Casting the Great White Way

The cast for this overhauled film would have to line up with its updated musical leanings. And just as The Little Mermaid had largely focused on the right-sounding voices even if they weren’t automatically famous, so too was the case for Beauty and the Beast. Some of the latter film’s cast members were already recognizable to the general public, but called upon for their pipes, not name recognition. 

Though the voices of Belle and Ariel sound somewhat similar, Jodi Benson wasn’t called upon to play both characters. For Belle, Disney looked towards another Broadway ingenue, Paige O’Hara. O’Hara, whose voice called to mind for co-director Kirk Wise no one less than Judy Garland, noted in an interview that she imagined her work on a cast recording of Show Boat might have gotten Ashman’s attention. Like many of the film’s cast members, she’d spent time on Broadway, in the original cast of the 80s musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Belle’s other half, The Beast, would be played, though slightly enhanced through modulation technology, by Robby Benson, one of the few non-stage performers in the cast (and notably, the Beast doesn’t sing a whole lot in the film).

Unlike The Little Mermaid, when it came to some of the bigger songs, Disney went for all-stars of the stage. For the Maurice Chevalier-like candelabra Lumiere, they went for Jerry Orbach (perhaps best known for his work on Law and Order, but he won a Tony for his work in the original production of Chicago). Cogsworth would be voiced by TV and stage actor David Ogden Stiers, perhaps best known at the time for his role on the CBS show M*A*S*H. And for the charming Mrs. Potts, they went to undisputed national treasure Angela Lansbury.

It was all well and good to get this group of actors, because they were going to be given a series of musical masterpieces to bring to life.

Something There

Howard Ashman wrote most of the lyrics to the six songs in Beauty and the Beast from his deathbed. The work that he and Menken had performed on The Little Mermaid breathed fresh life into the Disney animated musical. But Beauty and the Beast was a bolder step forward, an unabashed, confident film where the music drove the story as much as any amount of written dialogue. The importance of music is clear as soon as the title card goes away, and the first musical number, “Belle”, begins.

Beauty and the Beast, end credits and all, clocks in at just 84 minutes. But a whole life is lived, in the best way possible, in that brief period, starting with “Belle”. The seven-minute sequence tells the audience exactly what it needs to know about the conflict that sets Belle off into the world of a mysterious prince and his castle. She seems to be the only well-read young woman in town (or, at least, the only young woman in town interested in reading), and chafes at the confines of the small unnamed town. In spite of this, the town’s most handsome man, Gaston (voiced by the booming Richard White) lusts after Belle precisely because it’s “only she who is beautiful as me”. Within the sung-through scene, we learn that Belle’s kindly father Maurice is both an inventor and perceived as being a nutcase, and that Belle loves him dearly.

Most important, though, “Belle” is just a brilliant piece of musicianship from both Menken and Ashman. It’s as close as you’ll get in the Disney discography to the work of Stephen Sondheim. The playful use of the greeting “Bonjour” coupled with the background singing from the townspeople just going about their day fills in so much life in the small town Belle’s ready to move on from. Ashman and Menken were reportedly concerned with how the executives would react to “Belle”, but it’s no surprise they fell for it. Who couldn’t?

There was only one number in Beauty and the Beast that didn’t quite make the cut. “Human Again” is an extended sequence you may recognize, thanks it to having been placed into a longer cut of the film that premiered in theaters in the early 2000s. The sequence features many of the Beast’s servants, stuck as household objects, pining for the time when they could be…well, human again. To avoid timeline issues in the story, it was removed from the 1991 release, only to be revived in that Special Edition; the sweet “Something There” took the place of “Human Again” in the original release, bridging Belle’s softening to the Beast as she rapidly falls for him.

The title song has its own special lore, having shifted from a more fast-paced number to the slower ballad everyone recognizes. When Ashman and Menken lighted upon Lansbury to sing the number, she was skeptical but willing to at least record a test track that could presumably be improved upon. As mentioned by the filmmakers in making-of featurettes, that test track is what you hear in the final film; no reason to improve upon perfection.

Hitting the Emotional Beats

If you wanted to, you could pick apart Beauty and the Beast to the bone. It is arguably a film that makes more emotional than logical sense, from its very setup. A callow, selfish young prince cruelly turns away a haggard old woman, only to learn that crone is actually a beautiful sorceress in disguise. She punishes him by transforming him into a monstrous beast, and transforming the people who work for him into household objects. His only chance of being saved is falling in love, and being loved in return, by his 21st birthday, when the last petal of an enchanted rose will fall. 

It’s to the credit of Trousdale, Wise, Woolverton, Ashman, Menken, Hahn, and the countless animators working on Beauty and the Beast that many of the logic-based questions related to this story are elided past without feeling like you’re missing out. You could wonder how old the prince was to begin with, how it is that no one in the small village nearby seems aware of the massive castle and its denizens, where the prince’s parents are (or ever were), etc. And you could ask about the timeline from when Belle meets the Beast — roughly 20 minutes into the film — to when she falls for him. No doubt, modern Disney animated films like Frozen, in which a lead character is upbraided for falling in love with someone immediately, seek to question if not outright criticize the actions of characters like Belle. 

But all of the plot-based questions you can ask, all of the “Everything Wrong With Movie X” videos you could see on YouTube, cannot cut to the heart of what makes this film special. At the time, Beauty and the Beast felt like a genuine sea change for Disney, a case where the animation studio had cracked a previously impossible nut. The romance at its core may occur fairly quickly — all told, Belle and the Beast are only in each other’s spheres for about an hour — but what matters is that the filmmakers took the title to heart. Each character is the protagonist, even if the film opens with a song about Belle. The Beast is given as much of a backstory and a life as Belle herself is, thus making his eventual transformation all the more potent.

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