Beauty and the Plague: The AIDS Tragedy Behind Your Favorite Disney Love Songs (My first long-ish read for VICE.COM)
The first week of November 1989, filmmakers and executives from the Walt Disney Company gathered in a crowded room in Disney World in Orlando, Florida, to promote their latest cartoon to a group of pessimistic reporters. The press had reason to be skeptical: after two decades of critical and commercial flops following the death of its founder, Disney was bordering on bankruptcy, and the company’s new CEO, Michael Eisner, had threatened to shut down the animation unit unless The Little Mermaid, its fall 1989 release, turned a profit.
As you probably know, they didn’t need to worry. The film was a huge hit, at least partly on the strength of its soundtrack. The New York Times praised the film’s music, and the movie won Oscars and Golden Globes for Best Song (“Under the Sea”) and Best Score. Two decades after the its release, Disney World remodeled Fantasyland to create an entire section devoted to Mermaid. But back then in the crowded conference room, nobody knew this. The room was grim, and for good reason—if the filmed flopped, their careers might follow.
The panel that sat in front of the press that day included Ron Clements and John Musker, the geeky animation-directing team whose last film, The Great Mouse Detective, had performed reasonably well but not well enough for Eisner’s taste; Jodi Benson, the Broadway veteran who voiced Ariel; and Alan Menken, a composer from Westchester, New York. In this crowd, the last member of the panel, Alan’s collaborator lyricist Howard Ashman, stood out like a sore, sickly thumb.
Skeletally thin and speaking in a soft but firm voice, Howard looked worn-out and effeminate, more like one of the gay men you’d see drifting around New York’s Lower East Side than someone who made family movies. He spoke with passion about Disney’s rich musical history, but after the panel, it was clear something was wrong. After the press conference, when the attendees adjourned to try out some of the park’s attractions, Howardlimped up the Dumbo ride’s ramp and had to call for his boyfriend, Bill Klaus, to assist him. Once Howard reached his Disney associates, he rode Dumbo, smiling like he was just another Hollywood native touring Disney World. As usual, he was doing the best he could to ignore that he was dying of AIDS.
“He was completely focused and energy driven,” Jodi recalled to me 23 years later. She didn’t realize the extent of his illness until 1991: “I got the call to fly to New York City from Los Angeles. When I arrived, I was able to visit him in his room as he was listening to auditions for the voice of Aladdin. Then it really hit me: This was very serious.”
After the events at the park, Bill rushed Howard to their hotel. Howard was gasping for breath; he struggled to walk. Inside their room, Bill took out medicine and an IV catheter and stuck the catheter into Howard’s chest. He considered advising Howard to retire or at least work less, but Howard had told Bill he was determined to focus on the film’s premier, and on his next two movies, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. By then, Howard, like many gay men, had been dealing with AIDS and death for years.