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."


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