The Walt Disney Co.'s plan to adapt “Beauty and the Beast” into a stage musical this year has some producers wondering if the story can be resold to audiences who already bought it on film and video. But Disney is betting that there’s more life in the “tale as old as time.”
Disney Chairman Michael Eisner said at a news conference in Houston--where the musical will be staged--that the new show presents “an exciting opportunity . . . to bring the magic of the animated film version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ to stage audiences.”
But chances are stage audiences have already seen the movie. The wildly successful film grossed about $145 million in the United States and was nominated for a best picture Academy Award. In seven months it has sold more than 20 million videocassettes, making it the No. 1 selling video of all time, said Steve Feldstein of Disney Home Video.
Theatergoers who have seen the film, especially children, could be disappointed with a version limited by the conventions of theater.
"(The movie is) basically written as a theater piece. I’m sure it would’ve worked in the theater first, and it then would’ve worked in the movies,” explained theatrical producer Steven Suskin, who also wrote the book “Opening Night on Broadway.”
Now, however, because people know the animated original so well, it may be difficult for them to accept a new version, Suskin said.
“My question is with people being as familiar as they are (with the film who) go into the theater and see actors who don’t look like the characters . . . ,” he said.
But noting the successful Broadway version of “The Wizard of Oz,” he added that “you look at something like ‘The Wiz,’ which disproves it. Whether you liked it or not, it was very successful. Everyone knew ‘Over the Rainbow,’ but they didn’t mind seeing it again.”
The “Beauty and the Beast” musical is slated to open Dec. 2 in the Music Hall, home to Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars. With any success there, it could move to Broadway in mid-1994.
“The thing to do is to add an element, translate it so that you’re not just trying to duplicate something,” Suskin said. “The stage has certain magical qualities that you can’t do on screen. I think that’s one of the reasons that ‘The Wiz’ worked. They did these dances and had this cloth cyclone.”
Also in Disney’s corner are thousands of children, ones who seemingly never tire of the charming fairy tale. So will parents cough up the big money required to take their tykes to the theater?
“There’s no question about it. Do they take their kids to Disneyland to meet Belle in the parking lot? Absolutely,” said Des McAnuff, director of Broadway’s newest musical sensation “Tommy.”
“It’s aimed at children. But there have been others that have been aimed at children or use children, like ‘Annie’ or ‘Oliver’ . . . that have been huge successes,” said McAnuff, who is also artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse.
Yet it’s in his role as a parent of a 2-year-old daughter that he sees the greatest potential for the production.
“Parents are always looking for quality events to take their children to. I’m sure there are a lot of parents who are already very thankful to Howard Ashman, Alan Menken and Tim Rice for (“The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin”),” he said.
Composer Menken and the late lyricist Ashman won an Academy Award for best score for “Beauty and the Beast.” The stage production will include all the songs from the movie, plus a Menken-Ashman ballad, “Human Again,” that was edited out of the film for length reasons, as well as four new songs by Menken and lyricist Rice.
Other changes in the show include having actors play the household objects personified in the film. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton said in February that some of the mythology in the story would be changed to explain, for example, a 6-foot-tall candelabra. Costumes will be created by Ann Hould-Ward, who designed costumes for Stephen Sondheim’s fairy tale-themed “Into the Woods.”
The show will not be without magic. Disney has hired illusionist Jim Steinmeyer, who worked on the Broadway show “Merlin” and has worked with magicians Sigfreid & Roy, David Copperfield and Doug Henning.
Eisner and Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg declined to comment on the show’s budget. But staging an extravagant musical can cost up to $4 million, according to producer Suskin.
Suskin suggested that Disney may view legit theater as a place to test future movie material. Although the investment may seem large, it’s a fraction of the $20 million or so the studio would pour into an animated feature, before distribution or advertising. If a show is a failure, the losses are smaller; if it is a success, it already has name recognition, Suskin said.
That concept is not new. Universal bankrolled the stage version of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” in 1978 and then adapted it for the screen.
“If (Disney) can be successful with this one, that establishes them in this field,” Suskin said.
Jeff Logsdon, general manager of Los Angeles-based Seidler Amdec Securities and a financial analyst who watches Disney closely, said he doubts Disney will use Broadway as a testing ground. But the move to the stage does not come as a surprise to him.
“Disney had always looked to ancillary markets with their franchises,” he said. “I think the best away to compare that is to look at the ‘Disney on Ice’ stuff.”
While not specifically addressing the potential for using theater for testing, Eisner did say, “This hopefully will be the first in a series of theater projects.” He said that rather than focus only on home entertainment, Disney will try to get people out of their homes and into live performances.
Logsdon said he believes the tremendous success of a short “Beauty and the Beast” live show at Disneyland spawned the idea.
“There is a segment of the population that is really looking for wholesome-fun family entertainment,” he said. “Why not on Broadway? The concept is there, the costumes are there, you’ve got a potential cadre of people who would star in this.”
Casting is under way. Eisner indicated that most of the actors who provided the voices for the original characters are working and would probably not be available for the musical.
While Broadway has always been the end goal, at one point it was rumored that the show might open Los Angeles. But Theatre Under the Stars launched an all-out campaign to get “Beauty and the Beast,” including enlisting the support of Texas Gov. Ann Richards, said Frank Young, the theater’s founder and executive director.
The Theatre Under the Stars is the largest civic light opera in the country, according to Young, and its Music Hall seats 3,000 people. It mounts six or seven musicals a year, but has been trying to establish itself in the area of presenting new works.
“My personal passion is for new works,” Young said. “When Disney was looking for someone to partner with . . . it made very good sense for us to court them and see if we could secure the first stage rights.”