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Sheridan Square

Disney composer Howard Ashman and the AIDS crisis

George Segal's sculptures, entitled "Gay Liberation," welcome modern-day visitors to Sheridan Square. A second casting of this work can be found at Stanford. (InSapphoWeTrust / Wikimedia)

In 1982, Howard Ashman seemed to have everything he ever wanted. His show “Little Shop of Horrors” had just premiered off-Broadway to rave reviews. Since he was a child, he had aspired to work in musical theater as a librettist, lyricist and director. Now, he was realizing those dreams.

While Ashman achieved immense professional success, he endured intense personal trials. He was a gay man living in New York City, and multitudes of his friends started to succumb to “gay cancer.” He wanted to do something to memorialize those who had died, so he asked his collaborator from “Little Shop of Horrors,” Alan Menken, to write another song with him. Together, they composed “Sheridan Square,” a reflection on the devastating cost of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s.

The song is immensely moving, but even ardent devotees of Ashman’s work are likely to overlook it. Not only is “Sheridan Square” overshadowed by the tuneful score of “Little Shop of Horrors,” but it was also followed by Ashman’s pioneering and immensely popular work at Disney. Soon after finishing “Sheridan Square,” Ashman would write songs like “Under the Sea,” “Part of Your World” and “Kiss the Girl” for “The Little Mermaid,” “Be Our Guest” for “Beauty and the Beast” and “Friend Like Me” for “Aladdin.” Still, “Sheridan Square” may be Ashman’s most personal work, and it demonstrates his impressive command of language and emotion.

Stuart White, Stonewall and Sheridan Square

Ashman was born in Baltimore in 1950 and grew up in a middle-class Jewish family. From an early age, however, he felt like an outsider; his parents were loving, but his grandfather encouraged him to become “‘more of a real boy,”  and his peers bullied him. As his sister Sarah remembered, he decided to “dress up as a Girl Scout for a Boy Scout Halloween party.” Because of all “the teasing he got from boys on the block,” it was “the first and last Boy Scout party he ever attended.” Yet, Ashman found a refuge from the petty taunts of neighborhood bullies: the theater. In elementary school, he joined the Baltimore Children’s Theater Association and spent his childhood performing as much as he could. There were still certain social pressures — he dated girls in high school to fit in — but the stage was a venue where he could be himself. He yearned to escape to New York City and work on Broadway.

As Ashman came of age in the late 1960s, New York City was not only the theatrical capital of the country, but also a nexus for queer activism. On June 28, 1969, patrons at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village fought back when a vice squad tried to arrest them — and the gay rights movement was born. A month after the Stonewall riots, energized activists founded the Gay Liberation Front and adopted “gay power” as their mantra. In 1970, to commemorate the anniversary of the riots, the group coordinated the world’s first Pride Parade. They started their celebration in Sheridan Square, a public meeting place near Stonewall.

During these crucial years, Ashman’s life was changing too, though he had not yet arrived in New York City. While Ashman was completing a summer internship in 1969, he met Stuart White, a charming man who hoped to become a theater director. After finishing college, Ashman and White moved to New York, both nurturing Broadway dreams. Together, they took over a struggling off-Broadway organization, the WPA Theater. As they furthered their careers, they also grew closer to each other. Ashman’s sister Sarah remembered that “as much as two men in 1970 could be together as a couple, they were, without ever saying they’re a couple.”

While Ashman and White seemed to be immensely happy, their relationship was soon riddled with issues. White started roaming around Sheridan Square late at night and picking up anonymous sexual partners. His behavior was by no means abnormal. In the wake of Stonewall, gay leaders championed “free love” and argued that queer people should create a new way of living, completely divorced from heterosexual mores. Although promiscuity could upend traditional expectations, many of the men who slept with multiple partners loathed themselves. Crushed by dehumanizing homophobia, they turned to sex to maintain their self-esteem. In his seminal 1978 novel “Dancer from the Dance,” the gay author Andrew Holleran described these men as “the fags who consider themselves worthless because they are queer, and who fall into degradation or sordidness.” Ultimately, he concluded, they were “doomed queens.”

Unfortunately, Stuart became something of a “doomed queen.” Ashman had never embraced “free love,” and by 1978, he could no longer tolerate White’s infidelities. Ashman ended the relationship. Then, four years later, Ashman received a call from White, who informed him that he had “gay cancer.” When White died in the summer of 1983, doctors had begun calling “gay cancer” AIDS. As the epidemic burgeoned and claimed the lives of those closest to him, Ashman began to write “Sheridan Square.”

AIDS and Ashman’s artistry

Ostensibly, “Sheridan Square” consists of  “a corner to catch the subway, and a corner to buy cigars, and a corner to wait for the Times to come out, and a corner to lean on cars.” Yet Ashman stresses that the place is also a sacred community space. When his “friends and their friends were there,” it became “something just left to the Mardi Gras.” While the celebrations in the square could be as exuberant as the flamboyant parties held every February in New Orleans, in Ashman’s view they were never excessive extravaganzas. Even when things turned raucous, the revelers were first and foremost “friends.”

Only illness could disrupt this intimate idyll. Indeed, the once-festive Mardi Gras scene ends abruptly, as all the guests say, “You can send my regrets to the party. I’d like to make it but just don’t dare,” because of the growing AIDS epidemic. Yet, even when discussing the plague, Ashman does not mention White or other close friends who died from AIDS. Rather, he simply presents the first names of victims, unrhymed: “Johnny and Steve and Martin, and a list that goes on too long … ” They lack surnames, so they can stand for every man who succumbed to AIDS. Ashman valorizes ordinary people — he even says that they are the “reason [he] wrote this song.”

Yet, perhaps Ashman is not writing the song for those who have passed away, but for himself. One line stands out: “I’m sure that it must mean something, but it’s really too soon to tell — when somebody’s getting famous, and nobody’s getting well.” In this lyric, perhaps Ashman is trying to reconcile his newfound reputation as a Broadway wunderkind with the profound tragedy of the AIDS victims. While he does idealize Sheridan Square prior to the plague, he also argues that a stronger community will emerge in the aftermath of the crisis. The “phoenix” will rise again, so “we can make it until the sun comes up — and it will — over Sheridan Square.”

Ashman’s protagonists are always determined to defy societal expectations and forge community — it’s one of the qualities which makes his work for Disney so appealing. For example, in “Part of Your World,” Ariel extols the virtues of her “thingamabobs” and “whatchamacallits.” Then, she states that she “want[s] more.” She wants to join the humans, so she can romance a dashing prince. After only half an hour, Ariel seems well on her way to achieving her goal. She hoists herself over a rock and declares, “Watch and you’ll see. Someday, I’ll be part of your world.” Ariel’s journey mirrors Ashman’s in “Sheridan Square.” She is initially content with her surroundings, then describes her inner turmoil and finally resolves to establish a more amenable status quo. Later in the film, Ariel does become part of the human world, but first, she must make a bargain with the venal villainess Ursula. In exchange for making her human, Ursula robs her of her voice. Therefore, Ariel enters the world that she has long coveted mute, unable to express even her wonder.

In some sense, Ariel’s entrance to the human world is reminiscent of Ashman’s role in New York’s gay community. Just as Ariel emerges from the sea, Ashman had escaped narrow-minded neighbors in Baltimore to socialize with the patrons of Sheridan Square. Yet Ashman could not publicly state that he was involved in the community. Ashman decided not to release “Sheridan Square,” in part because debuting the song meant that he would have to disclose that he was gay. Homophobia was increasing during the plague years, and Ashman did not want to endanger his deal with Disney. Yet, there was still value in writing “Sheridan Square.” Throughout the song, Ashman keeps asking, “Why is it still so quiet tonight on Sheridan Square?” The answer is obvious: The silence comes from the absence of all who have died. Ashman’s lyrics and Menken’s music fill that emptiness, bringing vibrant life to a place that seemed dead and desolate.

In 1987, just before he began working at Disney, Ashman himself was diagnosed with AIDS. He died in 1991 at age 40, and “Sheridan Square” played during his memorial service. Finally, an audience was able to hear the song, but the version currently available on YouTube is perhaps even more moving. It features Ashman singing the piece, with Menken accompanying him on the piano. At times, his voice quavers with grief, but he finishes assuredly. Although Ashman joined the ranks of Johnny and Steve and Martin, miraculously, the song still strikes an optimistic chord. Even in the darkest times, the sun rises over Sheridan Square, and even after his death, Ashman’s work continues to resonate.

Contact Amir Abou-Jaoude at amir2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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