BWW Interview: Be Our Guest! Michael Burrell Talks BEAUTY AND THE BEAST at TUTS
Before DISNEY'S BEAUTY AND THE BEAST premiered on Broadway, breaking the bank as the biggest box office opening in the history of the Palace Theatre and beginning a 13-year run, it premiered right here in Houston, a jointly produced venture between Disney and Theatre Under the Stars in 1993. Now, 25 years later, an all-new production of the magical fairy tale returns as part of TUTS' 50th anniversary season.
Today, we're joined by the "Beast" himself, Michael Burrell, to talk about the production, the duality of his character, and why audiences don't have to be told twice to "Be Our Guest."
I don't think I'm going out on a limb to say that most of the audience coming to see BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is not only familiar with it, but they love it, either from watching the animated film, a prior run of the musical, or even last year's live-action movie. What do you think it is about this story that resonates so strongly with audiences?
Michael Burrell: The pressure is on! [Laugh.] I think there is something about fantasy and magic that people are immediately drawn to. I think it's partly the mystery of it all as well as its ability to take people so far away from the world they're in themselves. We are drawn to stories that are an escape from our day-to-day lives. And with this story, we have these larger-than-life characters that we are able to feel for and root for (or even against). There are also beautiful messages of forgiveness, love, and being true to yourself, that I think Disney does a great job of telling to the young and the young at heart.
The Beast is a "scary monster" on the surface, but heartbreakingly tragic underneath. When you start working on a character like this, what is it that interests you the most?
Michael Burrell: I love these types of characters. I don't get the chance to play them very often, so when I do, it's a dream come true. Characters have to be complex because humans are complex. What's on the outside (looks, attitude, actions, etc.) isn't necessarily an indication of what's going on inside. A lot of the time it's the complete opposite. And when you get a character like the Beast, where the outside is so extreme, it multiplies everything by one hundred. So, there is a huge dichotomy in what he's saying and what he's feeling a majority of the time. Also, he's a human who's transforming into an animal more with each passing day. He's inherited all of these animalistic instincts and behaviors, which leads him to act on impulse. I think it's the combination of all of these characteristics and complexities, mixed with trying to show the human underneath, that interests me the most.
And I have to ask about the Beast's costume. Is there anything about it you can share with us? In general, it's a costume that tends to be a bit onerous for the wearer, but do you think that helps in creating a character like this?
Michael Burrell: Mwahahaha. Yes, I've had the opportunity to try on the costumes and see most of the designs. I'm not sure how much I'm actually allowed to share, but I think it will be everything the audiences will come in expecting, and more. This costume is definitely helping me create the character. I get the chance to rehearse with some pieces and those alone inform so much. Each day I'm finding more of how the Beast walks and talks, which is so exciting. I can only imagine what it will be like with everything on.
I read an interview with Alan Menken where he talked about working on the live-action film's score. He said, "The challenge is just to maintain the balance of what we originally had for the score and what we had for the show, and at the same time allow this film to have its own character." This reminded me that each production of the musical has its own character, too. How would you describe the character of this production?
Michael Burrell: I love our director, Chris Bailey's, vision for this show. It's a Disney show, and like you said, everyone has seen some version of it. So, people are coming in with a preconceived idea and expectation of what this production will be. You can't change the characters they know and love, nor would we want to. But Chris has done an amazing job of taking these beloved 2-D, animated characters and making them as "human" as possible, if you will. They aren't stock characters. They're fully fleshed individuals with wants and needs.
He's also very aware of the children in the audience. There are some tough situations addressed in this show (i.e. forced imprisonment, misogyny) which he doesn't take lightly. He's a big believer that children are always learning and tries to find the best possible way to present these situations. Ultimately, he's highlighting this fiercely strong, young woman who's true to herself, and through that has a positive impact on those around her. I think with this production, the audience will really see and appreciate that.
And now a little about you! You graduated with a BFA in Musical Theatre from Texas State University. How did your time at Texas State prepare you for the reality of working in musical theatre?
Michael Burrell: I owe everything to my teachers at Texas State. They prepared me in so many different ways. They did an amazing job of staying ahead of the curve with any shifts or changes in the industry. They gave me the opportunity to learn from and work with some incredible professional artists. I even got to work on new musicals and plays, which stretched so many creative muscles. But I think the most useful thing they taught me was to be an individual artist and a gracious collaborator.
I also read that you're a bit of a playwright yourself. How do you find your writing informs your acting and vice versa?
Michael Burrell: Playwriting is something I think every actor should do at some point. I think once you've written a play for yourself, good or bad, it drastically changes how you read a script. You get a better understanding of why a playwright uses certain structuring, their choice of language, their sense of style, etc. It's another layer peeled away for you as an actor, giving you even more to play with. Not to mention a deeper appreciation for how hard it is to write a good script!
And finally, what is the best advice anyone has ever given you?
Michael Burrell: "You're your own worst critic. Be kind to yourself."
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST opens December 8 and runs through December 23 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. For tickets or more information, please call 713-315-2525 or visit tuts.com.