If it hadn’t been for the virus, my son Justin would most likely not have decided he needed to subscribe to Disney Plus. Which means he wouldn’t have generously shared that subscription with his Dad. Which means his Dad wouldn’t have thought to fill a glaring gap in his lifelong inquiry into the American Musical. I had never seen “Beauty and the Beast.”
You know the one. The Disney animated musical, 1991. Menken and Ashman. Alan Menken is a New Rochelle native, as am I. And how strange is it that New Rochelle has suddenly popped again into the national consciousness—first time since the Dick Van Dyke Show, I think. My cousin Jo-Ann told me that Alan Menken went to New Rochelle H. S. around the same time we did (I didn’t know him), and that his father was a friend of her father, my Uncle Arthur. Indeed, they were colleagues—both were dentists.
Now, astute followers of the American Musical might perk up at that tidbit—that Menken’s father was a dentist. Because we all know that when Menken and Ashman wrote “Little Shop of Horrors,” they memorably chose for their villain none other than a sadistic dentist (played by Steve Martin in the excellent movie). Freud might’ve had fun with that one.
Of course, I’ll always have a warm spot for Little Shop, ever since my son Dylan played Seymour—and I got to play him vicariously—in an above-average college production. I’m still jealous of him.
But I never saw Beauty. My boys were exactly the wrong age to be able to buy the VHS tape, since Disney staggered its re-issues to miss their childhoods, more or less completely. We certainly wore out “Aladdin” and “The Lion King,” but the gap in my Ashman-Mencken education remained for another 20 years or so. Until yesterday. If it hadn’t been for the virus, it might not have occurred to me to watch a movie on my own in the afternoon. Thanks, virus.
It was as good as I expected, but I’m not going to critique it here. Rather, I’m going to lament once again the untimely passing of Howard Ashman. He died just as Beauty was being released in ’91. He never saw Aladdin get made, even though it was largely his idea. He was a casualty of the AIDS epidemic, as were many in the arts. By then I had known quite a few who had died the same way, including my mentor in the ad business.
It would be silly to draw parallels between that plague and this one—there are few similarities to speak of—but it’s worth noting that this was when we first met Dr. Fauci. He was almost as visible then as he is now. Even then, his just-the-facts persona cut through the bullshit. Even then he had to deal with a president who downplayed a deadly virus—Reagan was an early prototype of the modern dumbfuck Republican, though he was far to the left of today’s party. If he were still around he’d be primaried.
So Ashman was gone by age 40, and I miss the songs he never got to write. Even so, he left us a lot to listen to. His lyrics were never less than exceptional and his theatrical instincts were so spot on that he’s credited with single-handedly reviving the Disney animation franchise, which had fallen into deep and widely-publicized disrepair. Without Beauty and “The Little Mermaid,” “Frozen,” would never have happened. Which I might watch as well.
Thanks to Justin’s subscription, I will no doubt be re-discovering most of the Ashman legacy in the coming days. Thanks again, virus.