Let’s say you’ve got a tale as old as time, as true as it can be. Now you’re adapting it from a beloved animated feature to a live-action film. Can you make just a little change, small to say the least?
Well, yes and no. As Bill Condon, director of Disney’s new live-action “Beauty and the Beast,” which opened Friday, puts it by phone from Los Angeles, you have to make a lot of little changes – adding to, but not altering what people love about the 1991 classic and its characters: bookworm Belle (Emma Watson), her father Maurice (Kevin Kline), the tragic Beast (Dan Stevens) and all the rest, including a bevy of castle servants turned into anthropomorphic household objects.
“I remember pitching the scenes you always wanted to see, things you always wanted to know,” Condon, 61, says. “Like, how did Belle and Maurice wind up in that town? How did Mrs. Potts and all those other characters lose their humanity and become full objects? I thought those were great emotional moments that needed to be explored. But basically, it was about: How do you take something that’s perfect in one medium and try to translate it into really a different one?”
And indeed, this latest retelling of the venerable French fairy tale does explore the back story of Belle and Beast, from the death of Belle’s mother to the family of the cursed prince. It also adds a magical book that’s essentially an 18th-century “Star Trek” transporter and gives an interesting new inner life to a comic-relief character.
“There were some early scripts, but there was a lot of just brainstorming,” says the film’s composer, Alan Menken, 67, who has won eight Academy Awards for Disney animated movies, including the studio’s 1991 animated “Beauty and the Beast.” “But when Bill Condon came onboard,” he says, “then it began to take on shape dramaturgically. There was adding a lot of dramatic texture and reality – you know, ‘Let’s feel more of 18th-century France.’ Some of it was also an extra French influence in the score – a little bit of boulevard music in the new songs.”
And those new tunes are truly new, even though there was a hit Broadway-musical adaptation that ran for more than 5,400 performances from 1994 to 2007 and has its own following. Menken, who’d co-written the animated feature’s songs with Howard Ashman, had collaborated with Tim Rice after Ashman’s death to add an eventual seven songs to that Broadway version. Yet none of them made it into the live-action film, for which Menken and Rice wrote yet more new songs to complement such classics as “Belle,” “Be Our Guest” and the title tune.
“In a film, you’re not going to have as many song moments, necessarily,” says Menken. “So, assuming that you have a smaller number of songs for the movie, you’re certainly going to lean first and foremost toward those iconic tent-poles that were in the animated film.”
Additionally, says Condon, songs in a film must move the plot forward, whereas on stage they can simply deepen character. “The nature of a live performance is that you enjoy somebody just pouring their heart out, you know?” he says. “That’s a little harder to do in a movie.”
The composer did incorporate unused lyrics by the late Ashman into expanded versions of two songs. “In the Broadway show,” he explains, “we had a treasure trove of wonderful lost lyrics by Howard, some of which were a bit edgy for an animated movie but worked on stage or, in this case, in the movie. For ‘Gaston’ we have some quote unquote new Ashman lyrics, and the movie has quote unquote new lyrics for ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ I love being able to give either a fresh arrangement or lyric changes. It just helps give the movie its own identity.”
Also given something of a new identity was the comic character LeFou (played by Josh Gad in the new film), sidekick of the villainous Gaston (Luke Evans). In what became a small cause célèbre, Condon commented to a British magazine about LeFou having confused feelings toward Gaston and how the film’s ending includes what the director called “a nice, exclusively gay moment” – albeit one that’s so below the surface you’d need ground radar to see it. Yet a headline in The Hollywood Reporter trade paper blared: “Disney’s First-Ever Gay Character.”
To his credit, Condon, while calling the attention “overblown,” isn’t backing away. When he and the screenwriters were developing the movie, that subtext “seemed like, ‘Oh, this is just not a big deal’ – that’s what I felt more than anything,” he says. Is he concerned about potential backlash? “No, not at all,” he says. “It’s 2017,” and industry estimates predicted a blockbuster opening weekend of $100 million to $120 million.
“I hope that people come to see the film and judge for themselves,” says singer-actress Audra McDonald, 46, the six-time Tony Award-winner who plays the anthropomorphic wardrobe, here named Garderobe. “It’s a beautiful family film whose story is a timeless classic and celebrates love and all that makes us human,” she says. “The film is representative of the world we live in today and that is inclusive of all creeds, colors, genders, orientations and everything.”
Because if there’s one thing that’s as certain as the sun rising in the east, it’s that Disney knows how to make movies that are both ever a surprise and ever as before.