How Disney reinvents and celebrates Beauty and the Beast with an anniversary special

From the Walt Disney World News and written by: Guest Blog

From Entertainment Weekly-

It may be a tale as old as time, but ABC has a bewitching new take on the beloved fairy tale. Inside the star-studded 30th Celebration of Disney’s animated classic.

Something magical is happening on a Burbank, Calif., studio lot. As the opening strains of Oscar-winning song “Beauty and the Beast,” Josh Groban and H.E.R. descend velvet-lined stairs and Dancing With the Stars judge Derek Hough counts out steps for the waltzing, bewigged ensemble.

Everywhere you look, there’s enchantment on the set, a cavernous soundstage morphed into the Beast’s castle, complete with archways cleverly transformed by projections and a central, candelabra-lined staircase. It’s not the result of an Enchantress’ curse, but rather the set up for Beauty and the Beast: A 30th Celebration.

Much like The Little Mermaid Live! that aired in 2019, the anniversary special (recorded a few weeks ago and airing Dec. 15 on ABC) will flip between the 1991 animated film and newly staged live-action scenes, including musical numbers choreographed by a team led by Jamal Sims. It will also feature behind-the-scenes stories of the original film’s production and tributes to much of the voice cast, animators, and the songwriters Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.

“It is a tribute and a celebration,” says executive producer Katy Mullan. “It’s about celebrating all those original artists who brought this story life in the first place and trying to further that legacy. When you peel back the layers and see what it took to create this movie in the first place, it makes you even more excited about being part of this show.”

With lavish set dressings that borrow heavily from the Disney team’s original animation sketches (including life-size renderings of the black-and-white drawings, which you can see in our full gallery of exclusive images), updated costumes, and the ability to redress the space at will via projections, the proceedings feel as ensorcelled as a singing teapot. But this time, the enchantment also strives to make room for everyone watching.

Rita Moreno, who serves as narrator for the special, gushes about the diverse approach from producer Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians, the upcoming Wicked movies) and Emmy-winning awards show director Hamish Hamilton (Oscars, VMAs). “This is maybe the most all-inclusive production that’s ever been seen on television,” the 91-year-old tells EW. “It has everybody. It has people of color, white people, people who are heavy. It’s marvelous.”

“It was an honor to be involved with such a diverse group,” adds Broadway talent Joshua Henry, who portrays Gaston in the live-action sequences. “Not just the diversity of where we’re from and the color of our skin, but the types of artists, the comedic chops, the music styles are different in so many ways,” he continues of his costars, who include Only Murders in the Building actor Martin Short (Lumiere), comic David Alan Grier (Cogsworth), balladeer Josh Groban (Prince Adam/Beast), R&B star H.E.R. (Belle), and country music phenom Shania Twain (Mrs. Potts).

Groban likens the experience to Beauty and the Beast summer camp: “The cool thing about entering a celebration like this — with a cast that comes from very different worlds coming together to throw a big bash like this — is that we all were humming these songs our entire lives. Whether we’re in pop or rock or comedians or whatever else, we all have that point of light, which is that we love this music and love this movie. We all felt the same childlike excitement to honor it in this way.”

Now it’s no wonder that her name means beauty…

At the heart of all this is Belle, as played by Grammy- and Oscar-winning music artist Gabi Wilson. Popularly known as H.E.R., Wilson first fell in love with Belle at age 5 watching the VHS tape of the animated movie — and looking longingly at her cousin’s collector’s edition Belle doll safe behind the cardboard and plastic of her box.

Now she’s stepping out of a box of her own, making her professional acting debut in Belle’s iconic yellow ball gown. “It was very much an arrival. It was confirmation, and it brought something new out of me,” the singer says of putting on the costume for the first time. “The character of Belle really unlocked a new side of me, a femininity and what I feel that is to me. A more ambitious side of me. I started walking different and smiling different when I discovered myself in this character, especially in the yellow dress.”

Reflecting on the scene where the Beast gifts Belle a library, she adds: “You get to see her wanting more out of life, and expecting more from herself. It’s very romantic because it’s beautiful to be smart. It’s beautiful to want more, to think more of yourself.”

Wilson hopes audiences also find her Belle beautiful for what she brings to the character. “I’ve loved every Disney princess, but I never had a favorite because I never felt as connected because I didn’t see anybody that looked like me,” the 25-year-old, says. “There’s no Filipino princesses, so to be a Black and Filipino Belle is huge. It’s been a long time coming, and I’m happy that we’re here and we’re getting to see ourselves in the people that we see on TV and film.”

Adds director Hamish Hamilton: “She totally committed to being a Disney princess. For an artist of her standing and stature, you’re either all in or you’re not. And she was, a million percent.”

To celebrate the evolution of this princess, the apron that Wilson wears over her blue dress in the opening sequence has been painted to say “Belle” in Tagalog, the native language of the Philippines. And she’s infusing a bit of herself into the music as well. Preview images showcase Wilson — known for her soulful R&B ballads marked by exquisite guitar solos — with a ukelele, and her musical persona (complete with her signature sunglasses) will feature heavily in the show’s finale, all by design. “I wanted to see me in it because it’s a celebration of the creation of Beauty and the Beast,” she says. “I definitely wanted to stay true to it, but I had this idea of how to bring myself into it.”

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: A 30TH CELEBRATION
CREDIT: CHRISTOPHER WILLARD/ABC

Wilson even collaborated with original composer Alan Menken on new arrangements for the score. “We put a new twist on some of the music,” notes the Oscar winner (for “Fight For You” from Judas and the Black Messiah). “It’s very, very subtle, but there’s a little bit of a H.E.R. twist in the music.”

For who could ever learn to love a beast…

Like Wilson, Groban has a long history with Beauty and the Beast, having seen the original film in theaters at 10 years old. “I remember having a music brain at that age and starting to soak up, like a sponge, my musical influences,” says the “You Raise Me Up” singer and Broadway star, 41. “And I remember going home and wanting to sing every song from that show.”

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: A 30TH CELEBRATION
CREDIT: CHRISTOPHER WILLARD/ABC

His relationship with the music deepened when Alan Menken asked him to record “Evermore,” a new song for the character of the Beast, for the soundtrack of the 2017 live-action adaptation starring Dan Stevens and Emma Watson. But after that rendition, Groban figured his association with the Beast was done, since he couldn’t imagine Disney revisiting the property any time soon. Then he got the call.

“I jumped at the opportunity when they asked because it is such a great role for baritones that don’t dance,” he says with a laugh. “There are always songs that you want to sink your teeth into and roles you want to sink your teeth into — in this case, quite literally, with the Beast.”

Of course, that required some physical transformation. For the scenes in which we see the Beast as a man, Prince Adam, Groban acquired some hair extensions and blue contact lenses from the hair and makeup department. As for becoming the Beast, Groban was wary of doing anything too theatrical or theme park-esque. Instead, they landed on a puppeteered iteration (which EW exclusively debuts here) inspired by Broadway’s War Horse and The Lion King. The apparatus foregrounds the Beast but still makes Groban visible within the structure. It required weeks of rehearsal and taxing physical work for Groban to learn to operate the puppet in a lifelike fashion, all while wearing a 60-pound backpack.

“We all made a conscious decision that we didn’t want it to be the big fuzzy mask,” he explains. “We didn’t necessarily want it to be prosthetics, because that can be really hit and miss. And you can’t really do CGI for a live performance like this. So, what they were able to do with the Beast costume was so perfect, because it was super cumbersome to wear — very heavy, 50 or 60 pounds — and it felt very much like a prison.

“The Beast is, at his core, a flawed prince, a prince that was cursed in this way because of his vanity and because of his selfishness and because of all of these blind spots that he had as a prince,” Groban continues. “He’s trapped as a prisoner. He puts everybody else in his prison, but his prison is this body that he’s been put into. To wear [the puppetry apparatus] and to move in it and to perform in it, I could really feel the duality of the two characters.”

That presented some interesting physical challenges. For instance, viewers won’t see Wilson and Groban waltz — instead, the special turns that sequence over to the animation. “We knew when we had to put the white flag up,” he jokes. “Fighting off wolves was easier than learning how to do the foxtrot.”

Groban means that literally. In the sequence where Belle runs away from the Beast’s castle and is beset by wolves, the Beast rescues her. That scene is performed by Groban in the ABC special, which required him to learn how to handle his heavy costume while executing fight choreography.

“It probably goes by in about 30 seconds on screen, but I spent a week and a half rehearsing it because it was so complicated to do that with what I had to wear,” he says. “With fight choreography, it’s a dance, everything is set to a count. You have to make sure that you are swinging your claw and they’re falling back at the exact right time or somebody could get hurt. Having loved that scene in the movie, when they told me they were going to do it live, I was like, ‘Hmm, this is going to be badass.’”

“He gave the puppet personality,” Hamilton says of his star’s dedication and hard work. “There’s moments of humor and there’s moments of tenderness and there’s moments of fierceness. To see him battle with this incredible costume and have it pay off is incredible.”

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: A 30TH CELEBRATION
CREDIT: CHRISTOPHER WILLARD/ABC

In addition to managing his cumbersome costume, Groban was challenged to create unique harmonies with Wilson that would merge their radically divergent vocal styles. “We come from different musical universes,” the Beast actor notes. “But we both really love this music. To blend our voices and be like, ‘Whoa, we sound really good and right together’ — that’s my favorite thing, when an unexpected musical partnership winds up sounding really wonderful and feeling really blended and beautiful.”

Blended and beautiful is the main objective for this 30th anniversary celebration, which is both a peek into what made the original special enough to become the first animated film ever to be nominated for Best Picture and a new addition to the world of the movie. As Joshua Henry puts it, “You want to pay homage to the thing, and then you also want to make it your own — because what’s the point of doing it unless you’re seeing it through your lens?”

The weight of the love for the 1991 film certainly weighed on Hamilton. “This is easily the most daunting production that I’ve done,” says the director. “It’s right up there with [working on] the Olympics and the Super Bowl, just in terms of the expectations.”

That task of bringing something new while honoring something old was perhaps most challenging for Shania Twain, as her new take on Mrs. Potts comes only a few months after the actress behind the original voice performance, Angela Lansbury, died. “I was only more honored to be asked to play that role,” she says of having to fill Lansbury’s spout. “It made singing the theme song very emotional for me. But Alan Menken was on stage with me playing the piano, and that comforted me a great deal. It was such an epic moment in my career to perform his own song with him there next to me. It was important to me to play the role with style and grace. A sense of humor, inspired by Angela’s charm. I kept Angela in mind the whole time.”

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: A 30TH CELEBRATION
CREDIT: CHRISTOPHER WILLARD/ABC

Comparisons aside, Rita Moreno has no doubt audiences will delight in being Disney’s guest for this special night. “It is so spectacularly beautiful — the sets are wondrous, the costumes are fabulous,” she says. “It’s a beautiful amalgam of everything you could ever hope for in this kind of storybook telling.”

So pull up a chair, as the dining room proudly presents…a tribute to one of Disney’s most beloved properties.

From Entertainment Weekly

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