Disney’s live remake of Beauty and the Beast is poised to become a summer blockbuster but unbeknownst to many, behind the cherished classic is a heartbreaking tale. Twenty-five years ago, Beauty and the Beast premiered and charmed the world but Howard Ashman, the genius behind the film, never got the chance to see the wonderful outcome of his masterpiece. He died eight months before the release.
Disney almost junked the idea
Walt Disney’s then chairman, Jeffrey Katzenberg, was presented with storyboards for Beauty and the Beast but he didn’t like them. The studio went on to ask for Howard’s help even if he really wanted to work on Aladdin. He had his reservations but he agreed.
Howard saw the glaring problem in the initial drafts. Beauty and the Beast was about a maiden imprisoned by a beast, and it was tricky because the beast was a loathsome character. Howard solved the issue by giving Beast a chance to redeem himself. By the end of the film, Beast displays a selfless act of love when he lets Belle leave his castle to save her father.
Disney gave Beauty and the Beast another chance. Howard became its executive producer and he teamed up with Alan Menken, the man he worked with for Little Mermaid. Howard asked Broadway artists Paige O’Hara, Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach to voice the characters, believing that they could bring magic to the musical film.
Howard’s personal battle
His career was flourishing but Howard was facing a battle while producing Beauty and the Beast – he was diagnosed with AIDS. While people on set have already noticed his gaunt appearance, Howard would simply tell them that there was nothing to worry about.
Only his family members, life partner, and Alan knew the truth. When Howard’s health started to fail, the team stayed in New York to continue working with him. He didn’t stop writing songs even if he was already confined to his hospital bed.
Howard missed Beauty and the Beast’s first screening on March 10, 1991. His team then visited him telling him about the film’s success. Four days later, he died at the young age of 40.
In the latest issue of Attitude magazine, director Bill Condon shared that Howard’s battle helped shape the Beauty and the Beast film.
“[He] had just found out he had AIDS, and it was his idea, not only to make it into a musical but also to make Beast one of the two central characters; until then it had mostly been Belle’s story that they had been telling. And specifically for him it was a metaphor for AIDS. 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.”
The part Howard almost changed fearing it would be rejected
Alan shared that Howard nearly did not send Beauty and the Beast’s opening number to Disney. As reported by the Mirror, he feared that his “crazy seven-minute opening number” wouldn’t make the cut.
“I remember Howard was very, very reluctant to send it out, thinking that we were going to be laughed at. He delayed sending it for two days. Finally, of course, we sent it, and Disney loved it.”
The two then went on to collect a Best Original Song trophy for “Beauty and the Beast.” Howard’s partner, Bill Lauch, accepted the award – the first of its kind to be given to someone who died because of AIDS.
“Howard faced incredible personal challenges, but always gave his best,” Bill said. “And what made that possible was an atmosphere of understanding, love, and support. That’s something everyone facing AIDS not only needs, but deserves.”
Beauty and the Beast won the world over with its tale of love breaking a strong spell. Disney’s prized film was the first animated movie to have an Academy Award for Best Picture nomination and it was all because of a man who believed that the story was destined for greatness.
[Featured Image by Walt Disney]