30 Years of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast on Broadway

By: Greg Gately

30 Years of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast on Broadway

30 Years of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast on Broadway. Tomorrow at 11:00 Am on the Disney Broadway Youtube Page, Disney’s ‘Aladdin’ Live recording from Epcot will air. In the meantime, check out 30 years of memories of Beauty and the Beast on Broadway. Thanks to D23 for posting this article.

It’s a tale as old as time that’s been delighting audiences around the world for three incredible, tuneful decades. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast officially opened at the Palace Theatre in New York City on April 18, 1994—bringing the iconic story and songs from Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Academy Award®-winning film to life in a thrilling new way… and setting the stage, so to speak, for the entertainment juggernaut that is Disney on Broadway.

To celebrate such a momentous occasion, D23 recently sat down to chat with several people who were there from the start: Natasha Katz, the show’s lighting designer, who would go on to design for several other Disney on Broadway productions (winning the Tony®Award for Aida); director and choreographer Matt West, who’ll soon be helming a newly reimagined 30th anniversary North American tour of the show; and Susan Egan, who originated the role of Belle on the Broadway stage.

Read on for some of behind-the-gray-stuff intel… and to learn more from these and other Disney on Broadway luminaries, D23 Gold Members can check out the Spring 2024 issue of the fan club’s collectible quarterly publication, Disney twenty-three!

30 Years of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast on Broadway
30 Years of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast on Broadway

Related: Two D23 Events Celebrating Princess Tiana Coming to Walt Disney World

D23: The Official Disney Fan Club: Can you tell us about some of your earliest Beauty and the Beast on Broadway memories? All of you were there, essentially, from the very beginning…

Natasha Katz (NK): There is no question that Beauty and the Beast changed my life forever. It was a turning point in my career… This was during the tenure of [then-Disney CEO] Michael Eisner and [then Disney Studios chairman] Jeffrey Katzenberg. Because they were very busy men, they weren’t there all the time—so they had an objectivity [toward] the show that was absolutely phenomenal and helped all of us, I think. That has always stayed with me and has been extremely helpful in my own way of looking at shows—to be able to find a way to separate yourself and look at it with “baby eyes,” so to speak. It was profound for me personally, that these two great producers that had come in. It was extraordinary.

Matt West (MW): [After having choreographed several projects for Disney], my team and I said, “We want to do a Broadway show. We want to take Disney to Broadway.” And [Eisner and Katzenberg] said, “Absolutely not. It’s hard to make money on Broadway.” But then they said, “You know what? You can ask us again. we might change our mind”… So we kept going back to them, and they let us start exploring some properties. At one point, Michael called and said, “What about Beauty and the Beast?” Frank Rich of The New York Times had called the 1991 film “the best musical of the season.” So the gauntlet was laid down… When they greenlit the show, it felt like we made the right steps to get to actually do Disney’s first Broadway show. And having danced on Broadway for many years and in many shows, I knew that Broadway is its own little thing—it is its own little nut to crack. So I knew there were going to be hurdles, and that Disney was a big company coming into Broadway—and that had not really been done before. The company really dealt with those hurdles brilliantly and easily and, I think, with a lot of class and style. It was one of the most thrilling moments of my life.

Susan Egan (SE): I had just come off the road from Bye Bye Birdie with Tommy Tune, and my agent said, “You should go in for Beauty and the Beast.” I said, “I don’t even know what you’re talking about. The lead role is supposed to be ‘the most beautiful girl in the village.’ That’s not me.” I had spiky red hair. If they were auditioning for Peter Pan. I’m your girl, y’know? But Belle? Not me. But my agent said, “Well, you’ve never met this casting director; you should go in because you’re new in town.” So I went, and I made them laugh. I think it made them realize there’s more than one way to do things.

After the final round of callbacks, they didn’t make us wait—they called us that night. I didn’t know what to do with myself. And this is how long ago it was—I walked up to Blockbuster Video, after stopping at the deli to get some coffee crunch ice cream—and I rented Beauty and the Beast. I hadn’t seen it yet… I found out later that every single choice was unanimous. It took them 20 minutes to cast the show, which is wild. But I mean—it had to be Gary Beach [as Lumiere]; it had to be Beth Fowler [as Mrs. Potts]; it had to be Heath Lamberts [as Cogsworth]. It  just had to be Kenny Raskin [as Lefou]. It definitely had to be Burke Moses [as Gaston] and Terrance Mann [as the Beast]. It was just one of those really crazy experiences.

30 Years of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast on Broadway
30 Years of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast on Broadway

D23: How has working on Beauty and the Beast—and, in later years, other Disney on Broadway productions or different projects with the company—impacted your career as a whole?

NK: I’ve traveled the entire world with Disney on Broadway! So that’s a personal thing for me that’s just been so fulfilling—to meet and work with people from different cultures, speaking different languages. Not many people get that opportunity; it’s almost like a diplomatic mission. All of that is absolutely wonderful…

I have lived in an environment with Disney on Broadway where there’s so much trust and a real sense of family—not to mention cutting-edge technology all the time, and all the different kinds of resources that Disney has—and that has definitely transferred into every other show that I do. In a sense, “nothing is impossible” is the way I think, all the time. That is, without a doubt, the consequence of what Disney on Broadway has done to my psyche, so to speak. That’s profound.

MW: Well, that’s been equally as thrilling—to have this project, my first job as a choreographer on Broadway, grow and mature along with me… All these years with this particular project, they’ve allowed me the tools to go out and explore; it’s just a joy every time I get to jump back into the ring and recreate the show. In that way, I believe we’ve been able to keep Beauty and the Beast relevant. In fact, Linda Woolverton—who wrote the original screenplay and the original Broadway libretto—and I recently went in and “wordsmithed” it again. It keeps moving with the times. We’ve made it a little more contemporary in its feeling, but it’s still Beauty and the Beast.

What’s been especially exciting, over the years, is watching Disney on Broadway—something my team and I helped launch—grow to become the most successful theater-producing unit ever. I can’t really put into words what that journey has been like for me, but it’s something that’s very near and dear to my heart.

SE: It was one of those really crazy experiences. In retrospect, everybody thought, “Well, of course Disney is [now] on Broadway”—but at the time, there was no guarantee… but something struck a chord. And that’s why I still work with Disney today; I produce for Disney now [with Disney Princess – The Concert]. It’s that Disney magic that brings people together, from all kinds of fronts. [With the shows I help produce], I’ve got a cast right now in Jakarta, in Macao; we’ve been to Saudi Arabia and Qatar—they don’t speak English, but they’re all singing “Let it Go” from Frozen!

30 Years of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast on Broadway
30 Years of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast on Broadway

D23: Anything else you’d like to share about your experiences with Beauty and the Beast on Broadway?

NK: I think Beauty and the Beast—and Disney on Broadway in general—works so well on stage because it’s all about having a heart; that is a big part of it. And then you add everything else, which is think about all the incredible music, the incredible lyrics, the visuals; the magic of it, both for children and for grown-ups. That’s one of the things that Disney does unbelievably well—it’s just as good for grown-ups as it is for kids… All of that is a huge, huge part of it. And putting the right teams together, too. That’s the other thing—getting the right people in the room together. But in any case, I think it’s all about heart and love and kindness and working through sometimes scary situations to “get somewhere.” The loss of a parent; the loss of a sister—all those kinds of things are universal.

And there’s a familial feeling, that’s been such an endearing part of my life—as well as a metaphor for what the shows are, in the sense. That’s how it translates. Everybody working at Disney on Broadway, they’re all working from their heart to make the best show they can for the audience.

MW: These are amazing characters. They are in the animated films. To bring them to life—if the people who continue to bring these stories to life on stage are kind to the peace and honorable to the piece and make sure that people recognize these characters and their fate, we’ll have won. Because I believe that when people go to see a Disney show like Beauty and the Beast or something else that they’ve seen on screen—and that they know and they can sing all the words to—they want to feel it… They still need that Disney magic and that spark. And I think that we’re able to supply that magic feeling that no other show on Broadway has. It’s a special kind of gift that we get from the writers, and we’re able to then gift it to the audience.

SE: A common denominator is that everybody who works at Disney loves their job; there may be tough times, as with anything, but they’re fans of the product first… and Disney has a new generation of fans every five years. Beauty and the Beast is not old to the 3-year-old who’s watching the film for the first time, or to the child who’s seeing the musical for the first time ever.

Doing Beauty and the Beast was, all clichés aside, a total fairy-tale dream come true. I mean, I think the first fitting I went to, where they put that dress on me, I thought, “Just to look at the hand stitching!” I thought about the women who were sewing it—how much they cared; they would show me things the audience would never see, like in her bloomers. They had handstitched these flowers into them so that Susan, as Belle, would have something that her mother—who has died—created. They thought of everything for everybody at every level on that production; they cared so deeply about making it amazing. Nobody ever spoke down to this material. And that’s, I think, what made it great.

Beauty and the Beast can currently be seen on tour in Australia and in Tokyo—and a North American Tour will launch in summer 2025!

30 Years of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast on Broadway
30 Years of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast on Broadway

30 Years of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast on Broadway

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