Today in 1994 was the day that Disney premiered the full-scale theatrical adaptation of their animated film, Beauty and the Beast, on Broadway. Here is a poll to commemorate the 15th anniversary of that day: I’ve filled my answers in here; you can add yours by copying and pasting the questions and supplying your own set of answers!
1. What do you like about this show? Or, if you’re not a fan, what makes it unmemorable for you? I was disappointed when I saw the stage show for the first time. I guess that this is because much of the new material is padding rather than material that enriches what what was already on the table. I think the spectacle of the production is fabulous, but in terms of the writing – it’s a bit “doughnuts for dinner”, as they say.
2. Pick your favourite song in the show and tell us why it’s your favourite? It has always been “Belle” and I think it always will be. It is a thrilling introduction to the characters and the world in which Belle finds herself. In my opinion, the song is one of the greatest establishing numbers in contemporary musical theatre. In just a few minutes, one is able to completely understand the lead character, the world in which she finds herself, and her relationships with the characters that surround her. It’s an amazing piece of writing.
3. What is your favourite lyric? “New and a bit alarming / Who’d have ever thought that this could be? / True that he’s no Prince Charming / But there’s something in him that I simply didn’t see.”
4. Got a number you just can’t stand? Tell us why. I’ve thought about this a great deal and the most jarring number for me is “Home”. First off, it doesn’t fit what’s going on in the scene. Emotionally, Belle should be singing something like “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” (from The King and I), but she’s singing an introspective, reflective ballad instead. Huh? And the verse prior to the song proper just isn’t sufficient as a bridge between the two emotional states. It’s the right starting point, but then it doesn’t get Belle to where she needs to be to reflect on the situation in the way that she does. Belle’s only emotionally ready to be introspective in that manner by the end of the sequence, where the reprise is. And even if the song was in the right spot – well, then we’d still have the terribly mawkish and at times pompous lyrics to deal with. It’s songs like this where Tim Rice is just no match for Howard Ashman.
5. Who’s your favorite character? In the film, it’s Belle – without a doubt. But given the sub-standard material they’ve created in an attempt to “flesh the character out”, I can’t say the same of the stage version. So I’ll say Lumiere. Nothing is lost in the transition between mediums for that character and the progressive transformation is one new element of the stage show that largely works.
6. Who is your favourite Beauty and the Beast-related performer? In terms of the whole body of their work, it has to be the film’s Jerry Orbach. If I had to pick someone from one of the stage productions, I guess I’d go for Andrea McArdle, who is just completely wonderful in just about anything she does.
7. Got a favourite production? What made it so special? Like I said above, I think the spectacle of the official Disney stage production is super.
8. What do you think of the show as an adaptation of the film? I think Disney took one of their richest films and watered it down to create a stage show that is somewhat entertaining in parts but ultimately disappointing. The film is excellent: the screenplay is more polished and literate than most of the other Disney animated features. The use of seasonal weather to indicate atmosphere, mood, balance and emotion is positively Shakespearean. And the intensive way in which the narrative is played out is just mind-blowing; the experiences that the characters are put through make the extreme emotional journey for both Belle and the Beast from initial dislike to love psychologically believable.
The songs and score – besides being just gorgeous little gems of music and lyrics – are so integral to the structure and storytelling of the film that it is impossible to imagine the two in isolation from one another. I love that Disney is clearly not yet stuck within the “Ashman-Menken” formula in this film, as they would be in some of their future releases – the only verbatim parallel in terms of the films is the big sidekick number performed to the heroine (“Under the Sea” in The Little Mermaid and “Be Our Guest” in Beauty and the Beast) and the off-screen choral singing at the end, which is at any rate a tradition that is used in all six of features Disney based on fairy tales. Other than that, the films work in a way that is completely different to one another.
The visuals are also stunning. The opening sequence, with the slow zoom through the forest towards the castle and then the sequence of stained glass tableaus, is breathtaking and there is such detail in the colour palette used througout the film. When you see Belle isolated in her song not only by her character and situation, but also by the fact that she is the only character wearing blue and it all comes together with that music and those lyrics – it’s thrilling.
There are really only two things that have ever really bothered me about the film: first, when Gaston looks at Belle’s book after “Belle” and dismisses it for not having pictures, when we’ve very clearly seen a picture in the book during the song. But I suppose in his very cursory flip through the pages of the book, he could have missed it or he could just be using his dismissal to tease Belle. The other thing that I’ve always had a bee in my bonnet about is that there is no definitive character song for the Beast, but when I watched the film again recently – well, I’m not sure there needs to be. I don’t know how adding such a piece would affect the pacing of the film.
As far as the adaptation goes, I think that the additions are mostly pleasant but – except for “If I Can’t Love Her” and “Me” – I don’t think Tim Rice’s material matches in what Howard Ashman wrote for the songs that were written for the film. “If I Can’t Love Her”, the song for the Beast, is by far the strongest addition to the score and it works for be because, as I mentioned above, this spot is always something that I’ve contemplated as being missing from the film. I don’t think any of the additional material written for Belle particularly extends the character or even serves her well; some good ideas, yes, but as executed, they’re generic pop pieces that only have a superficial connection to the action of the show. You could whip them out of the show and put them in another fairly easily.
Happy Birthday, Beauty and the Beast!