Little Mermaid. Ashman and Menken would partner for all the songs on that film, and subsequently wind up working on Aladdin and B&TB.

Menken explained the somewhat-confusing timeline of the pair’s biggest hits to Playbill in 2014. “The genesis of Aladdin was right at the beginning of when we went to Disney. Little Mermaid was first, but Aladdin was around the same time. Then Aladdin got shelved. We had the original score. There were a lot of twists and turns in terms of material and sensitivity to the world that it was depicting. After Mermaid, we wrote Beauty, and then we got back to Aladdin. This was a time when Howard was increasingly ill from AIDS.”

Ashman had been diagnosed with HIV in the mid-1980s. “Howard Ashman was HIV-positive and wasn’t telling anybody,” Menken told EW in 2015. “The period, from 1981 through 1995, was like living through a war, with unthinkable casualties and no end in sight,” Menken told a Howard Ashman website in 2013. “Something was wrong in the universe. I felt it strongly in my gut. It cropped up in dreams, before I knew what was to come. And then the avalanche hit. Directors, writers, producers, designers, choreographers, musicians.”

The government’s failure to address the AIDS crisis — and the general stigma against the LGBTQ community in the larger culture — forced Ashman to suffer in secret, but his work on B&TB was his way of making sure the issue would somehow see the light of day.

The titular Beast, in particular, gave Ashman a way to address his illness. “It was his idea, not only to make it into a musical but also to make Beast one of the two central characters,” Condon told Vanity Fair. “Until then, it had mostly been Belle’s story that they had been telling.”

Two of the film’s numbers reflect the stigma against Ashman’s sexuality and disease, one more whimsically than the other. LeFou’s song about Gaston, obviously, but “the ‘Kill The Beast’ song was almost a metaphor for that,” producer Don Hahn told Den of Geek in 2010. “[Ashman] was really dealing with a debilitating disease, in an era when it was stigmatized. And so, there were so many of those underpinnings to the movie that people may not have seen.” That Ashman was able to work at all, much less churn out B&TB’s dizzyingly complex lyrics, was a miracle — he was completing work on the film while dying in his home.

“Specifically for him, it was a metaphor for AIDS,” Condon added. “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.”

Ashman’s influence on Disney can’t be overstated. He came into the company at a crucial time in its development, and no less than Roy Disney once referred to him as “another Walt.” Says Hahn: “I can’t tell you enough about Howard and his effect on us. And how that turned into a revolution … It’s no exaggeration to say that Howard really revolutionized what we were doing.”

Menken has continued to work for Disney, but Ashman’s death left a void. “I can’t say that it was a once-in-a-lifetime collaboration, because I have a long lifetime to go,” Menken told the New York Times in 1992. “But I’ve never been in a room with a mind like that. I’ve never been in a room with someone who took my music and possessed it as his own the way Howard did.”

Their collaboration, he suggested to the Times, “was really a marriage.”

“I had more respect for him than for any other human being,” he said. “You never wasted your time working with Howard. You never wrote a song that couldn’t work on stage — that couldn’t hold the moment.”

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