Howard Ashman was a masterful writer, lyricist and director, in my opinion the greatest of our generation, who died of AIDS on March 14, 1991, at the age of 40. My name is Alan Menken. In a collaboration that lasted 12 years, Howard and I wrote the stage and movie musical Little Shop of Horrors and won two Academy Awards, two Grammy Awards and three Golden Globe Awards for Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast.
We forged a collaboration that was intense, creative and supremely effective. Each moment I spent in the creative space with Howard Ashman remains with me every day of my life.
With our first project at Disney, Little Mermaid, some studio executives resisted using the song “Part of Your World,” for fear we would lose some of the younger audience members. But Howard insisted that our audience had to know what our little mermaid Ariel wanted. She needed to have what he called an “I want” song.
I think that as a gay man, Howard grew up knowing what it felt like to be on the outside, wanting to be a part of the world that he saw around him but somehow not able to fully take part.
For two years, while Little Mermaid was being made, Howard knew he had HIV but he hid his illness from everyone on the movie, including me. We found out later that, during the press junket for Little Mermaid at Disney World in Orlando, Howard wore a catheter in his chest so that he could get medicine intravenously at night. When he saw the parade of Little Mermaid characters at the park, he burst into tears.
Later, those of us who worked with Howard realized why he cried: It was the idea that those characters would live on long after he was gone.
The night we both won our Oscars for Little Mermaid, Howard said he and I needed to have a serious talk, and after we got back to New York, Howard revealed to me that he was sick with AIDS. We had just reached the pinnacle of our careers in both theater and the movie business, and we had worked side-by-side for 11 years, yet my dear friend kept it a secret from everyone he worked with that he had an incurable fatal disease. That’s the kind of fear people lived with back then: fear of rejection, of death, of a fatal illness with no cure, and there was so much stigma and discrimination.
But Howard wouldn’t let AIDS keep him down. He was so determined to keep working, to keep creating magical song moments and unforgettable characters. I think AIDS spurred him on to work even harder because he knew he was living on borrowed time.
Howard and I were brought in to fix Beauty and the Beast while it was being developed. But Howard was too sick to commute back and forth to LA, so he finally had to tell Jeffrey Katzenberg that he had AIDS. Katzenberg agreed that the production would travel from LA to meet with Howard and me in upstate New York.
At the same time, we were also working on Aladdin, which Howard had initially developed. Because of AIDS, Howard was suffering neuropathies, began losing feeling in his fingers, losing his voice and much of his eyesight, all the while we were collaborating on joyous, incredible songs. Howard was determined to keep working as long as he could.
Towards the end of his life, Howard and I wrote “Prince Ali” from his hospital bed. He was down to 80 pounds. He couldn’t see and could barely speak.
Howard and I won an Oscar for Best Song for Beauty and the Beast. And the movie was the first animated picture ever nominated for Best Picture. Howard had passed before ever experiencing the movie’s success. The award was accepted by his companion of seven years, Bill Lauch.