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!"


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