Robert Jess Roth was a 27-year-old director of stage shows at Disneyland when he fantasized about much more than this provincial life.
“I went to [then Disney chairman] Michael Eisner with the idea of Disney doing Broadway in 1990,” Roth, now 56, recalls of the inception of Disney’s seminal stage musical, Beauty and the Beast. The company’s first-ever Broadway adaptation just marked its 25th anniversary this past April, with news arriving shortly afterward that the show — a tale as old as time, or at least 25 years — would reportedly return with a brand-new revival. As Roth remembers, “Michael said, ‘What an interesting idea! No. But you can ask me again. So it was a little bit open-ended, and I asked a bunch more times, and finally in 1991 the movie Beauty and the Beast opened on a Friday night, and on Sunday, Michael came down to Disneyland…and he said, ‘If we’re going to do a Broadway show, maybe it should be that.'”
Roth, whose stage credits at Disneyland included a Tchaikovsky-meets-Led-Zeppelin show called Mickey’s Nutcracker, had previously pitched Eisner three ideas of titles worthy of the New York stage, all legacy properties that had flourished under the Disney banner for several decades: Mary Poppins, Sleeping Beauty, and Pinocchio. Suddenly Beauty and the Beast, with its high box-office returns and rave reviews (in particular for the theater-ready score from Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman) became an overnight frontrunner for adaptation. But if the film’s release simplified the company’s decision of what to finally do on Broadway, it was clear to Roth that there was nothing remotely obvious about how.
“I think I said to Michael that day, ‘You can’t do Beauty and the Beast — it’s about a teapot, a clock, and a candelabra!’” laughs Roth. “How do you do that? And it really wasn’t until we figured one thing out that everything fell into place.”
The key involved a small addition to the story that, even two-and-a-half decades later, Roth credits with unlocking the show’s entire ability to work on stage. The director explains, “In the movie, the enchantress places a spell onto the Beast and turns everyone in the castle into objects. In the musical, she only starts them on the course of transforming as the petals fall off the rose. And once we figured that out, everything changed.”
Roth was nervous that the supporting characters had been missing a fundamental arc that would sustain a fully-realized, often two-hour-plus stage story. “The thing I was dreading was that I couldn’t go to an actor and say, ‘You’re a clock.’ There’s no emotion to that,” he says. “But when you say, ‘You’re a mother that has this affliction that’s getting worse’ or ‘You’re the major domo of the house, you have a nervous problem, you probably have a bad stomach, you desperately want to be in charge but you’re not, and your actual body is turning into wood and you’re getting stiffer and stiffer as the play goes on’…that’s an actable thing for an actor. That’s a human story somewhere in there. And it gave us access to great actors, and it gave the characters a stake in everything.” (Some stakes were bigger than others: Actor Gary Beach reportedly received hazard pay for his eight-show-a-week dalliance with pyrotechnics as candelabra Lumiere. “With his flame hands, he was basically wearing a bomb on his back,” says Roth. “We had to have a fireworks-approved person on the crew because he was considered a live firework.”)
Indeed, the epiphany paid off. The compelling trajectories of the characters inside the Beast’s cursed castle attracted the likes of proper stage actors like Beach, Terrence Mann (as the Beast), and Beth Fowler (as Mrs. Potts) — but before they even came onboard, it was Roth, in his late 20s with no Broadway credits to his name, who had to prove himself as ringleader as the stakes raised around him. The creative team for the stage show was already stacked with the all-stars who made the film including Menken, writer Linda Woolverton, and lyricist Tim Rice (who stepped in after Ashman’s death in 1991). Some were skeptical about the early state of the project; on top of that, the director says he was discouraged from powwowing with the writers until after he pitched Disney his version of the story, leaving him to plot his vision for new scenes and songs himself before the authorities weighed in (although, for sanity and advice, he ran some of his ideas by his parents.)
Fortunately, Roth had an invisible helping hand, something “scary and strange and wonderful” that happened and added immense credibility to his expansions of the Beauty story. Ashman, who died from complications from AIDS in 1991 before he’d even seen the finished film cut of Beauty, was survived by his partner Bill Lauch, who offered Roth a copy of Ashman’s personal files when the director was first named to the project. “He said, ‘I’m going to give you a copy of Howard’s hard drive because you should look at these lyrics and how he developed these songs, because there might be some good stuff on here that you can use,’” Roth recalls. “That was so incredibly generous of him. And so I started looking through it and all of a sudden there was a song on there, not in the movie, called ‘Human Again,’ about the objects singing about returning to their human form, and it fit so beautifully with this new idea. It was like Howard from beyond the grave was saying to me, ‘Yes, this is right.’ Even now it’s hard for me to talk about Howard Ashman.” The hard drive also boasted dozens of developmental lyrics, including the progressions that got Ashman to the title song’s now-classic refrain and an endless cache of rhyming couplets that Menken and Rice would work into the reprise of “Gaston.”
Over its 13-year-run, Beauty and the Beast would prove itself to be quite right in its experimental risks. Though it was the most expensive Broadway show ever mounted at the time, Roth recalls fielding offers for 10 international productions barely a week after the show’s opening in April of 1994. It would become Broadway’s 10th-longest-running musical, and if critics did not immediately lavish it with praise in its debut, its success would nevertheless reveal a great potential for both Broadway’s ability to recapture family audiences and Disney’s future on the global stage (paving the way for a little show in 1997 called The Lion King).
“When Beauty and the Beast was made [at Walt Disney Animation Studios], back in those days the first thing that would always happen is there’d be something in the theme parks — a parade or a show — and the miracle of Beauty and the Beast as an enterprise is that nobody ever thought it would give rise to this huge theatrical division,” says Thomas Schumacher, whose Disney career blossomed from running the famed animation studio to serving as president of the eventually-formed Disney Theatrical Productions, where he’d become a chief figure behind the subsequent phenomenon of The Lion King and the company’s overall creative theatrical business.
“If Little Mermaid cemented the theatrical musical on film, when Beauty came to the stage the big surprise for people was that it wasn’t a kids’ musical,” Schumacher continues. He volunteers an anecdote of the title’s popularity, an admittedly “weird way to measure it,” he laughs, but a truth nonetheless: “One of the hottest-selling pieces of merchandise at the show was a single rose with a Beauty and the Beast tag on it. And we realized, this was a date-night show. The reason it did so well and was the 10th-longest-running musical in Broadway history is because you could bring a date, or a kid, or grandma, or mom and dad—and that’s all to do with the strength of it and its structure. What Howard Ashman and Linda Woolverton and Alan Menken did was hitting all of those points, without having to do any big action or crazy stuff. It’s just a beautifully told story, with just a breathtaking, breathtaking score.”
Like the making of the animated film itself, Beauty forged its own course in its original storytelling (the risk of “Belle” as an opening number deserves an oral history in and of itself). Even with the backing of the Disney name, it did much the same thing on Broadway, dipping a unique toe into a tough industry as a one-off trial with no real subsequent business plan. The show was only later integrated into the Disney Theatrical arm that Schumacher and partner Peter Schneider were brought in to create, wherein they wrangled everything in house—general management, a touring system, and a business model not unlike that of a non-profit theater company—to ultimately set up DTP as the behemoth Broadway institution audiences now know. And Beauty, without knowing it at all, sparked the intrigue of the masses, wandering around a buzzing 42nd Street with its nose effectively stuck in a book.
Schumacher beams, “Beauty is the one that took the giant risk. Beauty stuck its chin out and said, ‘We’re going to create a stage musical based on an animated musical film.’ And in doing that, Beauty set the table for everything that came after it.” Cue the candelabra’s entrance.