It is both hard to express as well as to underestimate the importance of this month’s subject to Disneyland, Disney theme parks, and the Walt Disney Company. The Videopolis/Fantasyland Theater production of Beauty and the Beast— Live is largely forgotten today. But its impact still reverberates.
Part of the problem in recalling this delightful production of Beauty and the Beast is that there is quite a bit of confusion regarding similar offerings in other parks. To keep things straight, here is the chronology: on November 22, 1991, the musical opened at the Disney-MGM Studios (not at all coincidentally the same day the movie went into general release). On April 11, 1992, the show opened in Fantasyland at Disneyland. The show also played at Disneyland Paris, beginning December 31, 1992. Adding confusion to this summary is the fact that there were two distinctly different versions of the show running simultaneously. At Walt Disney World the production was more of a musical review, opening with “Be Our Guest” and featuring an elaborate ballet in the middle of “Kill the Beast.” This is the version that was transported to Paris, while Florida got a new production that matched the Disneyland version after the Theater of the Stars was moved for the expansion of Sunset Boulevard in 1993. The version in California closed on April 30, 1995, the Paris production ran through January 1, 1997, and the Florida version has seemingly been running forever, although it has closed and come back in slightly different forms. Is that clear?
Fortunately, we will be dealing with just one production here, the one that opened thirty years ago at Disneyland. I do not exaggerate when I say it created a sensation in its time. Readers here will recall my June 1990 column, where I discussed the Dick Tracy musical, the first Disneyland theme park show built around a single film property. This was followed by Plane Crazy and Mickey’s Nutcracker, both well-received productions. But none of these were as immediately adored by audiences as Beauty and the Beast.
By today’s standards, the production is not as elaborate as fans have come to expect at Disney theme parks. But when it opened in 1992 it was head and shoulders above what had come before. So popular was the show that it became the first to be held over year after year, finally closing in 1995.
The challenge facing the production team at Disneyland was to present a satisfying retelling of the motion picture, in around 20 minutes and without an elaborate stage to accommodate all the magical effects seen in the film. According to rumor at the time, the team at Disneyland was not satisfied with Florida’s version, hence the later premiere date. Whether this is true or not, the California version hewed much closer to the film.
The opening was a brisk retelling of the legend of the Beast, with just three vignettes: the selfish Prince, the crone seeking shelter, and the cursed Beast. These events were explained by the narrator. The curtain then rose on the French village and a fairly faithfully staged production number of “Belle.” Although later stage versions offered different degrees of stylization, this production was intentionally designed to resemble the movie as much as possible. One major change was the presentation of only a “quotation” from the song “Gaston” in the middle of the opening number.
As Belle sang of seeking adventure, the village backdrop scrolled sideways to reveal the meadow. This, in turn, opened to reveal the gloomy castle of the Beast, inhabited by his enchanted servants. This rather hasty transition was explained by the narrator, which was necessary, as the next scene depicted the Beast’s frustration with Belle’s refusal to join him at dinner.
After the Beast stormed off the stage, Belle (and the audience) were treated to the show’s most elaborate number, “Be Our Guest.” Despite the limitations of the stage (and the size of the cast), there was a definite sense of spectacle. There was even a large bowl of “the gray stuff.”
After more expository narration, the number “Something More” was staged with a pair of small set pieces in front of an elaborate curtain. While some may find the large-scale enchanted servants a bit incongruous, they were no different from the theme park characters audiences of 1992 expected to see and understood.
After having settled down in the “library,” Belle, Beast and the servants exited the stage, as the narrator explained that all was not well back in the village. Against a backdrop of a menacing forest, Gaston led the villagers in a rousing rendition of “Kill the Beast.” At the height of the song, the backdrop opened to reveal the castle’s interior. After a brief scuffle, Gaston stabbed the Beast and left him center stage, dying in a crumpled heap.
As Belle, weeping, declared her love and swept off the stage, a transformation began taking place. Gloomy, tattered draperies disappeared, a smoke screen rose, and sparkling lights glittered on the columns. As the audience held their breath, the robe slowly rose above the stage, shook slightly, then rotated to reveal Prince Adam, transformed by Belle’s love for the Beast. As he stepped lightly down into the now altered ballroom, Belle appeared in her iconic yellow ball gown. The show ended with a performance of the title song, with a stage full of dancers and a charming final vignette framing Belle and the Prince in a flower bedecked heart.
During the run of Beauty and the Beast in Disneyland, it was interesting to note that much of the singing and dialogue was performed in recordings by the original cast of the movie. Belle and Gaston performed live, as well as certain other speaking parts. Disneyland’s first Belle, Stephanie J. Block, would go on to perform on Broadway, receiving a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical in 2019.
As mentioned above, this production was held over, eventually performing over 4,300 times on the Fantasyland Theatre stage (the name change from Videopolis would become official in 1995). Because audiences were willing to return again and again to see this staged version of the animated film, Disney began looking seriously at replicating this success on a much larger scale.
There had been some conversation about the stage potential for Beauty and the Beast when the film opened in theaters in November of 1991. At the time, the traditional stage musical had been declared all but dead, although Broadway was offering some large-scale imported spectacles. A couple of New York critics declared the best “Broadway” musical of the year had been presented on the screen by Disney animators.
None of this was lost on Disney CEO Michael Eisner, who was always looking for new entertainment fields to conquer. While some in the company had been hoping to bring Disney to the Broadway stage, it was this production of Beauty and the Beast that finally persuaded him. He even specified that the Disneyland director, Robert Jess Roth, head up the production. Beauty and the Beast premiered at the Palace Theater on April 18, 1994. It served as the basis and cornerstone of Disney Theatrical Productions, a major component of the Walt Disney Company. Among the productions that followed were The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Mary Poppins, Aida, Aladdin, and Frozen. After 29 successful years, Disney Theatrical Productions continues to create and perform new works around the world, in major theaters, regional showcases, and on national tours.
And all that started on a little stage in Fantasyland, thirty years ago at Disneyland