BWW Interviews: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST Choreographer Talks Show's Past and Present
Beauty and the Beast may have first appeared on Broadway almost 20 years ago, in 1994, but the show is alive and well. Newly re-imagined, the current US national touring company will be making its way to Durham for an engagement from October 8 - 13. In preparation for the show's arrival in the triangle, I had the honor of speaking with Matt West, the show's Tony-nominated choreographer, about the show's beginnings, its new life, and the message at its heart.
I first asked West what initially drew him to working on Beauty and the Beast, and it turns out he and his collaborators started out with a different show in mind. Before the film version of Beauty and the Beast hit theaters in 1991, West and his team, which included Rob Roth (Director) and Stan Meyer (scenic designer), approached then-CEO of Disney, Michael Eisner, to pitch the idea of the Disney company bringing one of their films to Broadway. A while later, Eisner gave them the go-ahead to propose and plan a film to adapt for the Broadway stage. While the team was working on adapting a different Disney work, the Beauty and the Beast film opened in theaters with great success. The film was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, making it the first animated film to be included in that category. In fact, according to West, the film was even being reviewed "like a Broadway show. Frank Rich had reviewed it as the best theater piece of the year." With the success of the film being so undeniable, West and his team received a call from Eisner suggesting that they begin working on a stage version of Beauty and the Beast.
Bringing a film to life is no small feat - and the creative team behind Beauty and the Beast faced the added pressure of adapting a film that was commercially and critically successful, and a favorite of children and adults. West recalls, having worked for Disney from the age of 13, that he knew the Disney product well. Knowing the company and the audience, the team set out to create something which was "family-friendly but would appeal to all ages." He judges the success of the show in part by what he sees standing in the back of the theater: when "we get to the song 'Beauty and the Beast,' you see the heads go on the shoulders, you see the arms go around the shoulders, you know adults love it as much as the children."
I was curious to find out from West what it was like to choreograph for characters that were not only non-human, but inanimate objects under a magic spell. He began his response with a chuckle as he said simply, "It was hard." He added, however, that Disney was "so wonderful as a producer, and they allowed us to take the time to mock different characters up and put them on people and see how they would move in them." It was more than just the size of the costumes which had to be taken into account. West recalls, "we also had a lot of special effects in the show: Mrs. Potts steamed, the wardrobe has drawers that open and close, Cogsworth had the pendulum that swings, Lumiere lights up. With an amazing special effects team, we were inventing how to be able to have all of these effects happen on stage, at the same time looking out for the actor[s], and making sure the actors could manipulate and wear" the costumes and that they would be safe under the weight of the costumes. Initially, weight was a major factor in developing costumes and effects. According to west, "as we found in our early mock-ups, quite a few of these [costumes] were quite heavy. So, we just kept re-inventing and scaling them down and finding new materials." Other effects took time to plan and execute, particularly the transformation at the end of the show. "The way it was accomplished and shown on stage was something that had never been invented before," said West. They turned to illusionist Jim Steinmeyer to invent the illusion. With all the work that went into the show, the costumes, and the illusions, West says "it was hard, but it was quite thrilling at the same time, because when we saw each of the effects work for the first time, we were like little schoolboys, we were all giddy and laughing and cheering." As to which costume was the most challenging, West didn't hesitate to say, "the wardrobe."
The current national tour, slated to perform at the Durham Performing Arts Center next week, is a re-staging by West and his team. In order to make the show "tour-able," they were approached with the options of scaling down the original concept or starting over. They chose to start over, re-think the creative elements of the show in order to give audiences across America a Beauty and the Beast which, in West's opinion, has improved upon the original design. West explains, "we completely re-imagined the show - the costumes, the choreography, some of the songs, the lighting, but it's still the same show, it still has the same message, and it still is Beauty and the Beast. But in my opinion, it moves so much better now. Because of the way we've re-imagined the castle, I, as the choreographer, have so much more space on stage. Now, I had room to put the entire cast into the tavern number, which you'll see. Before, there just wasn't the room, because we had this massive castle upstage - upstage center 24/7. Now everything moves in a lot more a cinematic way, so this is my favorite version of Beauty and the Beast." This isn't the first time changes have been made - around the world, there have been 34 companies of Beauty and the Beast, and things were altered as new companies were launched, but this was a re-imagining on a larger scale. For example, the wardrobe costume which proved so challenging before, "now is more like a dress with drawers, and now she can move, she can go up and down stairs, and it's still the wardrobe. If you look at it, you'd wonder if that was the original costume or not." The main factor in the reason for updating elements of the show is time. It's been almost 20 years since the show premiered on Broadway, and "because of it being so many years later, there are different materials to use, there are lighter materials that have been invented, there's different ways of lighting up candlesticks." West says that it was a lot of fun to give the show "a facelift."