Beauty and the Beast: From the Big Screen to the Big Stage
Written by: Danae Edwards
This winter, Beale Street Theater has partnered with Disney to bring a bit of magic to Kingman, Arizona. Beauty and the Beast Jr. originated from the Broadway musical by the same name, starring Susan Egan as Belle and Terrence Mann as The Beast/The Prince. When the musical opened in April of 1994 it received mixed reviews from critics, but the audience loved it. It became a fast grossing musical earning over $1.4 billion and playing in over 13 countries and 115 cities worldwide. How did this musical become successful, running for 5,461 shows in over 13 years? To answer that we must go back to the 1970s and 1980s.
Disney was still trying to recover over the death of Walt Disney in 1966 when they became aware that during the 1960s and 1970s the animated films were becoming dull. Despite having no animation experience, the CEO, Michael Eisner, was hired to oversee the company’s next animated project. Eisner first hired Peter Schneider, who was responsible for hiring more people who were passionate about live theatre. He also hired Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menkan. They had created the off-Broadway show Little Shop of Horrors and were hired to create the music for Disney’s next animated film. They accepted and went to work creating The Little Mermaid, which gained a massive following after its initial release.
by the success of their last animated film, the studio decided to adapt another
fairy tale for the screen. As Beauty and the Beast began production,
Ashman revealed to Menkan that he was dying of AIDS, a secret that he had kept
to himself in fear of being discriminated against or fired from Disney. Before
the film was finished, executive Ron Logan, presented the idea to create a
musical out of Beauty and the Beast. Eisner deflected it immediately. Beauty
and the Beast premiered in New York, on March 10th, 1991. All the while,
Ashman grew increasingly ill while being cared for in Saint Vincent Catholic
Medical Center in New York, New York. Four days after the premiere, he passed
away. The film was released eight months later in November.
Beauty and the Beast became a very successful film once it was released to the public, even surpassing The Little Mermaid in popularity and becoming the first animated film in history to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture.
Film critics all said that the film had the potential for the stage, including a review that said it was a “better [musical] … than anything he had seen on Broadway” during that time. This review was the review that would provide the confidence for the people at Disney, including Eisner, to consider adapting Beauty and the Beast for the stage. A little too late for Ashman.
Since he had various successes directing live shows for Disney theme parks, Robert Jess Roth was asked to direct Disney’s Beauty and the Beast for the stage, despite not being a well-known director at the time. Roth had asked Eisner about investing in a Broadway show before, but Eisner had declined, saying that it was too expensive. Roth’s adaption of The Nutcracker, however, impressed Eisner so much that he asked Roth if he’d be interested in adapting Beauty and the Beast for the stage. Since the film hadn’t been released to home video, Roth spent an entire day re-watching the movie in the theater, trying to see how it would work on stage. At a hotel in Aspen, Roth presented Eisner a Broadway production of Beauty and the Beast, using quite a few illustrations to portray his ideas. Eisner was to oversee all the creative elements from the smallest details to the largest details.
Even though there were quite a few skeptics concerning the beloved film being made into a Broadway show, it also had a lot of people behind it, including set designer, Stanley Meyer as well as the writer for the film, Linda Woolverton, who also wrote the script for the musical. Tim Rice stepped into Ashman’s shoes and helped Menkan write six new songs for the musical. Costumes were designed by Ann Hould-Ward, and Natasha Kats was responsible for lighting, but critics were still unsure how it would do on stage. Nonetheless, Beauty and the Beast opened on April 18th of 1994 through September 5th, 1999 at the Palace Theater. After its run at the Palace Theater, it was moved to its permanent home at the Lunt-Fontanne theater where it spent over eight years entertaining guests of all ages. With a span of 13 years, it became Broadway’s longest-running show with over 5,000 performances. This “tale as old as time” brought many different audiences into the live theater to fall in love once again.