Ashman's absence overshadows joy at Oscar win for 'Beauty' score

March 31, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

"It's hard to put into the words the feelings," Shirley Gershman, mother of the late Howard Ashman -- Baltimore-born lyricist and executive producer of "Beauty and the Beast" -- said from Los Angeles late last night after the Disney animated feature won Oscars for best song and score.

Ashman, who died of AIDS at age 40 a little more than a year ago, was represented at the awards by his mother, Shirley Gershman; his sister, Sarah Gillespie, a vice president of the United Media syndicate; his agent, Esther Sherman; and his longtime companion William Lauch, a New York architect.

Though many of the presenters and nominees at last night's Academy Award ceremony wore red ribbons symbolizing AIDS awareness, the most poignant statement came when Lauch accepted Ashman's award for the title song from "Beauty and the Beast."

"This is the first Academy Award given to someone we've lost to AIDS," Lauch said. "In working on 'Beauty and the Beast,' Howard faced incredible personal challenges but always gave his best, and what made that possible was an atmosphere of understanding, love and support. That's something everyone facing AIDS not only needs, but deserves.

"There's an inscription on Howard's grave in Baltimore," Lauch continued. "It reads: 'Oh, that he had one more song to sing.' We'll never hear that song, but I'm deeply grateful for this tribute you've given for what he left behind."

Sitting in her Mount Washington apartment a few days before she left for California, Gershman said, although she would have liked to have given the acceptance speech, she agreed to let Lauch have the privilege since "he felt strongly about being Howard's spouse, and he thought Howard would want it that way."

Ashman's spirit was also evoked early in last evening's program when his composer, Alan Menken, accepted the best score award. Menken, who also collaborated with Ashman on the "The Little Mermaid" and "Little Shop of Horrors" said, "Howard, I wish FTC you could have seen the finished product. I wish you could have heard the finished score. I know you would have been proud."

"Beauty and the Beast" was the first animated feature ever nominated for best picture, and Gershman admitted last night that she didn't expect it to win. "But," she said, "it was great that it was nominated, and Disney and everybody is thrilled and so am I."

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