by Susan Egan
(on Disney’s Live-Action Beauty and the Beast)
Paige O’Hara and I are friends. I’m so pleased to be able to say that, because I truly admire her performance as ‘Belle’ in the Oscar-winning animated feature Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991). I was unbelievably lucky enough to go on and originate the role of ‘Belle’ in Disney’s first foray onto the New York stage with the 1994 Broadway production of Beauty and the Beast.
The film – arguably one of the best Disney has created (though I am biased) – was produced at a time when movie musicals were bombs, and yet if presented as cartoons (and with the brilliant artistry of Disney) we could accept them – even love them. The animated Beauty and the Beast is 90 minutes of heart-warming eye candy, dramatic redemption, and exquisite music and has captured the hearts and minds of millions of girls over a few generations now. The Broadway production added another hour of material to the story and I loved having the opportunity to take this well-loved heroine and show audiences more facets of her personality with added music and scenes. These modern Disney heroines – they are smart, voracious readers, odd, outcasts, neurotic – they are three-dimensional and complicated young women who can save themselves and everyone else while they are at it! I love them and got to be one of the most beloved 8-shows-a-week for almost 3 years.
In hindsight, Disney’s step onto Broadway seems not just logical, but obvious with its endless source material, history of producing incredible entertainment, and wide-reaching appeal … but in 1993 as we were building this production we faced a mix of rancid hate from many New York theatre types (both insiders and patrons) that this show would single-handedly take Broadway to saccharine levels no diabetic could survive, to the pie-eyed jealousy of having deep enough pockets to display spectacle the likes of which Broadway hadn’t seen since Ziegfield and to outlast any bad reviews. At ten million dollars, Beauty and the Beast boasted the largest (almost obscene) budget a Broadway musical had ever bankrolled. Combine that with the real-estate deal Michael Eisner (then CEO of Walt Disney Company) was brokering with Rudy Guilanni, regarding the re-development of 42nd Street and well … we were controversial to say the least. We were nominated for nine Tony Awards that season (myself included) but won only one (how could they NOT award Broadway veteran Anne Hould Ward for the costumes?) as somewhat of a statement from the Broadway intellegencia that Disney was unwelcome – and yet the 1994 Tony-Awards commercial that year was nothing but us performing “Be Our Guest!” New York hated to admit that film studios entering the small club of Broadway producers, often with the elegance of a bull in a china shop, might just breathe new life into this dwindling, nearly bankrupt American art form …. and it did. So, naturally, with money to be made, other film studios followed, and musical theatre is now in its second golden era. I’m just saying…
***** Check out our mini performance at the 1994 Tony Awards! Fun side note: four days before the Tonys I broke my arm in the middle of a performance, so on the Tony broadcast (and in this clip) there are moments we did “live” where my cast is hidden under a costume piece, and moments that were “pre-taped,” where I have a working arm! Disney gave me my first big break! Incidentally, a year later, I would break my foot in middle of the show as well – this time in the Los Angeles company. What can I say? I’m an idiot! *****
(back to the blog)
From my point of view inside that yellow dress, I was just as awestruck by the beauty and beastly nature of the business (and dreams coming true) as Belle was when she faced that enchanted castle. I wore the world’s most beautiful costumes, worked alongside Broadway veterans who taught me what it is to be grateful and gracious, I met throngs of young girls who wanted photos with me, and I also read the dismal reviews, faced Katie Couric on air as she belittled me and the show, and simply experienced the toll 8-shows-a-week, 50-weeks-a-year can do to a voice and body. Looking back 20 years later, it seems like a story once told to me, not a chapter I actually lived, but I have a coffee table book in a box somewhere full of picture to pinch me. Good and rough – it was the best fairy tale!
One event I do remember in detail was meeting Paige O’Hara, and being nervous to do so. I was markedly different in the role than she was, not out of any sort of disrespect, but because I’m a strange girl with my own notions (kind of like Belle) and so … my characterization reflected that. I also had the new material and the great honor of working closely with Linda Woolverton (the screenwriter and playwright) who for all intents and purposes IS Belle. (She based Gaston on an old boy friend of hers! Ha!) Well, regarding Paige, I heard through the grapevine that she “wasn’t a fan” of how I was playing the role and she couldn’t wait until I was replaced so the role could be played “correctly.” I must add that I never had the guts to ask her if that’s how she truly felt, and a grapevine is just that – word-of-mouth. I also know there is lots of drama in the art of making drama, and folks always want to dish dirt. Paige may have never said such a thing, but as a young actress, easily influenced by rumors, I was saddened by the remarks. I also realized that had Paige been just a few years younger at the time they did the Broadway version, she would have played the role herself – and deservedly! I knew that might be affecting her feelings. Timing in this industry can suck. I was lucky: in the right place at the right time, and 23. Then, Paige’s husband, Michael Piontek, joined the Los Angeles company of Beauty and the Beast as the cover for both the Beast and Gaston, and awkward was added to the equation. I did the show many times with Michael as he played one or the other and he was WONDERFUL – but then I’d always tell him to go home to the REAL Belle. He’d pat me on the head and say, “ok doke.”
Time has moved on and hundreds of lucky young women have played this and other beloved Disney heroines. The “ownership” has diluted. Today, Paige and I see each other at Disney events, and I LOVE her, admire her, feel wonderful whenever I see that twinkle in her eye. She is gracious and beautiful – she is the original! We both share a place in princess history and there is nothing but mutual admiration.
In the bigger picture, I love that Beauty and the Beast played a role in resurrecting the popularity of musical theatre back into mainstream pop culture. The one-two punch of Beauty and the Beast bringing families into the theatre in 1994, and Rent (1996) bringing the teens and young-20’s types changed the ticket-buyer personae. The grey-haired crowd was being replaced just in the nick of time and it paved the way for shows like Wicked and Hairspray to become mega hits in the 18-24 year old circuit.
Today, movie musicals aren’t just being produced, they are winning top awards and proving enormous financial blockbusters! So Disney, forever innovative and savvy, is taking their own source materials and bringing them back to us live-action on the big screen. So, here comes Beauty and the Beast starring Emma Watson: a beautiful, intelligent, quirky, articulate, empowered, fighter-of-social-injustice, young actress. What a powerhouse! Yet, to read her social media release about the film’s casting, she squeals in excitement like the 8-year-old who just saw the film for the first time. That’s another kind of one-two punch, I think. She’s … perfect!
Have fun, Emma …. and if you can sneak in a “It’s lev-ee-oh–sah, not lev-ee-oh–sah” my 8-year-old will squeal, too!
“I’m finally able to tell you… that I will be playing Belle in Disney’s new live-action ‘Beauty and the Beast’! It was such a big part of my growing up, it almost feels surreal that I’ll get to dance to ‘Be Our Guest’ and sing ‘Something There’. My six year old self is on the ceiling – heart bursting. Time to start some singing lessons. I can’t wait for you to see it. Emma xx,”