Sunday, July 29, 2012

Susan Egan: Belle, Meg, Glamour and Goop - Part 1

Susan Egan
For Beauty and the Beast's original Belle on Broadway, it all comes down to glamour and goop, the sparkle of performing in the spotlight coupled with the demands of being a working mom.

It was only fitting, then, that the first thing Susan Egan said to me when we talked on the phone was, "I'm doing a little lesson with my daughter at the same time. I hope that's okay."

It was a music lesson, of course, with five-year old Nina circling notes on a page. A few minutes later, satisfied with Nina's progress, Susan sent her off to play. All without missing a beat of our interview.

Multi-tasking. It's a requirement in the world of glamour and goop.

The Belle of Broadway

Susan holds a unique place in Disney history with having not only played the female lead in Disney's first-ever Broadway musical, but also lending her voice to a main character in a Disney animated feature film. Susan was the voice of Megara, Hercules' sassy girlfriend in 1997's Hercules.

It almost never happened. At first, Susan had no interest in auditioning for Beauty and the Beast. There were other Broadway productions--revivals such as My Fair Lady, Carousel and Grease--that she was far more interested in. "I thought it was a terrible idea for Disney to put a cartoon on Broadway," she said. "I was such a snob. But, my agent said, 'Go to the audition. You've never met the casting director and, by the way, I think you're wrong. I think it's a great idea.'"

Biases toward Disney invading Broadway aside, Susan didn't think she had the right look to play Belle anyway. "The character is described as 'the most beautiful girl in the village. And I am decidedly not that. I am 'average girl next door.'"

She turned out to be far from average.

Having yet to see the 1991 animated film, she had nothing to inform her audition other than her own creative instincts. While most other actresses were imitating Paige O'Hara (the original voice from the film) to play Belle, Susan took a different approach. After reading over the her script--a scene between Belle and her father--she thought, "(Belle's) odd, she's quirky, she's funny. I went in and I was funny. I made them laugh. It didn't occur to me as anything special, but I think in this instance, surprisingly, not having seen the movie helped.

"I was the last girl to audition on the last day they were holding their initial audition, and they'd seen--I don't know how many--500 girls do the same reading. And I just think maybe it was just like, 'Oh my, gosh, it's something different.' They didn't know it could be done in a different way."

Susan as Belle in Broadway's
Beauty and the Beast
Susan's quirky interpretation of Belle kept her on the callback list. For a week, she continued auditioning for the show's director and musical director, even singing for composer Alan Menken. All the while her competition was gradually being eliminated. "The last week was really grueling," she said. "You want to wear the same thing every day 'cuz now you're superstitious about it. Like, okay, it's the dress they like. And so, by the end of that week, literally, the dress could've sung the song. But, you don't want to take it to the dry cleaner because, God forbid, they ruin it or they lose it. And you're like, 'GAAAA, I'll never get this job.'"

On the last day of auditions at the John Houseman Theater, Susan remained with about ten other actresses. "I did my quirky reading," she said. "I made the Disney executives laugh. They kept me. I read with two different Beasts. I read with three different Gastons. And, at the very end of the day--I was there from nine to five--the director came up and he says, 'You know, I don't know what I would have you do if we ultimately cast you in this, but could you just...'

"I go, 'Play it like a straight ingenue?'

"He's like, 'Yeah, do you mind?'"

She dialed down the quirkiness. She nailed it.

"They called me that night and I'd gotten the job."

Susan was overwhelmed. "I'm wandering around my studio apartment (in Harlem) going, 'I don't know what to do with myself.' So, I went down the street to Blockbuster and picked up a pint of Ben & Jerry's Coffee Heath Bar Crunch and rented (Beauty and the Beast). And I popped it in my VCR and watched it. That's how I celebrated. And then I went, 'Holy crap! Oh my God! That's a big role!'"

At the young age of 22, Susan had been cast as the female lead in her first Broadway show, a massive musical production based on a critically acclaimed, award-winning film. Oddly enough, she didn't feel any added pressure. "Ignorance is such a really good thing and it served me well," she said. "No, I didn't (feel pressure). There was the pressure of being the lead in the show, but I didn't know what I didn't know."

Susan benefitted from being cast alongside a host of veteran Broadway performers like Terrence Mann (Beast), Gary Beach (Lumiere) and Beth Fowler (Mrs. Potts). "They literally had me under their wings," she said. "They had all been in big hits and big flops and so they probably knew more than I did."

As a company, though, Disney was still very new to the New York stage and had a number of bumps to smooth over along the way. Said Susan, "They thought we had to look exactly like the movie and sound exactly like the movie...I was was in flats, Terry was in lifts so that our silhouette would be the exact dimensions of that famous movie poster."

Early on, Beauty and the Beast relied heavily on elaborate costumes and prosthetics to make the production look as much like the movie as possible. This was ironic considering Disney's legacy as a purveyor of imagination and fantasy. The show didn't trust the audience's ability to suspend disbelief, something theater-goers are routinely asked to do. Susan said that attitude began to change as they prepared for out-of-town previews in Houston. "Our best performance of Beauty and the Beast ever was our final run-through in the rehearsal room with no costumes. And there was so much heart and so much emotion in it."

And so, throughout the show's 1993 year-end preview, the artifice was gradually peeled away. "They took all the prosthetics away," said Susan. "They just used makeup for the Beast and the inanimate objects. And we got a lot of the heart back. I mean, you don't want to cover up Terry Mann's face. You don't want to do it."

Susan Egan, Terrence Mann  and the
cast of Beauty and the Beast,
The Disney Magazine, Spring 1994
Beauty and the Beast was enthusiastically received in Houston, so much so that its run was extended for an extra two weeks. In an early review, Jerome Weeks with Variety wrote that the show "could well be the big new musical hit this Broadway season has been waiting for."

Good out-of-town notices, however, do not always equate to critical success on Broadway. "We were hated in New York," said Susan. "There were like five Broadway producers and they all wanted Disney money. And they had been trying to get (CEO) Michael Eisner and Disney to produce theater. And, of course, Eisner was like, 'Why do I need you? I'll just do it myself.'"

That type of arrogance did not play well with the Broadway establishment.

Beauty and the Beast opened at the Palace Theater on April 18, 1994 and the reviews were not kind. David Richards with The New York Times wrote:
"The astonishments rarely cease. Yet, strange as it may sound, that's the very drawback of Beauty and the Beast. Nothing has been left to the imagination. Everything has been painstakingly and copiously illustrated. There is no room for dreaming, no quiet tucked-away moment that might encourage a poetic thought. For an evening that puts forth so much, Beauty and the Beast has amazingly little resonance."
Vincent Canby, also with the Times, was even less forgiving:
"This Beauty and the Beast is the original film clunkily re-enacted at what looks to be great expense, mostly by performers of faceless competence, on sets of sometimes startling ordinariness, in colors that don't offend. There are a couple of lively specialty dancers, but the choreography wouldn't be out of place at a dinner theater."
At a cost of over $12 million--big money for a Broadway show--Beauty and the Beast was viewed by the critics as great spectacle, but not great theater, an opinion Susan thought was unfair. "The material was still great material. I think they went too far in the spectacle route, but the thing that Disney does really well--it was the most expensive Broadway show at that time and you saw every penny of it on the stage, every ounce of it."

Apparently, more than a few people agreed. Beauty and the Beast became a hit with theater-goers and was nominated for nine Tony awards (including one for Susan as Best Actress in a Musical) and ran on Broadway for 13 years. It was especially popular as a date show. "We had more people propose to their fiances at our show," said Susan. "It was pretty amazing."

The musical also defied the naysayers who thought it would never amount to more than a kids' show. Susan heard the warnings that children would be running up and down the aisles during performances. It never happened. "The kids sat quietly because they knew you already. That was the great honor of playing Belle. They already loved you before you even walked on the stage. But, here I got to do an hour's worth of material that wasn't in the movie, to teach them more about this character that they already loved."

Susan would spend a year with the original production followed by another year playing Belle in Los Angeles. Eventually, more Broadway roles followed, with Susan starring in revivals of Cabaret, State Fair and Thoroughly Modern Millie. There would be more Disney in her future too.

Coming Wednesday: Part two of my interview with Susan. It's gonna be a real slice.

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