I wish this book on “The Art and Making of Beauty and the Beast” had more about the development and design of Disney’s first Broadway musical. The title of this column is, after all, Theatre Shelf – not Movie Shelf. However, while the chapter on the stage version has just 10 pages to go with the 150 pages on the development of the film that was then adapted into what became the sixth longest running musical in the history of Broadway, the book is so well written and filled with interesting details and intriguing illustrations that I feel justified bringing it to the attention of theatre lovers, especially musical theatre lovers.
Charles Solomon starts his tale at the very beginning, with the multiple versions of the story going back before the most famous pre-Disney one, the 1757 fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. He then proceeds through the development of the oh-so-successful Disney animated feature film before turning his attention to the theatrical endeavor.
Solomon has researched his topic well and has obviously interviewed many of the right participants in his effort to take his readers into his topic. He creates a marvelous sense of time and place as he sketches the evolution of the modern generation of creators for what became the second era of Disney animated feature magic making. First he introduces the history of the Disney Studio. Then he treats the collaborations between the old timers (the remaining “Nine Old Men”) and the new kids who would lead the studio into a new era of success under new management with “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” in 1988 and the first Alan Menkin/Howard Ashman animated musical “The Little Mermaid” in 1989.
Preparation of “Beauty and the Beast” began in earnest in 1988, although Solomon does sketch earlier thinking within the studio. He quotes one of those “Nine Old Men” saying that Walt told him “If I ever go back (to animated features) there are only two subjects I would want to do. One of them is “Beauty and the Beast.“ (Unfortunately, he couldn’t remember what the other one was.)
“Beauty and the Beast” went through more than just evolutionary change from inception to final version. It had a complete switch from original concept to the final shape we recognize today. Solomon tells the story of the initial efforts and provides a look at some of the early images that have a completely different feel than the world the final production team provided.
The importance of Menkin’s and Ashman’s work to the development of the film is given full attention and there are fine stories of the impact of casting on the final form of many of the characters — Why Angela Lansbury’s touch is so central to “Mrs. Potts” and Jerry Orbach’s to “Lumier.”
While short, the chapter on converting the movie to a full blown Broadway show is fascinating in its attention to the reasoning behind the changes. The two-act, nearly three hour show required more material than the 84-minute movie. With the death of Howard Ashman, the selection of a lyricist to team with Alan Menkin was one major aspect. Tim Rice had teamed with Menkin for some songs on the film “Aladdin” after Ashman’s death so they turned to him again.
More than an expansion of the score was required, however. One aspect that Solomon quotes stage director Robert Jess Roth classifying as “the key to adapting it for the stage” was a change in the curse that had made a beast of a prince, and the staff in the castle into objects. Turning it from an instantaneous transformation as it was in the film to a gradual deterioration introduced the aspect of a race with the clock to find a love that would be a cure. Making the staff members/objects (the candlestick Lumiere, the clock Cogsworth, the teapot Mrs. Potts and the rest) be humans evolving into things made it possible to present them as human sized, which meant human actors could perform in costume rather than requiring for some special effects or puppetry.
The book is beautifully assembled with over 300 illustrations including sketches, studies, frames from the movie, costume sketches, back stage shots from recording sessions, snapshots of some of the creators and production photos. It is a fun read and the illustrations fascinating to pore over.
Sample Pages can be viewed at www.amazon.com’s Look Inside! link