My latest blog post and a trip to the movie theater to see Lion King in 3D reminded me of the hard work I did on my senior thesis. I have always had a love for the work that Disney has and continues to create and had a great desire to be a part of the signature Disney Magic. At the time I was working on my thesis I was in the process of being interviewed for the Disney College Program and was soon accepted. Once at Disney World I was even privileged to work at Disney’s Beauty & The Beast: Live on Stage in Hollywood Studios, the parks longest running show, 20 years this November! Beauty & The Beast was even my first Broadway Musical and Belle’s yellow dress will remain the most awesome Halloween costume my Mom ever made me (That’s right a home-made Disney princess costume, with little red roses on it and all!). There are so many interpretations of Belle and her two signature outfits (Blue provincial look and Yellow ball gown) in the Disney Parks alone, for my thesis though I chose to focus on the transition of animated costumed to real life costumes on Broadway. It’s a bit of a reversal from my usual format of analysis just movie costumes but one I hope you will enjoy. I will be presenting my paper on Disney’s Broadway productions show by show over the next few days, enjoy!
Disney is a name synonymous with quality. Everything Disney produces from toys to films is made with the expectation of quality entertainment. The company has created recognizable characters, which have been interpreted in almost all forms possible. A little girl going to Disney world cannot wait to meet her favorite Disney princess as well as to purchase a version of said princess’ signature gown. Over the past decade, Disney has expanded their franchise to the stage. Musicals of Disney animated classics such as The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast are now Tony Award-Winning blockbusters. The process of translating hit animated features into successful stage musicals proves difficult for Disney theatrical designers. There’s a delicate balance for costume designers specifically between creative licensing and the ability to retain a recognizable product of Disney. It is with creativity and a set vision for the adaptation however, that costume designers are able to successfully translate characters from screen to stage.
The theatre world began to influence Disney long before Disney debuted on Broadway. Famed Disney CEO, Michael Eisner, was a Theatre major himself in college. In the early eighties the company experienced a slump in creativity and critics claimed that Disney had lost its magic touch. Eisner was brought in to breathe new life into the company; he did more than that he ushered in Disney’s second Golden Age. Eisner began by hiring theatrical producer Peter Schneider to head the studio’s animation department. Schneider himself had no background in animation but soon began the process of hiring more theater artists ““There was a huge influx of theater people and they were very gregarious, very passionate, very vocal,” (Taylor, par.4). Disney’s golden composer Alan Menken who also had a theatrical background, stated that “Schneider… was able to hire people with theater backgrounds because feature animation was so under-the-radar at that time,” (Taylor, par. 5). Many who worked for the company at the time attested to Eisner’s own push to include those with theatre backgrounds. With a large number of theater people the style of the animated films they produced began to contain a theatrical quality.
Alan Menken describes an instance where he and fellow composer Howard Ashman coached actress Jodi Benson in how to sing the part of Ariel for the film The Little Mermaid. “[Certain] elements [are] needed [to] creat[e] compelling characters and theater through songs… Ashman’s brand of storytelling meshed perfectly with the Disney tradition and brand,” (Taylor, par. 10). Animators then began to draw Ariel based off of Ashman and Menken’s songs. The theatrical formula worked, the studio produced nine hits in a span of ten years under Eisner and Schneider’s direction.
Disney had hit the creative jackpot in 1991 when Beauty and the Beast received a nomination for best picture at that year’s Academy Awards. It was the first animated film in the category, a huge achievement for the company. The film didn’t win, but the movie took to the public’s heart. Menken and Ashman “Structured Beauty and the Beast as a stage musical. With each song, [they] endeavored to advance the plot…..characters sing their thoughts and feelings within the story. It’s entirely musical theatre,” (Disney site about musical). Eisner pushed for an actual stage musical after enthusiastic audience response to a performance of the film’s songs by their voice actors at a conference (Disney site about musical). One of the film’s composers, Alan Menken, added new songs to the stage version. The process proved difficult for Menken without his recently deceased cohort Howard Ashman, but seemed easy in comparison to the task of making household objects come to life on stage.
In the film Beauty and the Beast, the Beast is a cursed prince forced to live in a hideous form until he finds true love. His servants also share in the curse; they too have lost their human form and have been turned into various household objects. Costume designer Anne Hould-Ward took on the task of making an actor look like a wardrobe or candelabra. “Scale was the greatest obstacle…. The problem was the presentation of an actor as a life-sized teapot when the characters in the film were so little in comparison to the immense castle and huge beast,” (Robinson, par. 6). Hould-Ward made the decision early on that the costumes would not replicate the movie’s exactly. Instead the design team came to the conclusion that the characters themselves “…they are slowly turning into the objects; instead of that they are fully the objects…you see them at several stages of the transformation into the objects, [but] they never completely turn into the object,” (Hould-Ward Interview on Disney site). This gradual change of characters appearance required Hould-Ward to create a series of costumes for one character to year as the play wore on. She describes her reasoning behind her choice, “I wanted the reality of the real person rather than the fantasy of the object….The essence of my job is to allow my real actors to take you to this fantastical place,”(Robinson, par. 14).
Many of the actors playing servants wore costumes that used a system of wires for support of their heavy garments. The character Lumiere, a manservant who changes into a candelabra, required a team of forty people to create his costume. “A man who made the prosthetic candle, a hair specialist, a Vacuform specialist, a pyro man who made the hands light up, the man who put the butane in the pyro unit and the man holding the butane tank….the costumes were made of molded plastic pieces and fabric, then trimmed and hand-beaded,”(Robinson, pars. 19-20).
Interpreting the principals proved yet another challenge for Hould-Ward. The Beast also required wire frame to maintain his famed shape from the film, along with a lot of prosthetics and hair. Belle had to maintain her signature look from the film, but still have a different look for the Broadway stage. Hould-ward described that the costume expectations from the perspective of her daughter Leah. “It has to have some relationship [to the movie], so that when Leah comes to see it, she remembers from the movie that the Beast was in that blue jacket. Leah expects that blue jacket, and if you don’t give it to her, she and a lot of other ten-year-olds are going to be sad,” (Disney site interview). Hould-Ward’s interpretations of Belle’s costumes hark back to the film version but remain firmly planted in the musical’s set time, the Rocco period. Belle also harks back to other Disney animated classics such as Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella “In the opening scenes, she wears standard-issue Disney heroine drag–an ankle-length skirt topped by a corseted vest and a white, face-framing collar. [Hould-Ward] had to honor what is in the closets of animation,”(Robinson, par.11).
Beauty and the Beast proved a hit on Broadway. Nominated for nine Tony’s and ten Drama Desk Awards, Anne Hould-Ward was the only one to take home a Tony for her costumes. Eisner was thrilled with the success of the musical and began to look at other Disney films that could make the leap. Eisner made an unprecedented move and planned for Disney to move to a more permanent venue for future shows in Times Square. Disney invested over $8 million into renovating the famous New Amsterdam Theater. At the time, the investment was risky; crimes occurred frequently in Times Square and seemed unfit for Disney’s family image. Newly elected Mayor Rudy Giuliani assured Eisner himself that the crime problem would be gone by the time Disney moved in. Disney had helped catapult the renovation of Times Square, other investors began to renovate the area. Thanks to investors and Giuliani’s crack down on crime, Broadway shines once more as a family destination.
“Costumes:A Conversation with Ann Hould Ward, the Costume Designer, Prior to the Opening on Broadway.” Interview. Beauty and The Beast Musical. Disney. Web. <http://www2.disney.co.uk/MusicalTheatre/beautyuk/play/costumes.htm>.
“From Broadway To Tokyo: The Making of a Smash Broadway Hit.” Beauty and the Beast Musical. Disney.co.uk. Web. <http://www2.disney.co.uk/MusicalTheatre/beautyuk/play/costumes.htm>.
Robinson, Gaile. “By Design: A Beastly Assignment.” Los Angeles Times 16 Mar. 1995. LA Times. Web. <http://articles.latimes.com/1995-03-16/news/ls-43453_1_ann-hould-ward>.