The 1991 screenplay for “Beauty and the Beast” may have been based on the French fairy tale, but Cal State Fullerton alumna Linda Woolverton made the characters her own, as she shared during a campus visit to speak to cast members of the university’s upcoming fall production.
“I want to talk to you about the show, the how and why it is so emotional,” the 1979 graduate (M.A. theatre arts) explained. “It still commands my heart.”
Woolverton was the first woman to write an animated feature for Disney, and the film would go on to be the first animated feature nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. She would adapt her film screenplay into the Broadway play for which she was nominated for a Tony Award and won an Olivier Award.
“I have been working on this show since it opened,” she said of the musical, which premiered on Broadway on April 18, 1994, with Susan Egan playing Belle. The production ran for 13 years. “The fifth-longest running show on Broadway,” Woolverton said.
“So, it’s very alive for me,” she told the students. “I am thrilled you’re doing it here.”
When originally written, it was not meant to be a musical, but when it changed, it was decided that the object characters — Lumiere, Mrs. Potts, Chip, Cosworth, etc. — would talk. They became, Woolverton said, “part of a family.”
“Everybody has a part, an emotional stake in the story,” Woolverton stressed. “The drive of the story is that everyone depends on the two of them (Belle and Beast).
“Every character has a moment in the sun, every single character has a bit of humanness, so when you change back to human form, the audience wants that to happen. It’s incredibly joyful.”
Your job, she told the cast members, is to bring the audience to that point.
“It’s inspiring to listen to Linda about the production and how she sees her creation” — senior musical theatre major Brianna Clark.
She pointed particularly to Belle’s character and explained that “I wasn’t going to do the same old, same old. I created a new Disney heroine who read, wanted adventure.
“We’re invested in her … we believe this girl,” Woolverton said. “She’s a girl who can stand on her own, and does.”
Woolverton also pointed to the pivotal moment for the Beast, who she described as growing up, becoming a man. The changeover begins, she points out, when Beast gets hurt — “It’s adorable and real.”
Throughout the story, she pointed out, “Gaston and Beast gradually change places. The Beast becomes human and Gaston becomes the beast.”
“It’s not a cartoon,“ Woolverton added. “Don’t play it that way. The characters are real people.
“The play appeals to everyone,” she stressed. “Let the material work — it’s all there. We’ve honed it over 20 years.”
“I’ll see you opening night,” Woolverton concluded, to applause.
The Cal State Fullerton production of “Disney Beauty and the Beast: The Broadway Musical” opens Oct. 11 and runs through Oct. 26. Tickets and more information are available online.