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Lyricist's Beauty on display in film

By DAN LYBARGER Special to the Democrat-Gazette

This article was published March 17, 2017 at 1:50 a.m.

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Beauty and the Beast lyricist Howard Ashman died four days after the first screening of the original animated feature in 1991, and followers speculated he used the Beast’s curse as a metaphor for his own HIV diagnosis. He’s seen here in a scene from the 2009 documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty.

Belle (Emma Watson) and her beastly prince (Dan Stevens, beneath the fur) fall in love in Beauty and the Beast, a new, mainly live-action Disney versi...

Disney's version of Beauty and the Beast may be a "tale as old as time," but the man who made the 1991 animated movie died when he was only 40.

It would be silly to call lyricist Howard Ashman the unsung hero for the film because the songs he wrote with composer Alan Menken are impossible to forget and are thankfully returning with the live action movie opening today. The title song won both men an Oscar, and "Be Our Guest" became an irresistible siren call to visit Disney's theme parks.

If Ashman had only written the lyrics for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and half the tunes in Aladdin, his place in the Disney canon would be set in stone. But even though Ashman has been dead for over two decades, his fingerprints are all over the new adaptation from director Bill Condon.

For one thing, Ashman came up with the idea of having Beast's servants turned into anthropomorphic household objects. As the insider documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty demonstrates, Ashman came up with the template for Disney's animated films from The Little Mermaid on. One clip in the film shows Ashman explaining the style of music and the personality he'd like for Sebastian, the crab who conducts the mermaid choir.

Ashman was probably the only person who would have imagined a Jamaican song leader for a story based on Danish author Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale. Thanks to his clever lyrics and Menken's ability to change genres the way the rest of us change our clothes, the results were magic.

Little Shop of Hits

While Ashman and Menken's names are now permanently linked with Disney, they initially seemed like odd choices to write songs for cartoons. Before agreeing to work on The Little Mermaid, Ashman had written and directed stage adaptations of Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Michael Ritchie's beauty contest satire Smile and a musical version of the 1960 Roger Corman exploitation classic Little Shop of Horrors.

The latter was adapted into a 1986 movie where Steve Martin gleefully sang about how his sadistic streak was now useful in his career as a dentist. The movie sadly featured a more hopeful ending than the one Ashman conceived for the play. This seems a travesty considering that Ashman's and Corman's stories involved a flesh-eating plant.

If Ashman and Menken's songs from the cartoons only have hints of the macabre content of the plays, neither man seemed to be writing for children. In their salute to the cruel, vain hunter Gaston who stalks the Beast, the villagers sing:

No one's slick as Gaston

No one's quick as Gaston

No one's neck's as incredibly thick as Gaston's

He replies by boasting, "I'm especially good at expectorating."

That's a nice way of saying the uncouth heel (played by Richard White in 1991 and Luke Evans now), loves to spit.

In an interview I conducted with Menken in 2001 for the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World, he told me, "Howard got tremendous humor out of sort of just trashing the characters and certainly having the characters trashing themselves." 'Gaston' if you think about it, isn't all that different from 'Dentist!' in Little Shop of Horrors. (The dentist) says, 'Look how proud of me Mom is going to be because I can cause so much pain.' He's got this childish, goofy pleasure in how dull the drill is. In 'Gaston,' he has a childish, goofy pleasure out of how far he can spit, how much hair he has on his chest and how he decorates with antlers."

He added, "Disney made very untraditional choices when they wanted to revive the classic animation, and they really wanted to go to musical theater talent and forgo the normal Hollywood route. First of all, you go to the top. (Then-Disney chairman) Michael Eisner was a theater major in college. He's always loved the theater. Many of the people who ended up being producers of the Disney animated features had either been production stage managers of tours or on Broadway."

John Musker and Ron Clements wrote the scripts for The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, and Linda Woolverton is credited with the script for Beauty and the Beast. Ashman influenced their content even when he and Menken weren't writing songs.

In a blog post on HowardAshman.com (a site maintained by Ashman's sister Sarah Ashman Gillespie), Musker recalls: "We had been fans of musical theater but not necessarily students of it. With Howard, we had a book writer, lyricist, and director who knew that world inside and out, and loved it deeply. I think Howard respected that we knew more about animation, and the Disney canon, than he did."

That didn't stop Ashman from giving an hourlong lecture about the songs for The Little Mermaid in 1987 where he took issue with Musker lamenting that "Fathoms Below" sounded like an Old Spice ad.

While the men happily settled their differences, Ashman insisted that the songs he and Menken wrote were not for filling time or selling soundtrack albums, although they certainly did both well. For Ashman, the songs were a foundation for the story. Characters would burst into song because the emotions consuming them couldn't be satisfied with mere words or gestures.

This might explain why Menken continued to pick up Oscars (for "Colors of the Wind" for Pocahontas and "A Whole New World" for Aladdin) after Ashman was no longer around to write his lyrics. In addition, the early cartoons from DreamWorks (like Prince of Egypt and The Road to El Dorado), which were supervised by former Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, had a similar reliance on songs for storytelling.

Part of His World

Ashman earned three Oscar nominations for "Belle," "Be Our Guest" and "Beauty and the Beast," but he never got to collect the little gold man he won for the latter because he died of complications from AIDS before the movie was even completed.

When a preview screening featuring unfinished animation won audience raves, Ashman had to hear about it second-hand.

Menken recalled, "For me, there's a lot of personal emotion because you have to realize that Howard Ashman never lived to see Beauty and the Beast. He didn't think it would be (as popular as it became). He was very satisfied with The Little Mermaid and Little Shop of Horrors. Howard was very angry. When he died -- I hope in peace -- he was very angry. He said, 'You're going to go on, and I'm not going to be able to do it.' It really upset him."

He added, "He couldn't handle writing the script himself because frankly he was constantly under medical care. That frustrated him."

In the new version, Josh Gadd plays LeFou, Gaston's obsequious toady, in a manner that clearly indicates that he, like Ashman, is gay. From a narrative point of view, the change makes sense because LeFou now has a reason for putting up with all the condescension he gets from the self-important Gaston.

People who've followed Ashman and his legacy have often speculated that Gaston's climactic song "Kill the Beast" was a metaphor for what Ashman was going through with AIDS. His sister doesn't believe it.

"This is just plain not true and bugs me to the extent that I have come out of blog retirement to make a statement," she says in a recent post. Saying the song served Beauty and the Beast instead of his own tale, Gillespie points to a song Ashman wrote called "Sheridan Square," where the lyricist explicitly dealt with what it was like to lose friends to the disease that eventually killed him. The heartbreaking song is on YouTube and is essential listening.

Ashman's life and career ended at a time when many artists reach their peak. Thankfully, he left behind both a body of work and an attitude that should guide filmmakers for years to come.

"Howard Ashman was the most gifted musical theater talent of our generation as far as I'm concerned," Menken says. "He was able to combine adult and child, traditional theater and totally hip references, and childlike innocence and completely jaded, almost cruel humor. It was in one package."

MovieStyle on 03/17/2017

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