Da Doo Blog

Metaphorically watching Beauty and the Beast

There has been much talk lately of Howard having written Beauty and the Beast as a metaphor for AIDS.  This is just plain not true and bugs me to the extent that I have come out of blog retirement to make a statement.

Howard wasn’t writing an allegory for his illness.  Kill the Beast was about a moment in a movie, not about seeing himself or anyone else as an outcast.  You may see a metaphor for AIDS in Beauty and the Beast, but Howard didn’t.

Howard did not define himself as a person with AIDS.  He did not obsess about being a person with AIDS.  In fact, working on Beauty while he was sick was the thing that took him out of his illness and its indignities and into his favored world of creativity and play.  Howard was an artist and a craftsman.  He loved a well-formed story line, a well-phrased lyric, a well-developed character.  It went against his nature to use a movie as a personal statement.

Howard was greatly influential in the Disney film.  He wrote all the lyrics for the songs, he guided much of the story development, he decided that the Beast’s servants should be people under a spell, he fretted and stormed and wheedled and creatively carved out all sorts of moments in that movie.  He had much to be proud of.  However, Linda Woolverton wrote the screenplay for Beauty and the Beast.  She gives Howard a great deal of credit for mentoring her, but credit where due, she wrote the screenplay.

Now, it is the right of all consumers of art (that’s us) to put whatever spin we want into any film, painting or song.  And I’m not for a moment denying that Howard’s illness may have informed a large part of his world view.  But he didn’t see this movie, or any of his other creations as a metaphor for an illness.

In fact, the one song Howard wrote about AIDS was straightforward, no metaphor needed.  It’s called Sheridan Square and I hope you’ll give it a listen.

Other than that, enjoy Beauty and the Beast in all its incarnations.  I haven’t seen the live action film yet (I will next week) but I am really looking forward to it.  Read into the animated film/theater piece/live action film anything you’d like.  But do it, please, with the full knowledge that the metaphors you might see belong to you and no one else.

Because sometimes, as the poets never said, a rose is just a rose.






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Posted on: March 6th, 2017 by Sarah Ashman Gillespie 10 Comments

10 Responses

  1. [...] and that he never wrote his lyrics with such a subtext overtly in mind. But as she also points out, and her excellent post is here, it is the right of all of us to put whatever spin, or find whatever meaning, on or in a piece of [...]

  2. alcrivaro says:

    Thank you for this. I heard you say something similar in your Mouse Castle Lounge interview–how the idea of Howard writing certain lyrics for such and such a reason may have made for “a good story” but wasn’t true–and was so happy to hear it. As I am now to read this post. Because I hate that. I hate it when people take artists’ hard work and craftsmanship and years and years of practice and failure and perseverance and diminish it and pin it to something lesser so that they themselves can understand it. Like the way someone once said that Dr. Seuss’s rhyming “came from” some rhythm engrained in his brain from the back and forth rocking during an extended boat ride. Or how people claim that Rod Serling’s friend getting crushed by a supply crate during WW2 is what “sent him into the Twilight Zone.” No. No no no no no. These men–Rod, Theodore, Howard–were artists. And they became artists and produced art the only way one CAN become an artist and produce art: through hard work and dedication to one’s craft.

  3. Ryan Wong says:

    I found Don Hahn’s interview with Den of Geek from 2010 and actually all these recent “hot takes” took his quote out of context. Here’s what Don said:

    Howard was struggling with AIDS at the same time. The Kill The Beast song was almost a metaphor for that. He was really dealing with a debilitating disease, in an era when it was stigmatised. And so, there were so many of those underpinnings to the movie that people may not have seen. And shouldn’t have seen. It wasn’t about the HIV epidemic at all. But if you study the man, and his struggles, and then look at his lyrics, you understand what he was going through.

    Here’s the link to Don’s interview: http://www.denofgeek.com/us/movies/16583/don-hahn-interview-beauty-and-the-beast-howard-ashman-the-lion-king-south-park-and-frankenweenie.

    Don clearly conceded that “Kill the Beast” was not specifically about Howard’s struggles with HIV. He did suggest though that the lyrics may have shed some light about what Howard may have been undergoing at that time. Don didn’t really say anything controversial here. Still, it’s irresponsible journalism to take an excerpt of what Don said just to make a story. It’s one thing to say that Howard, the lyricist, died from AIDS. It’s another to declare that Beauty and the Beast was written intentionally as a metaphor for the AIDS epidemic.

  4. Marisa says:

    I have to be honest, I’ve wondered this exact thing since the first time I saw the movie in 1991. Not so much that it was a direct comment on AIDS or being gay, but that there was a little social commentary being slipped in about conformity, which is, of course, one of the themes of the movie since we’re told from the very beginning that Belle is “so peculiar” and “doesn’t quite fit in.” And, of course, given the AIDS crisis and his death, people (myself included) may have read those themes more literally than he ever intended, but that theme of both Belle and the Beast both being outsiders is definitely there. Thank you for providing your perspective!

    • Marissa, Certain themes are definitely there. Howard very specifically showed me (a bookworm from childhood) the library scene as he knew I’d appreciate seeing Disney making a bookish girl the heroine. And you don’t have to be gay or ill to know what it feels like to be an outcast and use that as a theme that might well influence your art. No problem there, and part of the fun in art is looking for themes and metaphors and finding your own meaning there. We’re on the same page, really (metaphorically speaking). My point is that Howard, as a craftsman and storyteller, was not consciously telling his own story in this film.

  5. Elias says:

    That’s so interesting — I felt the same thing, especially when the interviews starting spouting regarding Le Fou’s tribute to Howard (and if he purposefully developed a gay character as a personal statement). If anything, Howard helped craft specificity to that character for STORY purpose. Perhaps Le Fou had gay undertones, but it fits the character and his relationship with Gaston…

    I have to ask you, Sarah… What’s your thoughts on the live action Bimbettes — brunette, same-toned dresses, no busts? It might be my own perception of Howard’s series of backup singers (often in three), but that detail is was gives the animated opening its spark and sizzle.

    • Elias says:

      *addendum*: That detail is PART of what gives the opening its spark and sizzle. Obviously, there’s oh-so-much-more.

  6. Ryan Wong says:

    Thanks Sarah. I know that Don Hahn and maybe even Alan Menken have suggested that the songs in Beauty and the Beast are about Howard’s illness. They are welcome to their opinions; after all, they did work with Howard. I don’t think though that we should be quoting these old interviews now as evidence that Howard made art as self-justification or self-exhibition. Howard wrote his songs and his musicals to tell stories and give life to characters, and he’s made a beautiful impact on many people because of this. It takes a noble and confident artist to take himself out of the final picture, as Georges Seurat did in Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. It made me really upset when people were alleging that this whole film and the newfound notion that Lefou is gay were tributes to Howard. I won’t condemn this film without seeing it but, like Sondheim critiquing the 2011 revival of Porgy and Bess, we should not assume we know how the original artists would react to their work being reimagined.

    • Thank you, Ryan, for that thoughtful response. I think both Don and Alan saw the metaphors as happening after the fact – which is fair enough. What happens is that words and ideas get distorted over time and the latest evidence of that are the most recent interviews and articles conflating Beauty and AIDS.

  7. speilbilde says:

    Thanks, Sarah.
    I’ve been puzzled about this claim ever since it popped up, and quite frankly I was starting to wonder if I’d missed an interview or something where it confirmed that he’d seto ut to write it as a metaphor, because people have been so specific and certain about it. Glad to have you come back from retirement to clear this up, and personally, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the live action film when you see it. Maybe over on Feed Me? :)

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