Once an enchantress warned a young prince not to be deceived by appearances. “Beauty is found within,” she told him, and surely you recall what happened next.
You’d do well to heed that advice when the touring production of “Beauty and the Beast” arrives at the National Theatre next week. It does not look like the “Beauty and the Beast” you remember. Certain pieces remain unaltered (purists, you can exhale: Belle’s ballgown is and always will be yellow) but the first “Beauty” to hit the road since August 2003 has been heavily remodeled by its makers.
The creative team behind the original 1991 Broadway production — director Rob Roth, scenic designer Stan Meyer, choreographer Matt West, costume designer Ann Hould-Ward, lighting designer Natasha Katz and writer Linda Woolverton — have reunited, “Avengers assemble!” style, to breathe new life into a time-worn tale. There’s just one major caveat: Beauty is on a budget.
This “Beauty” tour launched in February 2010. It’s been seen by more than 1.4 million people in 147 cities — 148 when it arrives in Washington. Reviews have run the gamut from delighted to disgusted. In order to meet budgetary restrictions (or to fulfill an artistic vision, depending on your interpretation), Roth and his team are responsible for a noticeably stripped-down production.
According to Kenneth Gentry, owner of NETworks, who co-produced the show with Disney, the decision to do a non-equity production came down to touring logistics. “Beauty” couldn’t both abide by equity rules and play shorter stints in more cities, especially smaller venues which had never hosted the show before.
Still, he insisted that “this all started with an idea of doing a new ‘Beauty and the Beast’ . . . We weren’t trying to replicate the previous version of the show at all.”
Gentry put this tour’s budget at “in excess of $3 million.” As far as he’s concerned, “Beauty” was due for a revamp. “I thought the idea of reproducing the previous ‘Beauty and the Beast’ was just wrong.”
That previous “Beauty and the Beast” was a gigantic success based on a gigantic success. First came the 1991 film, which brought a modern Belle (one Woolverton based, in part, on the feisty, book-loving Jo March from “Little Women”) to the masses and made $144.8 million in the United States alone. Then came the musical, which opened on Broadway in April 1994. The $12 million production ran for 13 years, making it the most expensive and eighth-longest-running Broadway show in history. “Beauty” has since been seen by 35 million people in 21 countries.
One might deem it a mistake to mess with such a winning formula. But the “Beauty” creative team says they’ve always been itching to do a more abstract show, something that’s possible now because time has liberated them from Disney’s initial mandate to make “the cartoon come to life.”
“This new production is visually very, very different from the Broadway show,” Roth said. “But [it] has many of the elements that you know from when you were a little kid. All the magic is there.”
When Roth, West and Meyer met to plan the current “Beauty” tour, they were faced with some — to put it euphemistically — limitations. Space being one. Time being another. Money being a third. Because space costs money and time is money, these problems could be summed up as money, money and money.
The economics of modern touring mirror the economics of modern everything, which is to say there isn’t much funding to go around. Compare that to the mid-’90s: By the time the first national tour began in 1995, the Broadway production of “Beauty” had recouped its initial investment more than three times over. That first tour required 12 trucks and took a week to set up and strike. The 2010 tour could only be a quarter of the size, with three trucks and a day or two to get in and out of each city.
Roth posed a challenge to the group: “What if we just start over?”
What if we just start over? Meyer and West immediately thought of the castle, this behemoth of a set piece that occupied a third of the stage. Imagine the freedom of just . . . getting rid of it. No castle. Who needs a castle?
As long as we’re editing, why not ditch that slapstick mob scene before Gaston and the Beast have their final confrontation? Can we cut a couple of songs, throw another in? How about that wolf attack? What if the wolves weren’t actors but puppets, Basil Twist puppets?
“In 20 to 30 minutes, I knew we weren’t going to do that old version of the show,” Roth said. “The ideas were just pouring out of us.”
That’s the origin story, according to creatives: This is Beauty 2.0, and it was inspired by a hunger for reinvention. The result takes place on a brand-new set-as-storytelling device in which every piece is illuminated from the inside, making the story’s central thesis — that we must strive to see through even the most monstrous exterior to the human being within — manifest. The script is tighter, the costumes lighter, the spaces brighter. “There’s an etherealness to it now,” Roth said.
Meyer said the new set is “a little more fantastical. It’s alive. It’s in transition. It’s enchanted.”
Not everyone has been enchanted by the new “Beauty,” especially in the light of the ticket prices: a whopping $85 a pop on average and more than $100 for the best seats to see rookie performers take a crack at a scaled-down classic. The general takehome has been that anyone who attended the original will see the invisible things — the jettisoned cast members, the skimpy set — and think that a show so expensive shouldn’t look so cheap. Children will be charmed. Adults may feel cheated.
But even as word spreads that this may be a bargain-basement “Beauty” at Broadway costs for patrons, tickets continue to sell. The tour is booked through 2013.
Maybe it’s because of the songs. “It’s some of the best music you can buy,” West said. “Every song moves the story forward.” It could be Belle, whom Woolverton wrote to be “an active protagonist . . . who wasn’t a throwback heroine who the world abuses and then she sits back and talks to pretty animals.” Hould-Ward agreed. “[Belle] still reflects the kind of girl we hope our girls turn into.”
Hould-Ward also thinks there’s something about “Beauty” that feels even more relevant in 2012 than it did in 1994. “It has the ability to tell us about people who come from vastly different worlds and how, by learning about each others’ worlds, [we can] come to compassion that allows for sharing of power.”
Maybe there’s just something irresistible about believing in impossible things, or in almost-impossible things: that someone can change, that love can transform, that people will try to see us for who we really are. To watch “Beauty and the Beast” is to have those desires satisfied, to witness onstage the phenomena we rarely get to experience in our lives.
“We’re all very aware of . . . the effect the show has on audiences, that we’ve created something with this deep pull,” Roth said.
It’s a pull to which even Roth is not immune. “I get sucked into the story. The music is beautiful, and the songs make me cry.”
June 12-24 at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave NW. 202-628-6161 or www.nationaltheatre.org.