Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Susan Egan: Belle, Meg, Glamour and Goop - Part 2

This is part two of my conversation with Susan Egan, the original Belle in Broadway's Beauty and the Beast and the voice of Meg in Disney's Hercules. Hate walking into the middle of a conversation? Click here for part one.

A Real Slice

Susan Egan records the voice of Meg in Hercules.
While Susan was still in New York with Beauty and the Beast, Disney was looking for an actress with Broadway chops to voice Megara in Hercules. At first, Susan was very interested, but Disney was not. "They wouldn't let me audition for it. Because, I was Belle. And they're like, 'You're not right for Meg at all.'"

Susan persisted. "I just kept begging and begging and begging. Literally, to shut me up, they let me go in and audition."

At the audition, she was relieved to see familiar faces from Beauty and the Beast, including composer Alan Menken and musical director Michael Kosarin. But, despite the friendly atmosphere, Susan still found the experience disconcerting. "You're standing in front of a microphone and they say, 'We're going to tape your audition.' And then, they all put their heads down." Their heads were down because they were looking at drawings of Meg to see if they worked with the voice they were hearing. It made sense, but it wasn't the type of audition Susan was used to or was even expecting.

Susan drew her inspiration for Meg from 1930s and 40s Hollywood actresses. "I've seen every Bette Davis (film), every Joan Crawford, every Barbara Stanwyck, every Lauren Bacall. I've seen them all. There's a cadence to those 30s movies. It's that mid-Atlantic accent, but it's got this sing-songy cadence.

"I don't know why it made sense to me, but probably because I was single and living in New York. The peak of my day was at 10:30 at night, so I was up until three or four in the morning. And then I'd sleep 'til 11 and all that was on TV were all these old movies [laughs]. And I watched them every night."

So, Susan channeled her favorite femme fatales and the audition went very well. "All these heads that were looking down at the table, one by one they popped up. And they went, 'Ohhh.'"

And then the waiting began. "There's no callback," said Susan, "because the callback is the tape--this is how long ago it was--it was actually a cassette tape that then goes through all the callbacks and it took about nine months."

Every now and then, Susan would hear from Kosarin that she was still in the running for Meg. Finally, when she was in Los Angeles, she made the breakthrough. "I am now at the Shubert Theater doing Beauty and the Beast and Eisner is walking down the hallway and he's like, 'Hey, great audition for Hercules!" And I'm like, 'I've made it as far as Eisner! Good, okay.'"

By then, test animation had been done with Susan's voice. It was a good fit. Later that week, she got the job.

When recording at the studio started, Susan learned quickly that directors John Musker and Ron Clements were after more than just her voice. To assist the animators with her character, all her body movements and facial expressions were filmed. "I don't look anything like Meg, " said Susan, "but when the movie came out eighteen months later, my friend Laura said, 'It's the first time I ever recognized you in a performance.' She's like, 'Belle, you're acting. I forget it's you. Meg is so you.'"

Susan recalled early in production going over the storyboard for Hercules. One particular drawing showed Meg saying, "Thanks for everything, Herc. It's been a real slice" while she sliced the air with her hand. Looking at the drawing, Susan commented to producer Alice Dewey, "That is so weird. I did that at my audition." Dewey replied, "Where do you think we got it from?"

That "real slice" line would turn out to be problematic. Musker and Clements really loved how Susan delivered the line at her audition; so much so, that they went to great lengths to get her to recreate it in the recording studio. "They couldn't use (the audition tape) because there was ambient noise," said Susan. "I mean, it was an audition space in New York City. You could hear the traffic."

Over and over again, Susan repeated the line. "Thanks for everything, Herc. It's been a real slice." She would get close to what the directors wanted, but the audition always sounded better. She said, "They paid me for an entire session fee for me to go in and say the line exactly as I had. And they were never satisfied."

The solution after all that work: digitally clean up the audio on the original recording. The line you hear in the movie is Susan's audition.

Hercules is a fun, freewheeling film based as loosely as you could imagine on Greek mythology. The son of Zeus, Hercules, must prove himself to be a true hero in order to take his place among the gods on Mount Olympus. On this quest, he battles all manner of evil beasties, matches wits with the god of the underworld, Hades, and falls for the saucy Meg, who may or may not be in cahoots with Hades and who may or may not be the girl of Hercules' dreams.

The film is full of smartly anachonistic pop culture references with an inspired song score by composer Menken and lyricist David Zippel. The movie may be set in ancient Greece, but the soundtrack is right out of Motown. Meg's signature song, "I Won't Say I'm in Love," is a '60s-style doo-wop number with solid backup vocals by the Muses, "goddesses of the arts and proclaimers of heroes" who serve as the ad hoc narrators of the film. Susan knew the ladies who voiced the Muses from Broadway, so in the recording studio, she was equal parts appreciation and intimidation about their talents, especially when it came to running off some gospel-tinged musical riffs. "I've never felt so white and square in a room as the day we recorded that song," explained Susan with a laugh. "Alan would say, 'Okay Lillias (White), just do a riff over there and LaChanze, you do a little something over here and Susan, just at the end, get from this note to this note and just do a riff.' I raise my hand and I'm like, 'Umm, can you plunk it out on the piano?' He looks at me like, 'Are you kidding?'"

A half hour later, Susan got it down. Meanwhile, her Muses were peeling off one amazing riff after another. "They gave him twenty brilliant takes all different. It was terrible. It was so humbling."

Working with her fellow voice actors was a bit less intimidating. Of course, Susan didn't spend a whole lot of time with them. Recording lines for an animated feature can be lonely work. Actors will lay down most of their voice tracks without other actors present so the directors and animators can more easily work with the material. On-screen conversations are often assembled from the best takes from the individual recording sessions. On the rare times actors do record together, the process can be pretty methodical. As Susan explained, "When you're doing the scripted scenes, you can't actually do it like you normally would, because they don't want any overlap. Because they want to be able to edit everything out. And then, once they get it that way, the way they like it, then the reason you're actually there is to then overlap like normal conversation.

"I had a handful of sessions with Tate (Donovan, the adult Hercules) and a handful of sessions with James Woods (Hades). I actually never had a session with Danny DeVito (Herc's excitable trainer, Phil). I've still never met him."

Susan tries to get a word in edgewise with James Woods.
Once the scripted lines were done, Susan was given some leeway to improvise with her fellow actors. "With James Woods, that was hard," she recalled with a laugh, "because he never stopped talking." She had an easier time with Tate Donovan, not that everything she did made it into the final film. "(Hercules and Meg) had just seen Oedipus and Tate says, 'Boy, I thought I had problems.' I go, 'Yeah, there's a boy who loves his mother.' You know, kids would not have gotten it, but the parents would have. And, I think it would've been hilarious. It was so sad they wouldn't put it in there."

Hercules premiered on June 15, 1997 and went into wide release on June 27. Critics were mostly enthusiastic. Owen Gleiberman with Entertainment Weekly gave Hercules an A-minus rating, calling it "delightful...a Disney fable savvy enough not to let its sincerity get in the way of its zippy multimedia charm." He called Susan's Meg "a refreshingly saucy maiden with big hair and a voice of suave huskiness."

Refreshing, and definitely a departure from Disney's pantheon of damsels in distress, Meg is a complex and conflicted character that defies classification. "She's her own category," said Susan. "She's the only Disney heroine that starts off as Cruella de Vil and then becomes Belle. She's the only one that makes a change. She starts off on the evil side and then becomes the good side. So, where do you classify her? She's not a villain and she's not the heroine. And she's not a princess and she doesn't even get to be a goddess.

"I love her. I wouldn't trade her for the world."

Coming Friday: The conclusion of our story. Susan's played a princess and has been immortalized in Disney animation. Her daughter doesn't care.