i’ve been reading for most of the day now about howard ashman, the lyricist for the little mermaid & beauty and the beast. he was one of the biggest creative forces behind both films, helping to shape their characters, narrative arcs, and themes as well as their music; he was also a gay man who was diagnosed with aids during the production of the little mermaid and died shortly after beauty and the beast was finished. alan menken, the composer who collaborated with him on both movies, said that beauty and the beast is heavily influenced by ashman’s experiences and perspective.
and i can’t stop thinking about it. i’ve always considered beauty and the beast to be one of the darkest films in the disney canon, as well as its most beautiful. it’s entirely about monsters, about the ways that people are determined to be wrong and dangerous: there’s the beast alone in his castle in the forest, and belle mocked and sneered at by her village, and even maurice carted off to an asylum.
and that it was written and conceived of in part by a gay man who, according to his sister, trained himself out of “effeminate” physical mannerisms when he was young because he was bullied for them, and who as he wrote it was dying of an incredibly stigmatized illness— like, god.
i mean when you just listen to those songs he wrote, the mob song (“the beast is] set to sacrifice our children to his monstrous appetite / he’ll wreak havoc on our village if we let him wander free”), belle (“it’s a pity and a sin / she doesn’t quite fit in”)— and there was a cut song, human again, where the castle servants looked forward to rejoining the world.
like it’s obviously queer, but more than that, it’s the self-identification and self-validation of a man who knew this was this work was probably his last. at the end of the film, the beast is so sad, has succumbed entirely to despair and death. his society is coming to destroy him, and he can’t even be angry, because he doesn’t have anything left. but then he does. and he is still precious, and his life is still meaningful. he’s a person, and he can be loved. he can find happiness.
in the original beauty and the beast, the beast proposes marriage to belle every night and it’s her acquiescence that breaks the spell. in the disney movie, the beast only waits for belle to love him, because he cannot love himself. it’s such an unexpected blessing for both belle and the beast that they can find acceptance in each other, after both are so othered and dehumanized by their communities. their vulnerable joy in each other and themselves is so important, and their love song so wonderingly sweet. at the end, it is only when someone loves and accepts you that you stop being a monster.
john musker, one of the directors of beauty and the beast, told this story about how ashman cried at disneyland when the little mermaid’s music was integrated into a parade and said that he was glad to know that his music would outlive him. beauty and the beast was my favorite movie when i was young and trying not to be queer, when i felt very wrong and very alone. it has been unbelievably important in my life. and so i am also glad— and so grateful— that howard ashman’s music outlived him, and that he lived at all.