News Column

Non-Equity tour of 'Disney's Beauty and the Beast' brings together the original designers and creative team

December 8, 2013

YellowBrix

Dec. 08--Show business is a history of firsts. Every now and then someone or something comes along that charts a new direction.

And so it is with "Disney's Beauty and the Beast," the first show flying the Disney banner to make it to the Broadway stage back in 1994. It was, to put it mildly, an auspicious beginning.

The technically elaborate show, adapted from Disney's popular animated 1991 film, ran for 13 years. At the moment it ranks as the eighth most well-attended musical in Broadway history. A non-Equity touring version of the musical hits the Music Hall this week.

When Disney announced that it intended to be a player in Broadway theater there were skeptics. Aesthetic fears brought to mind the specter of Disney somehow transferring theme-park values to the stage, cheapening the supposedly hallowed traditions of the Great White Way.

Leaving aside the indisputable record of shows with no connection to Disney that tarnished the Broadway aura, "Beauty and the Beast" showed that with the right team you could translate an animated movie to the stage with artistic integrity. And you could create a mega hit to boot.

Since then, Disney has become one of the most successful producing entities on Broadway, creating a high artistic standard with its second show, "The Lion King," that it's never quite matched.

And it paved the way for the creation in 2007 of Dreamworks Theatricals, the live-theater division of the entertainment empire, to translate Dreamworks animated films into stage shows. Its first such effort, "Shrek the Musical," became a major hit.

In the case of "Beauty and the Beast," the creators expanded and refined the original material, maintaining the movie's charm while adding songs and employing remarkable stagecraft to bring anthropomorphic characters to life.

The show racked up nine Tony nominations but claimed only one award -- for Ann Hould-Ward's innovative costumes.

Theatergoers who turn out for the production at Music Hall this week will get to see new versions of Hould-Ward's imaginative work. Rarely does the creative team behind a record-setting Broadway show and its subsequent national tours get a chance to rethink their original creation on a smaller scale. But that's what NETworks, this tour's producer, has invited them to do.

In addition to Hould-Ward, this production was put together by director Rob Roth, choreographer Matt West, scenic designer Stanley A. Meyer, lighting designer Natasha Katz and hair designer David Lawrence. All of them worked on the original Broadway production.

The challenge, Hould-Ward said recently from her Manhattan studio, was to keep the integrity of the original designs while making the show manageable enough to move quickly between smaller markets.

"It required a lot of rethinking just because of the semantics involved," she said. "In other words, this is a tour that makes many stops and it travels (to multiple venues) in just a few weeks. It's like packing one suitcase for a trip to India and figuring out what you can take and what to leave."

Audiences should still see plenty of spectacle, she said, but for the designers the challenge was doing more with less.

"In other words, we had a very successful show that we were interested in sharing with a larger part of our population and I wanted to be true to what was effective and good in the original designs," she said. "It's almost like using your own work in your research. I think the costumes for this show can pack in half a truck compared to three trucks for the (original) tour."

Hould-Ward appreciates the show's status as a game-changer; it created unusual challenges and opportunities for the design team.

"The interesting thing about that initial production was that it was in actuality the first corporate sponsorship of a Broadway show," she said. "I think initially one of my responses was it was important as theater artists to find out how corporations actually work. That would be an important work lesson and life lesson."

One of the advantages Hould-Ward gladly accepted was a chance to meet the animators who worked on the movie.

"I came at it from the idea of using what we had in the animation, which Disney had so successfully given to the world," she said. "That became a major part of the research. They took me out to meet all the animators who had worked on the film, and their personalities became part of the research.

"You know, they draw with mirrors, so in a way the characters end up looking a little like them. I was kind of blown away by that. So getting to know their personalities was getting to know the characters they drew.

"They were very inspirational and they were very kind to me because, you know, you're kind of taking their baby. They spent many years developing it and turning it into this successful movie."

Some folks in show business are born into it. Not Hould-Ward, who didn't understand that professional designers even existed until she was in college.

"I'm born and raised in rural Montana, and I always just drew since I was a little girl," she said. "We had no money. We didn't even have money to buy paper dolls. So I made my own paper dolls. And I think that's what I'm still doing -- I'm just making big paper dolls. Very expensive paper dolls."

Hould-Ward attended Mills College, where she earned a bachelor of arts degree, and completed her graduate work at the University of Virginia. She made her Broadway debut in 1984, when she designed the costumes for "Sunday in the Park With George" in collaboration with one of her mentors, Patricia Zipprodt. Hould-Ward's career has been eclectic, leading her to design for Broadway, the Metropolitan Opera, ballet companies, films and television shows -- even Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

"I've done Ringling Bros. twice, I've done vast arena shows in Europe," she said. "I haven't been pigeonholed. So I'm very grateful. I like the time I've been able to spend with opera singers and prima ballerinas and those circus families that have been training for five generations."

She recalled once that in 24 hours she went from fitting a size 0 ballet dancer in New York to fitting an elephant for a blanket in Florida. That, she said, is snapshot of her career.

As for this "Beauty and the Beast," "It's still a darn big show," she said.

"The crew would tell you it's big when they run it. And I think the actors would tell you it's still a lot of (costume) changes. I think people still get the idea of spectacle and that continues to be important to us a group."

Tuesday

"Disney's Beauty and the Beast" opens at the Music Hall and runs through Dec. 15. For more information, call 800-745-3000 or go to TheaterLeague.com.

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

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