Taye Diggs is not especially good at expectorating, and he doesn’t eat five dozen eggs every morning to help him get large — but he’s about to find out what life as a Disney villain is like.
The veteran star of stage and screen is stepping into the role of Gaston this weekend as part of a special two-night event, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in concert live-to-film at the Hollywood Bowl.
As with previous similar events, including one featuring Disney’s The Little Mermaid, the Oscar-nominated animated movie will play on a screen while a full live orchestra accompanies with the score. Each time a musical number comes up, the film will pause while live performers take up the songs. The performers include Diggs as Gaston, Zooey Deschanel as Belle, Kelsey Grammer as Lumiere, Jane Krawkoski as Mrs. Potts, Anthony Evans as the Beast, and Rebel Wilson gender-bending as Gaston’s sidekick LeFou.
EW called up Diggs in advance of the final week of rehearsals to get the lowdown on how he’s preparing to play a Disney villain, what his favorite Disney musical is, and what it’s like returning to the stage after some time away.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You were in Rent back in the ’90s at the same time Beauty and the Beast was also on Broadway. Were you aware of the show, and did you get a chance to see it?
TAYE DIGGS: It was probably in the background because we were probably on the same schedule. One of the only shows that I remember while we were doing Rent was Bring in the Funk, Bring in the Noise, and they were on a different schedule, so we were able to actually see that. So everything else we didn’t have the opportunity to see. I remember being very excited to actually go and see that show because it had been running for a little bit already.
Have you always been a big Disney fan or had a desire to work with them?
Back then, it was less Disney and more just the show itself, because I was just a fan of the show. Because it was a movie musical. If I’m being honest, I didn’t know who was doing what when it came to the animated [movies], I just knew that when I went to see the actual movie, it was a musical, and I was a big fan of musicals, so to actually see it onstage was something that I was looking forward to. It wasn’t until after I had been in the business I actually started wanting to be in a Disney film for me and for my child.
What’s your favorite Disney movie or musical?
Well, The Lion King was a huge one just because of the African-American connection, and then what Julie Taymor did to the stage production. I am a huge fan of Garth Fagan, and he choreographed The Lion King on Broadway. That specific musical, and Disney productions, made an impression on me and my child. It’s my son’s favorite as well.
You’re singing “Gaston,” but when they did The Little Mermaid a few years ago, they threw in a couple of songs from the Broadway show. Any chance we’ll get to see you sing “Me,” or that they’ll include other songs from the stage version?
I don’t think so. Literally, this whole experience feels like being shot out of a cannon. It’s been very fun, but very of the moment, and whenever anybody has any free time, that’s when we’ll grab a quick rehearsal. So I have no idea. I’m just doing what people tell me and going where people tell me to go. Trying to sing the right notes and hit the right marks.
Broadway is your first home, but this is your first musical performance since Hedwig and the Angry Inch in 2015. What’s it like getting back into it? Is it like riding a bike, or harder to re-find your footing when so much time passes?
Hedwig was one of the most difficult and most gratifying projects — the most difficult and the most gratifying project I ever worked on and probably ever will. It was a different kind of construct than a traditional musical. I hadn’t been in a traditional musical in years. Just this weekend we had a rehearsal with the ensemble, and if I had been riding a bike, I would have fallen over on my face a couple of times because there’s certain things you’ve got to get used to — facing the audience, making sure everybody in the back can see you. It’s so much fun, but it does take a little getting used to. And I just need to be reminded that it’s very dissimilar to screen acting. Once it starts fitting, then you kind of get into the gist of things and then you’re riding smooth. I’m still in that phase right now.
You’re singing live to film; what’s that experience like? How does it impact your approach to the work?
One of the reasons why I’m extra excited/nervous is because this is unlike anything I’ve ever done before. It’s very different from what a lot of people are used to. Yes, we’re singing kind of to the film. But then we have an orchestra which is live, so it’s different but then the same. So a lot of what we really need to get used to we won’t know until we’re in front of the orchestra and the conductor because we’re not singing to the movie. The movie cuts out, the film cuts out, and then we fit right in. There’s a conductor that we’re looking at and a live orchestra and live ensemble that we’re listening to, so it’s a very interesting combination.
Rebel Wilson is your LeFou, which is a fun gender swap. Any memorable moments from working together so far?
She’s just great. I’ve been a fan of hers and continue to be a fan. She’s done this kind of performance before. She was in The Little Mermaid [as] Ursula. And she’s kind of been showing me the ropes. When there are times when the nerves start to tickle, she’s always there to show me the ropes, so I’m grateful.
Your stage work has largely been in New York. How does it feel like to be doing a musical in L.A.? And at the Hollywood Bowl in particular?
It’s different for me to be in an outdoor theater. Period. Then you add the element of Los Angeles and you add the element of a piece I’ve never done before, Beauty and the Beast, and then you add the element of it being done with the film. This is something brand-spanking-new for me.
What kind of prep have you been doing to get into Gaston’s mindset — expectorating, gazing in the mirror, eating raw eggs?
It’s just the music. I feel like it’s all in the text. Right now I’m just trying to get the music down and the notes. It’s so brilliantly written that it’s hard to sing it without feeling full of yourself. That’s one of the benefits of working with really great songwriters, so I’m also grateful for that.
Returning to another work of musical theater: In recent years, there have been some think pieces about how Benny is actually the only good character in Rent and not the villain — and he’s even offering his friends a pretty good deal. Have you seen any of those, and if so, have you felt vindicated at all?
[Laughs] I haven’t. But that entire experience was so specific and unique and special. Nothing can really mess with that. The older I’m getting, the more and more credit I give [writer Jonathan] Larson and the cast. It was just such a wonderful, special time for all of us. And I’m just so thankful to have been able to have been a part of it.
Beauty and the Beast live in concert plays the Hollywood Bowl on May 25 and 26.