Ashman’s next show seemed like it couldn’t miss, with music by Marvin Hamlisch and a book based on the beauty pageant satire, “Smile.” It flopped, just as then-Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg called to invite Ashman and Menken to California. And there, Ashman said, he discovered that feature-length animation was the closest there was to the kind of musical theater storytelling he loved.
Anyone who has seen “Waking Sleeping Beauty” has a sense of how much struggle went into bringing the magic back to Disney animation, and the best part of this film is the glimpse we get of the transformational ideas that Ashman brought through his deep understanding of musical theater, including importing Broadway actors who could sing (not, as one points out, singers who could act). “He literally taught us how to tell a story with songs,” Hahn says. Ashman insisted Ariel needed an “I want” song, like Eliza Doolittle’s “Loverly.” This is how we learn who the character is and what her dreams are. But he still had to fight for “Part of His World,” (sung by Jodi Benson, brought in from his cast of “Smile”).
“Everybody would rather write for Captain Hook than Peter Pan,” Ashman said. He loved writing for a sophisticated villain who could believably sing, a hyper-verbal song urging Ariel to agree to become mute: “And after all dear, what is idle prattle for?” “Poor Unfortunate Souls” served all three musical theater functions at once: character, comedy, and driving the plot forward.
The film lightly touches on the question of any political messages in the lyrics, especially the mob song in “Beauty and the Beast.” It seems more likely that the closest Ashman got to a message was in the Oscar-winning love song, “Beauty and the Beast,” perhaps a tribute to his long-time love, architect Bill Lauch. We also see the “show must go on” appearance at a 92nd Street Y event hours after learning of his AIDS diagnosis, a thoughtful conversation that gives no hint of the news he has received. And we hear about Ashman working from his hospital bed to finish a song just before he died.
In the first scene we watch Ashman give notes to Paige O’Hara in a recording session for the animated “Beauty and the Beast.” I’m not sure anyone who is not a singer or a songwriter can even understand the subtle guidance he is giving her about the words “quiet” and “provincial.” But she understands, and all of a sudden it becomes the song as we all know it, as it seems it has always been waiting to be sung. Later in the film we return to the recording sessions for a thrilling glimpse of “Be Our Guest,” with Ashman working with Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach. These moments make it clear that the film is not just a love letter to Ashman’s extraordinary talent, but to all those who will not give up until a story has all of their own imagination, heart, and empathy.
Now streaming on Disney+.