How gay Beauty and the Beast lyricist Howard Ashman transformed Disney before his tragic death

Composite image shows a photo of Howard Ashman on the left, seated and wearing a blue shirt, on the right a scene from the cartoon Beauty and The Beast that shows the Beast and Belle dancing in a candlelit ballroom.

If you’re a dedicated Disney gay, you’re probably familiar with renowned lyricist Howard Ashman.

Alongside composer Alan Menken, the gay songwriter was responsible for penning some of the catchiest musical hits of the iconic Disney Renaissance period, contributing lyrics for the songs of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast.

Sadly, in contrast to the fairytale endings of the Disney films he worked on, Howard Ashman’s story was tragically cut short during the AIDS pandemic. 

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were long-time collaborators, having previously teamed up for comedy rock musical Little Shop of Horrors, with Menken composing the music and Ashman writing the book and lyrics. The off-Broadway show was a success, and went on to inspire both a Broadway version and the 1986 film adaptation starring Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene. 

Ashman’s relationship with Disney officially began with 1988 film Oliver & Company, which brought him on board to pen the lyrics for “Once Upon A Time in New York City”.

The studio clearly took a shine to Ashman, and ended up offering him his pick of several projects that had been on the backburner, including 1989’s The Little Mermaid.

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Howard Ashman’s AIDS diagnosis

Despite his star rising, Ashman’s health began to decline while The Little Mermaid was still in production. In January 1988, he was diagnosed with AIDS. 

The impact Ashman had had on the success of The Little Mermaid didn’t go unnoticed. Ashman and Menken continued their work together on the studio’s next fairytale adaptation, Beauty and the Beast. This time Ashman also served as an executive producer, albeit reluctantly – he was hoping to continue work on a passion project, a movie musical adaptation of the Middle Eastern folktales of One Thousand and One Nights, which of course went on to become Aladdin.

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Image shows a scene from Disney's Aladdin, the cartoon version with Robin Williams playing the genie and speaking to Aladdin while wagging his finger. Aladdin is shirtless and wearing a purple fez and purple waistcoat.
An adaptation of the Middle Eastern folktales of One Thousand and One Nights went on to become Aladdin (Disney)

With his illness progressing, Ashman had to be more careful about how he spent his time. Disney was so desperate to keep him that they moved the whole of pre-production to near his home in New York City to accommodate his declining health. 

Like with The Little Mermaid, Ashman’s incredible vision completely revamped the early planning stages of Beauty and the Beast. He and his new team basically rewrote the entire script, added Broadway musical-level songs, developed a new villain in the form of Gaston, and added the humanoid furniture and household items that truly bring the Beast’s enchanted castle to life.

Ashman and Menken even personally convinced the late Angela Lansbury, who voiced Mrs Potts, to sing the film’s now-iconic title song. She was originally resistant to the idea, believing that her voice wasn’t suited to it. She ended up nailing the song in one take, reducing the studio to tears in the process. 

Howard Ashman’s influence and work on the film was unparalleled but he sadly never saw its release. He died of AIDS-related complications on 14 March 1991, aged just 40 years old. 

Before his death, Ashman continued writing lyrics from his hospital bed, with Menken playing tunes on an electric keyboard he had brought with him. Other Disney colleagues visited Ashman to rave about positive reactions to early screenings, with Ashman insisting that he always knew that Beauty and the Beast would be a success. 

LeFou's big gay dance in Beauty and the Beast.
Howard would have loved LeFou’s big gay dance in the live-action Beauty and the Beast. (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

The film went on to be nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Original Score, and Best Original Song for not one, not two, but three of its songs: “Be Our Guest”, “Belle” and “Beauty and the Beast”. The latter took home the gong, and Alan Menken welcomed Howard Ashman’s partner, Bill Lauch, to the stage to accept the award on Ashman’s behalf.

Both men sported red ribbons for HIV and AIDS awareness on their lapels. 

In a touching tribute to his love, Lauch said: “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 we’ve lost to AIDS. In working on Beauty and 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 something everyone facing AIDS not only needs but deserves.

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“There’s an inscription in Howard’s grave in Baltimore. It reads: ‘Oh that he had one more song to sing’. We’ll never hear that song but I am deeply grateful for this tribute that you have given to what he left behind. For Howard, I thank you.”

Beauty and the Beast was also dedicated to Ashman’s memory, with a post-credits message reading: ​​”To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice, and a beast his soul. We will be forever grateful.”

To learn more about HIV and AIDS research, testing and treatment, visit amFAR or the Terrence Higgins Trust.

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