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Film and TV

New Disney film celebrates the queer genius responsible for some of its most iconic moments

Lily Wakefield August 7, 2020
Howard Ashman queer disney

Howard Ashman was the queer songwriting genius behind the most well-known Disney classics. (Disney)

Howard, a new Disney Plus documentary, celebrates the queer songwriting genius behind many of its most iconic songs, marking a leap forward for the studio’s LGBT+ inclusivity, Howard Ashman.

Disney has seen baby steps of progress when it comes to LGBT+ representation over the past few years, with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker featuring a minor same-sex kiss, and Pixar film Onward and Marvel film Avengers: Endgame both briefly alluding to same-sex relationships.

Disney Channel shows have also explored LGBT+ themes for the first time in recent years – ending a decades-long informal ban on gay content.

This year, CEO Bob Chapek insisted that Disney was committed to improving its queer representation, saying: “At Disney we strongly believe we should reflect in our creative content the diversity that we find in our fanbase and our audience.”

Now, it seems he might be finally following through.

Howard, released Friday (August 7) on Disney Plus, tells the story of Howard Ashman, the gay lyrical genius behind many Disney classics including The Little Mermaid‘s “Kiss the Girl”, Beauty and the Beast‘s titular song and Aladdin‘s “Arabian Nights”.

disney queer songwriter
Howard Ashman and Paige O’Hara record the voice of Belle in Beauty and the Beast. (Disney)

Howard Ashman won Oscars for his Disney work.

Coming from a Broadway background, Ashman began his career at Disney in 1988, where he joined forces with composer Alan Menken, according to Digital Spy.

In 1989, after just one year with the company, he and Menken won the Oscar for Best Original Song for The Little Mermaid‘s “Under the Sea”.

But just two years later, Ashman passed away.

Howard does not shy away from the queer songwriter’s battle with HIV, showing that he still managed to pen incredible Disney classics, even writing Aladdin’s “Prince Ali”, on his death bed.

In 1991, at just 40 years old, he died of heart failure as a result of AIDS.

The next year, he posthumously won another Oscar for “Beauty and the Beast” with Menken. Ashman’s partner Bill Lauch accepted the award.

Songwriter Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken. (Disney)

In Howard, Peter Schneider, who at the time was president of Walt Disney feature animation, reveals: “Howard said to me, ‘I didn’t want to tell you [about my HIV status] because I didn’t know how Disney would react.

“Here I am, a gay man, and I’m working on this movie for kids. And I didn’t want to be fired.”

In a film created by Disney, this admission of the fear and stigma surrounding LGBT+ issues is a definite turning point.

According to NPR, Menken said in the film: “His life was pitifully cut short, unfortunately, as were many at that time.

“But Howard’s [death], for me, is the most personally difficult and his spirit remains very, very present still; there’s something about Howard that is not just a statistic in the battle against AIDS. But as an artist, he’s extremely vital — even now.”

More: Alan Menken, Bob Chapek, Disney, documentary, Howard Ashman, queer representation

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