Adaptation is tricky. Whether it’s from book to movie or from biography to musical, turning a well-known story from one form into another can be difficult. But turning an animated movie into a live-action musical production requires extensive creativity. It’s up to the director and producers to decide how to fit the imagination of the artist into the real limits of the human form.
“Beauty and the Beast” is one such Disney movie in a series of others that has been turned into a Broadway production. Originally a French fairy tale written by Jean-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1756, the first film version of the story was Jean Cocteau’s 1946 movie. The Disney version we all know and love was released in 1991. Three years later it was adapted into a musical on Broadway, and is currently on tour where it is being performed for smaller venues, such as the Proctor Theater in Schenectady, NY—where I saw it this past weekend.
For the most part, the musical follows the movie flawlessly. Any plot changes are minor, and of course the entire score is composed by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, including a few additional songs written by Menken and Tim Rice. These extra songs add greatly to the depth of the characters and give the ensemble a chance to perform a few well-choreographed dances. Even some of the original songs are extended in the musical version. The overly macho song “Gaston” had several minutes of extra refrains and dancing featuring tin steins in a way that put the song “Cups” from Pitch Perfect to shame.
The most difficult part of the adaptation from film was of course the castle staff that turned into inanimate objects. While it felt a little odd to watch actors portray a clock or a teapot, the use of costume was phenomenal. There was a lot of detail in the pants, dress, candlestick-hands and other assortment of props and materials used for these cast members, which made for a less-believable but much more entertaining display of people turned objects who still very much looked like people.
Set design was another strong point of the show. There were many scene changes throughout the two acts—I don’t think a single set remained the same for much more than 15 minutes. However the attention to detail here was not sacrificed for the sake of rapidity. The changes themselves were creative, and each scene felt quite complete with the beautiful painted background and very large and ornate moving pieces.
Although the movie itself was certainly meant for a younger audience, the musical felt even more so. At times it veered toward catering to kids to the point of excess with the use of slapstick comedy and over the top physical mannerisms. Even though I personally may not have enjoyed this change, more than half the audience was under the age of ten, so this may have been a successful modification overall.
However in complete opposition to this child-centered shift was the hyper-sexualization present throughout, especially through the French maide-inspired feather duster, Babette. In the film the character has very few speaking roles, but the musical featured her extensively with the primary focus being on her relationship to Lumière, the stereotypically French candlestick. Besides having the skimpiest costume of the entire cast, Babette is constantly seducing Lumière through the use of suggestive body language and exchanges riddled with innuendoes.
While I’m certainly not advocating for a Puritanical ban on suggestive content, in this context it seemed both excessive and unnecessary. The plot already features a main female character who gives up her freedom to save her father only to fall in love with her captor. Making yet another female character be in the service of men only takes away any sense of female agency this story has to offer.
Overall the musical was engaging and enjoyable to watch, and almost exactly what one would expect from the movie. Like the movie, there was a lot of movement throughout the show, and the cast was well-organized in the dances as well as the constant shifting and moving around during the scenes. The cast itself was well chosen, and each member had perfected their accents and mannerisms.
“Beauty and the Beast” as a musical is successful but in a different way than the film. Since of course the two cannot be identical, the live version emphasizes the inherent strengths of a musical, such as creative costuming and energy from the audience. I saw the musical as an extension of the movie. For those who are familiar with the film and the songs, seeing it on stage would be a somewhat different experience, but one that adds to the established favorite.