It’s been nearly 20 years since Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was in theaters, charming the world with its fairy tale blend of magical story, gorgeous animation, colorful characters, memorable romance and wonderful music.
For Paige O’Hara, who supplied the talking and singing voice of the book-loving heroine Belle, you would believe that watching the film in its new special Blu-ray edition would bring on a sense of deja vu.
But according to O’Hara, you would think wrong.
“Watching it on Blu-ray was actually like a new experience,” says O’Hara, 54, during a stop in Philadelphia. “The colors, the depth of field, the sound…all of the elements are spectacular.”
Working on both the new DVD and Blu-ray editions of the only animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards did bring back many memories for the singer-actress.
“I worked on the bonus features for the release and, to tell you the truth, I had forgotten a lot of what happened before and during the production,” confesses the Ft. Lauderdale-born O’Hara. “It all came back after they (the producers) interviewed me and the other actors and animators.”
O’Hara relates that the film was originally conceived without music.
“I had forgotten before (composers) Alan Menken and Howard Ashman and (directors) Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale were aboard, we had a guy from London who were going to direct it and they were working on it for over a year,” she says. “They (the studio) said it was too boring, because the original story was them (Belle and the Beast) going to dinner every night. So they started all over again. They needed something different, so they brought in the directors and Ashman and Menken and decided to do more comedy.
“It was going to be straightforward, not a musical. The Little Mermaid was a huge hit, so they brought Alan and Howard (The Little Mermaid’s composers) back and they brought in Gary and Kirk and Linda Wolverton, a great screenwriter. They said we need something more interesting than just going to dinner every night.
“That’s when they decided to add the little supporting parts and characters and made the decision that the cast would become enchanted.”
Mrs. Potts the teapot (voiced by Angela Lansbury), Cogsworth the clock (David Ogden Stiers) and Lumiere the candlestick (Jerry Orbach) were among the comical supporting characters that made the romance between bookish Belle and the enchanted prince-turned-Beast (voiced by Robby Benson) such a sensation that eventually Disney turned into a long-running Broadway hit.
In fact, O’Hara, who had 15 years of stage experience in such shows as Oklahoma!, South Pacific and The Mystery of Edwin Drood before being cast as Belle, thought the film looked like and felt like a Broadway show to begin with.
“It was like Broadway musical, only animated,” O’Hara, who has also appeared in Les Miserables, recalls. “I totally saw it as a potential Broadway production. After all, they saw Broadway actors initially in the auditions, and they cast all Broadway actors. It was intended to be that way.”
The film took two years to make. “Disney has you record first and they keep their cameras on you for the whole session,” says O’Hara. “The animators use that footage and take expression from you. And that’s why many of the characters resemble the actors. That’s wonderful. A lot of animators don’t do that. With Disney, that’s the way they do it, and it works for them.
“The film was actually four years in the making, although I was off and on it for two years. For an animator, then, it would take a week to draw 20 seconds of film. It was one of the last hand-drawn animated features. I was doing Anything Goes at the time.
“The way we made the film was very spontaneous. We were able to change things a bit and have fun with it. David Ogden Stiers said several things [which] ended up in the film. His saying– ‘If it’s not baroque, don’t fix it.’ He is Cogsworth in many ways!”
O’Hara, who lives in Las Vegas with her stage actor husband Michael Piontek, believes that while all of the elements were right for the film’s success, it was the music that has led to its long-lasting appeal.
“The great success of it was that Ashman and Menken were the Rogers and Hammerstein of that time. They were a magical collaboration. Howard didn’t tell us, the last year he worked on it, that he was going to die. And we didn’t really know until later, but he was cranking out all of these songs. He was putting his heart and soul into the movie because he knew it was his final one. Sadly, he did not live to see it.”
(Ashman, who died of AIDS in 1991, posthumously received a Oscar for writing the lyrics to the film’s title song.)
The singer-actress’s experiences with Beauty and the Beast—performing the theme song at the Academy Awards and voicing the character for the video premieres Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas and Belle’s Magical World—were part of a dream come true for O’Hara, who had dreamed of working in show business since she was three years old.
“I went to acting classes and I painted,” she recalls. “I was all right brain and no left brain. Like Belle, I was a book person. And I was into Gershwin and Judy Garland when my friends were listening to Led Zeppelin.”
When O’Hara was 17, her mother, a teacher at a school for the performing arts, gave her $300 and she got on a plane to New York City. She paid her rent by selling paintings on the street, but within a year, she was supporting herself as an actress. She never turned her back on painting, either, as O’Hara has works based on her character available through Disney (www.disneyfineart.com).
O’Hara, also busy in a production of Menopause: The Musical at the Luxor in Las Vegas, says there has been talk of a Beauty and the Beast theatrical release in 3-D, but no word on another sequel.
“They are afraid they may mess it up,” says O’Hara. “How can you improve upon it? The Enchanted Christmas was really well done, but everyone said it’s not the original. The original is a classic and it will be that way. As I get older and eventually die, I’ll still be Belle.”