30 years later, Beauty and the Beast's Broadway opening has a bigger effect than you realize

30 years ago, Disney turned Beauty and the Beast into a Broadway smash that would change so much for New York and the company!
Disney's "Beauty And The Beast" Coming Miami Beach
Disney's "Beauty And The Beast" Coming Miami Beach / Handout/GettyImages

Anniversaries are always a big deal for Disney. Yet this week marks one that may not get as much press but is one of the most important in Disney company history. April 18 is the 30th anniversary of the premiere of Beauty and the Beast on Broadway and how it transformed so much for the company. With that achievement coming, it's fun to look back at the show and its amazing legacy. 

The Birth of the Broadway Dream

In a way, we have Frank Rich to thank for how this show came together.

When Beauty and the Beast premiered in 1991, critics and audiences went wild for what was seen as the best Disney animated movie in decades. It culminated in becoming the first animated feature nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and easily winning Best Song for the title track. Among the various praises was Rich, the New York Times theater critic who cited the movie as "the best Broadway musical score of 1991."

At the time, Broadway was in a state of flux, the mega-budget shows clashing with audience tastes changing. It was getting harder to get folks to come out for musicals, especially children. It wasn't helped by the fact that in 1991, New York City was a pretty nasty place from Times Square to Broadway itself, and other critics agreed with Rich that the film offered a better Broadway musical experience than the weak slate of that season.

The review struck a chord with Michael Eisner, who was already trying to expand Disney beyond movies and theme parks. A musical buff for a while, Eisner realized that turning the film into a stage show could work. 

In a way, Disney had a "tryout" with a half-hour show at the Disney-MGM Studios that showed that it could work, even pulling off the transformation of the Beast. Of course, a theme park show is one thing, Broadway is another and that meant some changes to the tale as old as time.

Building the show was tricky

Surprisingly, Eisner chose Robert Jesse Roth as the director, despite his lack of experience. Most believed it was because Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg didn't want an A-list director who'd challenge their control. After binging on the film, Roth put together 140 storyboards for Eisner and Alan Menken to win them over.

Getting Menken on board was key. This was the last project by Menken and partner Howard Ashman, who sadly passed away from AIDS before the film premiered. It was expected he'd add more songs, and if Menken didn't like Roth's vision, the show would be dead. Despite being wary, Menken did agree. 

Linda Woolverton, who'd written the movie's screenplay, heard of the plans while on vacation to reportedly moan "yikes." She went ahead adapting her own script and she and Menken quickly realized they had a great opportunity to put in elements they'd been forced to cut out of the film.

That includes beefing up the castle servant characters and the idea that they, too, were affected by the curse, so if the Beast could not find love in time, they would turn into inanimate objects. So, rather than just the Beast, it's a pack of people trying to make tough choices and are more desperate to get Belle to break the curse.

The Beast was made more sympathetic with the fantastic song "If I Can't Love Her." There were also great touches like the scene of the pair in the library with the Beast confessing he never learned to read and Belle teaching him. Menken enjoyed playing with it, adding a few songs he and Ashman had to cut from the original film to craft the story. Now, all they had to do was bring it to life. 

Casting the magic 

Courtney Reed, Laura Osnes, Susan Egan
"That's From Disneyland" Hosts Broadway Princess Party / Angela Papuga/GettyImages

For Belle, Susan Egan ironically thought making a musical of the movie was a bad idea but auditioned anyway. She stood out as, rather than imitating Paige O'Hara, she put her own spirit and spunk into Belle, landing Egan (who later voiced Meg in Hercules) the part. 

Terrance Mann, already a Broadway veteran as Javert in Les Miserables, landed the role of the Beast. While older than the young prince should have been, Mann impressed not only with his great voice but his physicality needed to handle the huge costume. Gary Beach (later a Tony winner for The Producers) was Lumiere while the only recognizable face in the cast was Tom Bosley of Happy Days fame as Belle's father. 

While at first wary of the project, Ashman and Tim Rice found themselves clicking, putting together new songs like "Human Again" (cut from the film), "Me," (another showcase for Gaston's massive ego) and "Home."

Stanley Meyer managed to pull off the epic feat of making the animated sets into three-dimensional worlds, while veteran Ann Hould-Ward handled the costumes. Hould-Ward came up with the touches, like how the servants' outfits would shift as the story went on, showing them slowly turning into real objects. 

The bigger challenge for Hould-Ward was Belle's iconic yellow dress, which weighed a whopping 45 pounds and required special help for Egan to get around in it. There was also the Beast's costume, even heavier while needing to show Mann's face enough to work. Throw in Lumiere's candle hands, the special effects for the magical scenes and pulling off the Beast transforming into human at the end in a complex wire work illusion and it's no wonder the supporting staff included chiropractors and therapists. 

The magical debut on stage

Disney's Beauty and the Beast performs in Ankara
Disney's Beauty and the Beast performs in Ankara / Anadolu/GettyImages

A big benefit for the show was that rather than rushing it, Eisener wisely knew it would take time to make it work. Thus, it took until November of 1993 for the show to start the typical tryouts, here in Houston. It was the usual method of working out the bugs, figuring out the audience reactions and making any alterations. 

Starting previews at the Palace Theater on March 9, 1994, Beauty and the Beast made its full debut on April 18 and, at an estimated $12-20 million, was the most expensive Broadway show of the time (which is laughable considering that's low by Broadway standards of today).

The critical reception was…not kind. Famed New York Times critic Vincent Canby dismissed it as "resembling dinner theater," with others agreeing. In fact, the New York theater community appeared to have been waiting months to start carving the show to pieces before they'd even seen it. There was a feeling (that time has given more credence to) that the classic powers of Broadway of the time weren't happy with Disney intruding on their world with a production of their own design and work. It wasn't the first and far from the last time that Broadway was wary of someone shaking things up. 

That seemed to be backed by the Tony Awards. The show did earn nine nominations, including Best Musical and nods for Egan, Mann, and Beach, but only won for Hould-Ward's costumes. Best Musical that year went to Stephen Sondheim's Passions. Of course, the legacy would show who had the last laugh, as even Sondheim aficionados forget Passions while Beauty's impact is far greater. 

The reason for the extra song

Toni Braxton
2019 American Music Awards - Fixed Show / Tommaso Boddi/GettyImages

Before a discussion on the legacy, a quick sidebar to the additional song that's not on the original 1994 soundtrack. In 1998, with the show now an established hit, Disney did what any Broadway hit does: Get a big-name singer to do a stint as the star. In this case, it was casting R&B Grammy winner Toni Braxton as Belle. 

During the initial discussions, Braxton had dinner with Menken and Rice, and she agreed on the condition that they write a new song for her. Supposedly, a drunk Rice agreed, only to be reminded of it later. Amazingly, in just 24 hours, Rice had come up with "A Change In Me," where Belle visits an imprisoned Maurice to explain how her time with the Beast has altered her. 

Braxton performed the song on The Rosie O'Donnell Show, where it instantly took off. Eisner also loved it and ever since, productions have made it part of the show and soundtrack for an offbeat addition. 

The legacy and impact of Beauty and the Beast on stage is greater than you think

Getting back to 1994, audiences didn't care about the critics and made the show one of the bigger hits of the year, especially with families. This coincided with then NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani trying to change the city's image by cleaning up the dirty Times Square and Broadway areas, making it more family friendly. Thus, New Yorkers have Disney to thank for getting rid of the grimy aura the city once had. 

The show moved to the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in 1999 and in 2007, Disney decided to close it as they were about to open The Little Mermaid on Broadway and felt two Disney princess shows might divide audiences. So, Beauty and the Beast closed its run on July 29, 2007, after 46 previews and 5,461 performances, making it the tenth-longest running show in Broadway history.

Of course, the show continues around the world with touring productions in 40 countries and a 2022 West End revival in London and that's not counting scores of productions for everything from high schools to dinner theaters (take that Vincent Canby). Plans are underway for a 2025 U.S. tour, and the buzz of a possible Broadway revival pops up now and then. It's also obvious how the stage show influenced the hit 2017 live-action movie version. 

Yet the bigger legacy for the show is giving Disney a foothold on Broadway, a market it had long had trouble cracking. Its success allowed Eisner to give Julie Taymor a chance to bring The Lion King to life in 1997, leading to the highest-grossing musical ever that's still running on Broadway and London today.

While musicals of Mermaid, Mary Poppins, Tarzan and Frozen weren't as successful, they did show Disney spreading out beyond just the parks and films. It can also be argued Beauty's success began what's become a Broadway trend of turning movies into musicals that continues today and that Disney still imagines how some animated movies could work in live-action

Yet, at the end of the day, it's the daring of Beauty and the Beast on Broadway that may endure. It was a huge risk, and if it had failed, it would have hit Disney's reputation hard. In many ways, it shouldn't have worked, but like many risky Disney projects, it paid off dividends. That's something Disney could use more of today, recognizing the potential in creative endeavors and making a risk for something special. As Beauty and the Beast's travels and journey on Broadway proved, it can be rewarding on many levels.