At the age of 23, Susan Egan originated the role of Belle in Beauty and the Beast on Broadway. As part of Disney’s first full-length theatrical foray, Egan and her castmates, the creative team of the show, even Disney itself, could have no idea that the show would be as successful as it was. Egan couldn’t know that she would be the first of 17 women to take on the role full time on Broadway; she couldn’t know that thousands of young women would play the precocious beauty in community theatres and schools around the world.
But none of those amateur actors got to learn about Belle from the woman who created her—until now. As part of the new Disney+ series Encore! (from creator Kristen Bell and released November 12), Disney reunites the casts of high school musical productions to return to their old stomping grounds for a chance to re-mount their show as adults. In Episode 2, the cast of Saginaw High School’s Beauty and the Beast return to Saginaw, Texas, 10 years after graduation to put on a one-night-only encore performance, and Egan is on hand to pass down her expertise.
“We talk about character, and we talk about how it was developed,” says Egan of working with Desiree, who plays Belle in the Saginaw production. “The fact that I got to be there and witness Disney figuring it out [in 1993] and then I get to share that experience with another generation, and then Desi’s going to get to share that experience with somebody…It is a passing of the torch beyond what I ever thought would happen.”
That firsthand knowledge is invaluable, as Egan sees Belle in a singular way. “The great thing about Belle is that she is not the perfect heroine like Cinderella,” she says. “She actually is just as judgmental as all the townsfolk. It’s more subtle. She sees through Gaston, but honestly she’s calling the town ‘provincial.’ That’s kind of not cool. She doesn’t see through the Beast. She has to grow, as well.”
From the outset, Egan communed with Belle. She’s a thinker, a voracious reader, raised by scientists, and was an outcast. “Belle was the new girl in the village,” says Egan. “She was misunderstood. That was me in New York City at that time—the California girl walks in and gets the job the other people wanted.” And that’s the lesson she imparts to Desiree on screen.
Twenty-five years since Beauty and the Beast officially opened, Egan never tires of its magic and watching the story change the people who tell it. “It’s really about community and how art can transform you,” she says. In that way, “there’s no difference between Broadway and community theatre. There really isn’t, at all.”
Here, Egan shares eight secrets from her time creating and starring in Broadway’s original Beauty and the Beast:
1. The melody for “Home” originated with a song dedicated to Howard Ashman.
“When Howard Ashman passed away, Ellen Greene, who was the original Audrey in Little Shop [of Horrors], went to Alan and said, ‘You’ve got to write a song for Howard for his memorial.’ Alan said, ‘Oh my God, of course, I have to write a song for Howard.’ He started writing the song ‘My Old Friend.’ He couldn’t do it. He has since written a song about Howard, which is ‘The Be All End All,’ and it’s great. But two years later, when they decided to bring Beauty to New York and they realized Belle had no solo and we needed to give her one, Alan took that melody that he had written for Howard, and that’s Belle’s song. Singing that melody every night, all I was thinking about was Howard.” If you can hum it to yourself, the melody on the original lyric “my old friend” corresponds to what is now “is this home?”
Egan’s advice for singing “Home”:
In Episode 2 of Encore! Season 1, Egan tells Desiree to sing it like it’s a question. “It’s naturally how I approach everything. I never thought I was a very good singer. I always thought I’d better act the hell out of this because I’m not a good enough singer to get by on my voice. I have always looked at the lyric more than the note. With a song like ‘Home,’ I actually pull a lot of what I learned from Sam Mendes in Cabaret. I learned a lot in the song ‘Maybe This Time.’ A lot of people sing it like a dirge, like ‘Oh poor me.’ I always laugh because I never say ‘Maybe This Time’ that way. It’s just like ‘Home.’ She is feeling sorry for herself, but at the end she’s not. She’s like, ‘My body is here, and I will live here, but my heart will always be home, and you cannot imprison it.’”
2. With book writer Linda Woolverton, Egan changed the interpretation of a crucial scene:
“Writing the scene about Belle running from the castle, [I had a] conversation with Linda Woolverton about how literally eight hours prior she traded her life for her father’s. Is she really a hero if she reneges on that in eight hours? Linda’s like, ‘What are you thinking?’ Well, the stakes have to be higher. Maybe it’s like in Of Mice and Men where Lenny’s petting the bunny. Maybe the Beast isn’t screaming at her, maybe he screams out of fear, and now he’s apologizing, but because he’s a beast, apologies sounds like roars. And he’s grabbing onto her to stay, not to hurt her. But he’s a beast. So he’s clutching her too tightly, and he’s going to break her neck—like Lenny and the bunny. She has to leave the castle, and that’s not reneging on her promise. She now has to save her own life. It justifies her breaking her promise.
Egan’s advice for playing the truth in the story:
“When I talk about Beauty and the Beast, I think the rookie mistake is to play it like a cartoon. There is a broadness to the style of the piece that is inherently there, but you don’t have to play that on top of it. It’s redundant. Lumiere doesn’t know that he’s a cartoon. Lumiere knows that if he doesn’t get that Beast to fall in love with the girl and that last petal falls, he’s going to become an inanimate object. He’s got a terminal illness. The stakes are very high. Now, how is he going to go about doing that? With a lot of comedic relief, sure. But what makes comedy great, as Shakespeare has proven, is the tragedy that is underneath it that is constantly informing it.
3. Burke Moses, who originated Gaston, and Egan came up with the choreographic idea of “Me” on a lunch break:
“Burke came to me one day, and he’s like, ‘Have you ever seen that Pepé Le Pew cartoon where the cat has the stripe painted down his back and now Pepé Le Pew thinks that cat is a skunk and is trying to woo it? He’s got the cat in his clutches, and the cat is trying to escape. … That’s what we should do.’ During our lunch break, we choreographed this pas de deux that became ‘Me,’ which was me trying to sneak away like that cat and him, like Pepé Le Pew, not even noticing and yanking the cat back in at the very last minute. Over and over and over. We showed it to [director] Rob [Roth] and [choreographer] Matt [West], and they just started laughing. They refined it. We incorporated it.”
4. Beauty and the Beast was a risky move and the cast knew it:
“It seems like such a forgone conclusion that Disney would be a top producer, but that was not the feeling at all in 1993-94. Then, when they opened ticket sales and there were lines around the block, Gary Beach, who played Lumiere, who was also, appropriately, the light of our show and the light of my life, he just took my hand one day in rehearsal. He took me outside. We just stood with our coffees and we looked at people in line waiting to see this show. He’s like, ‘We’re going to get to stay here for as long as we want to. You need to know that.”
5. The cast had faith Beauty and the Beast worked artistically after learning this song:
“When did we know it was working? Jeffrey Katzenberg said the best version of the show he ever saw was our final runthrough in the rehearsal hall before we had costumes and make-up because it still worked. It worked without any of it. The song that really brought it together for all of us is a song that wasn’t even in the movie. It had been cut: ‘Human Again.’ The idea of being human again, which Howard wrote when he was in the last stages of AIDS in an era when he was made to feel subhuman by society because of what he was suffering…. He still had hope.”
6. The final transformation was made by actual magicians:
“I was part of the mechanics of it. Even though I understood the slight of hand that was happening for the audience, from where I was sitting—it was before GoPros existed, but I wished I was wearing a GoPro so the audience could see that even from my point of view, it was spectacular. It’s a combination of dramatically what’s happening in the moment, of the mechanics of this ingenious David Copperfield effect (it was his designer who created it), and the music and how Michael Kosarin arranged it to peak at the right time. We had something like 10 Vari-Lites; no Broadway show had a Vari-Lite in those days. It can turn 360 degrees and change colors through computers instead of through gels. Before that, lights were static. At the perfect second, all these Vari-Lites did a 360 rotation and changed colors from different colors to white. The second that all 10 of them were shining at the audience, blinding them for a microsecond to facing all on the Beast, who is now the Prince. In the second that everyone was blinded, that’s when everything was happening. That’s when I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. That’s when Terry was doing what he was supposed to be doing. That’s when mechanics were doing what they were supposed to be doing. It all happened in that second.”
7. There was a night when Belle went bald:
“There was one time during previews when Terry, bless him, he had on these rubber Beast hands, and he couldn’t feel anything. At the end of Act 1, he was supposed to grab my arm, and my sleeve was a ripaway sleeve, but the Velcro was really strong. He’s like, ‘I feel like I’m tearing your arm off.’ I go, “No, no, no. You’re not at all. I’m going to plant my feet. Just rip as hard as you can.’ That night, I planted my feet. He grabbed the sleeve. Unfortunately, the ponytail of my wig was also in his grasp, but he didn’t know because he had rubber hands on! He ripped off the sleeve and my wig onstage. All of a sudden Belle looks bald. I think to myself, ‘Well, I’m exiting anyway.’ Stage left, we’re all watching Terry. This is a famous Broadway actor. He was Javert. He was Rum Tum Tugger. Surely, he’s going to do something genius. He was so disgusted by what he had just done, he finally tosses the wig to me in the wing.”
8. In the 2018-2019 season, Beauty and the Beast was the fourth most produced musical in high schools nationwide.
The legacy lives on.