Stage version of 'Disney's Beauty and the Beast' has a timeless appeal to audiences

Jillian Butterfield as Belle and Ryan Everett Wood as Beast in "Disney's Beauty and the Beast," which opens the 2015-16 Broadway live season at the Lexington Opera House. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Jillian Butterfield as Belle and Ryan Everett Wood as Beast in "Disney's Beauty and the Beast," which opens the 2015-16 Broadway live season at the Lexington Opera House. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

This was supposed to be the last hurrah for Disney's Beauty and the Beast, for a while, at least.

Like Disney has done with so many of its animated movies over the decades, the plan seemed to be to wrap up the current tour, which stops at the Lexington Opera House this weekend for five performances, and take the show off the road for a while. Then, roll it out again in a Broadway revival for a new generation.

But the show's longtime director said that plan may be changing.

"When they announced this was the last full year of the tour, producers went crazy," said Rob Roth, who has directed every Disney production of the show since its Broadway debut in 1994. "I think Disney was a bit surprised."It's the latest of many surprises for the musical, which opened in a very different Broadway landscape from today, where producers seem intent on turning every movie into a musical.

Roth was at work on a musical based on the Disney classic Mary Poppins in 1991, when then Disney chief Michael Eisner asked him if he had seen the studio's new hit, Beauty and the Beast, and told him to "think about how you'd adapt that for a show."

The film was an early entry into Disney's resurgence as an animation studio following the success of The Little Mermaid in 1989. Beauty and the Beast broke new ground as a critical and box office smash, becoming the first animated film to receive an Academy Award nomination for best picture. It won the Golden Globe Award for best picture — musical or comedy — and Roth says that a major part of the show's stage success was that composer Alan Menken, lyricist Howard Ashman and writer Linda Woolverton "wrote a Broadway musical that just happened to be an animated movie."

That feeling was buoyed by then New York Times theater critic Frank Rich's assertion that the film was a better musical than any of the musicals on Broadway that year.

When Roth went to work on the stage show, the main challenge was in scale. In the movie, characters like Mrs. Potts, the teapot, and Lumière, the candlestick, were easily drawn to scale with the title characters and other humans.

But on stage, the kitchenware and household items would be played by people, who could not be shrunk.

The solution was found in Human Again, a song Ashman had written for the story that did not make it into the movie. The objects sing of longing to be people again, which opened the idea that instead of being fully transformed, the people were in the process of transforming into their objects.

Ashman, who also collaborated with Menken on The Little Mermaid, never saw the success of the movie as he died in March 1991 from complications of the AIDS virus four days after the film was screened for Disney animators.

Tim Rice, at that point best known for his collaborations with Andrew Lloyd Webber, was brought in to help write additional songs for the stage show. (He would go on to other Disney successes including collaborating with Elton John on another Disney screen and stage blockbuster, The Lion King.)

After six months, Roth had a plan to bring to Eisner, expecting it would just be an initial meeting to get feedback.

"I laid it out for him, and Michael Eisner said, 'OK, we're going to do it.'

I said, 'What?!'"

That started what has been a career-long journey for Roth, whose credits also include directing Rice and John's Aida, the musical Lestat, based on Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, and numerous rock concert tours for acts such as KISS, Alice Cooper and Cyndi Lauper.

But Beast has been a constant, with 35 different productions to his credit, and none are the same. Of the tour coming to Lexington, which just wrapped up rehearsals and previews in Athens, Ga., he says, "I'm blown away by what they are doing with it. This show constantly proves that great writing can be interpreted in a variety of ways."

And that is another reason he believes theaters don't want to see the show leave the road. It always has an audience, which can be seen in the Opera House booking. Five days before opening night, only a few tickets remain for each performance, and in the dynamic pricing formula the venue is under — where prices rise based on demand — all seats except obstructed views are more than $100.

"It's played to three generations now," Roth says. "A lot of actors who work on the show say it was the first musical they saw. Parents will tell me they saw it as a kid, and now they're bringing their kids."

Like those movies that used to be put away a few years to wait for a new generation, the stage version of Beauty and the Beast has become a bona fide Disney classic.