If I was that writer I would have called this post “Things Your Kids Love Because of AIDS.” If I was that writer, I’d probably also be selling my soul to some clickbaity site that would be good for my career but would also increase my chances of stepping in front of a bus. Alas, I am not that writer. I am, however, someone who loves fairy tales and really loves Disney versions of fairytales. I know, I know it’s not cool or woke or hipster to like Disney movies. The Disney machine, and not wrongly in most cases, is accused of turning entertainment into a machine and stripping away real character and depth from darker, childhood stories. They are also cited for snatching up beloved properties and sucking the life out of them. Likewise, Disney is notorious for problematic imagery for children and hideous employment practices. Yet the heart wants what it wants and my big gay heart loves a Disney fairytale.
I hesitate to own this statement in print because it feels so permanent and the movie in question has now become bland and basic due to a live-action remake that I refused to see. Seriously, do not get me started on this onslaught of live-action Disney remakes which by the way can hardly be called live action when 80% of them is done in CGI. I’m still annoyed/traumatized/baffled by that hideous Jungle Book everyone seemed to love but me. I digress but Beauty and the Beast is my favorite of the Disney fairytale canon. There. I said it. And I stand by it. Properly dark, great characters, beautiful animation and knockout songs, it swept Oscar nominations the year it was released and rightfully so. A smart heroine who happens to be a giant book nerd and who gets along with her family plus Angela Lansbury as a tea kettle? Sign me up. However here in 2017 in my forties this movie means something else to me today and mainly because of the film’s lyricist Howard Ashman.
Ashman, the openly gay songwriter and genius also behind Little Shop of Horrors and The Little Mermaid, was dying from AIDS as Beauty and the Beast was being completed. According to film lore, Ashman worked from his home in New York while his songwriting partner Alan Menken and the film’s directors Gary Torusdale and Kirk Wise flew back and forth from Los Angeles during the making of the movie. There’s no question that the movie wouldn’t be what it is if it wasn’t for Ashman’s lyrics. It’s impossible to think of it without singing the title track which also allows you the bonus option of doing either an Angela Lansbury or Celine Dion impression. Rooted in musical theater, the songs seamlessly bridged the gap between Broadway and animation and I’d ventured to say we’ve never gone back. Specifically, however, it’s impossible to deny AIDS when it comes to Beauty and the Beast and its iconic songs. According to the live-action film’s director Bill Condon in Vanity Fair:
“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. 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.”
Songs like “Kill the Beast” are more overt in reference to AIDS. In a few bars, Ashman slyly nails the paranoia and prejudice of the AIDS era. “We don’t like what we don’t…understand and in fact it scares us, and this monster is mysterious at least.
Bring your guns, bring your knives, save children and your wives, we’ll save our village and our lives!,” the song warns. The metaphor is so clear now but at the time no one knew. The lyrics fall in line with Ashman’s other astute observations of the human condition. Songs like “Skid Row” from Little Shop of Horrors and “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid surely tap into the feelings of not belonging and wanting to escape that gay people have always felt. But given his skill as a songwriter, he tapped into emotions that anyone, especially children can identify with.
Beauty and the Beast really resonates with folks who feel like they don’t belong. The hideous and withdrawn Beast and the bookish and imaginative Belle are square pegs and outcasts. Fate brings them together and we are all the better for it. Ashman’s songs particularly, “Something There” really capture how unlikely people who don’t fit anywhere else sometimes find and fall in love with one another, despite their own misconceptions and prejudices. Talk to any queer person and they’ll relate a similar story when they tell you about finally finding their people. To think that Beauty and the Beast is his last completed project (he also wrote a few songs for Aladdin)is profound to say the least.
As a person living with HIV and in a very different era, it’s hard not to get chills and feel emotional when reading about Ashman and the horrors that artists like him faced at the time. I started thinking about him this week when it was announced that a new documentary about his legacy was coming out later this year. The film looks to shine a light on his artistry as well as last his days dying from AIDS. Despite extreme hatred and isolation, Ashman and other great artists were able to produce works that people are still enjoying to this day.
This August, it will be 8 years since my own HIV diagnosis. While I’m grateful that times have changed and that I can have meds to help me stay alive with relative ease and low-cost, I’d be lying if I said that I still didn’t think we had a long way to go. Sure, we’re now acknowledging Ashman and his legacy. But look elsewhere, like the new movie about Freddie Mercury, and the story of AIDS is all about erased. To ignore such a vital part of Mercury’s story and it’s impact seems like a mistake. I guess my point of writing is this to remind myself of artists like Ashman and Mercury and what they contributed as people with AIDS and to know they are not forgotten.
Maybe my clickbait idea at the top was correct. I mean, if you love The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast, then you love Howard Ashman, a man who died from AIDS. But also if your kids love the literary adventures of Frog and Toad, they also love a story of AIDS. If you’ve watched Dreamgirls and sang along, you are enjoying a story that is not just a black story or a musical story but the story of AIDS. So maybe your kids love something dearly like Beauty and the Beast and that’s partially because of AIDS, a monster whose horrors they’ll hopefully never know. Talk about a real life fairy tale ending.