Friday, December 18, 2009

Backstage Blog: "BEAUTY" AND THE DANCE

Brendan Lemon

Matt West, the choreographer for Beauty and the Beast, has a relationship with Disney that long predates his work on the show when it premiered in 1994. "I grew up in Los Angeles," West told me recently. "I was Peter Pan on the road starting when I was 13. I did the role to promote Disney's re-release of "Peter Pan." West then was in a Disney singing group called Kids of the Kingdom for two years. Some years later, he was in Los Angeles at a party to celebrate the 60th birthday of Mickey Mouse. "Somebody asked me if I had ever choreographed. I lied and said yes. I went from there."

By 1990, West had met "Beauty"'s director, Robert Jess Roth, and the show's set designer, Stan Meyer. Disney asked the trio to work on spectaculars for the company's theme parks. "These were 30 minutes shows that were done five times a week," West said. "That got us working with computers. It took us a while to be able to use all our razzle-dazzle experience on a Broadway show, but we persisted in our dream to do one, and eventually Beauty and the Beast happened."

One of the show's best-known scenes involves a waltz between the title characters. How will West approach that in the new tour's re-imagining? "The castle can now go completely offstage. Which means I have a completely open stage to put together a waltz. There wasn't room for 30 people to do a waltz before."

West said that not just the waltz but the other dance numbers as well will change because of the new approach to the story's scenery. For example, he says he always wanted the town buildings in the show's opening number to move. "Frankly, I got a little bored with Belle walking around the stage. Now we can do more with that because the buildings can move."

West said the new choreography in general is fuller. "We can tell even more story now. And because I've grown as a choreographer I think the choreography will be richer, too."

In addition to his work, aided by able associates, on "Beauty" over the years, what experience has helped West - who among many other credits played Bobby in the 1985 movie of "A Chorus Line" -- to grow in his art?

"I worked on "Elaborate Lives" in Atlanta," he answered, referring to the Elton John-composed musical that on Broadway became "Aida." West added: "And I am now working with Disney on a version of 'Fantasmic!' for Disney theme parks in Japan." As Disney lovers know, that show has been a long-running attraction at Disney theme parks in California and Florida. For the Japanese version, which will open in April 2011 and which West is directing and choreographing, there will be spectacular moments like dragons that come out of the water and an entire lagoon set afire. "It's amazing," West commented.

But back to "Beauty." West said that part of his pleasure in working on the new tour has been the chance to see so many talented people at the auditions. "There are so many phenomenal dancers around the country now." Echoing something the show's director, Robert Jess Roth, told me, West commented, "For this show, it's not enough to be a phenomenal dancer. You have to be well-rounded - you also have to be a fantastic singer."

West said that even for the boy role of Chip that he and his colleagues saw some first-rate hopefuls. "We cast that part last" he explained, because at that age (around 8 or 9) boys grow up so fast. "If we cast Chip too far in advance," West said, "by the time we got to rehearsals he would have been old enough to play Gaston or the Beast!"


Monday, December 14, 2009


Brendan Lemon

Robert Jess Roth directed the original 1994 Broadway version of Beauty and the Beast and he says that helming the new tour is "pretty extraordinary and unique." With a show this crowd-pleasing and beautiful, the extraordinary part of his remark is easy to understand. What about "unique"?

"It just feels pretty unique to me for the original director of a hit Broadway show to have the opportunity to go back in there and reimagine it. That's what we're doing with the tour."

Rather than ask Roth the specifics of what will be different this time (audiences should have some surprises when they sit in the theater), I inquired about the overall changes. "This design feels lighter to me than the original show," Roth replies. "We are retaining the cool magic effects from the original, but we've got a significantly redesigned production, courtesy of the original design team: sets by Stan Meyer, costumes by Ann Hould-Ward, and lighting by Natasha Katz."

Beauty and the Beast has had dozens of productions around the world since 1994. "Don't I know it!" Roth says when I remind him of that fact. "Can you imagine how many hours of auditions I've had with this show? For this new tour alone, more than 3000 people were seen." So does he ever get bored of hearing someone sing any of the show's numbers? "Not at all," Roth says. "The songs are a total wow, and every talented person I see brings something a little different to them. The actors are one of the main reasons I never get bored with 'Beauty.'"

With all the talent that shows up for each production, how does Roth winnow down the hopefuls? "No matter how many great people show up, it's always hard to cast the ensemble, because the ensemble has to cover the principal parts. That can be kind of tricky, because the principals have to have big, beautiful, almost operatic type of voices. And if you're in the ensemble, you also have to be a great dancer. The combination of those qualities means the talent pool can shrink pretty fast in auditions."

Roth, who grew up in northern New Jersey and has been doing theater in some form since the age of 12, emphasizes the importance of honesty in working with "Beauty" actors. "They have to be capable of conveying honesty, otherwise the show doesn't sing. The story may have magic too it, but the performers have to convey very human qualities. Otherwise, the heart of the message - that you have to look past someone's exterior to see their essence - doesn't shine like it should."

Besides Beauty and the Beast, perhaps the biggest professional passion in Roth's life is his hobby: collecting rock 'n' graphics - newspaper advertisements, posters, backstage passes, etc. - from major bands.

"I have 3500 pieces in my collection," Roth says with justifiable pride. "One of the side benefits of directing 'Beauty' all over the world is that I've been able to go to record stores in every country and look for new items. Just when I think that I've found everything related to a particular band, something else will turn up."

Roth's collection is celebrated in his new book, "The Art of Classic Rock," which is out in Europe and Australia and will be published next fall in the U.S. by HarperCollins.

"The timeframe of the book," Roth says, "is the 1970s until now. I concentrate on eight acts: The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Queen, The Who, David Bowie, Elton John, and Alice Cooper." Roth is especially well-acquainted with those last two acts: he worked on the Broadway musical "Lestat" with Elton John and he has directed tours of Alice Cooper.

Are there similarities between directing Beauty and the Beast and directing Alice Cooper's current tour, "Theater of Death"? "I put together the show with Alice to tell a story," Roth says. "And of course the heart of "Beauty and the Beast" is the telling of a story. In fact, I would say that, in addition to the actors, the reason I don't tire of 'Beauty' is because of the quality of the writing. It's wonderful."