Bill Condon has established his credentials as a director of note with the likes of Gods and Monsters, Kinsey, Dreamgirls, and Mr. Holmes. (We forgive him the last two Twilight movies.) Alan Menken got his start in musical theater before becoming a staple songwriter for Disney’s musicals, including The Little Mermaid, beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Enchanted, Hercules and Tangled. The two have collaborated on the new live-action version for Beauty and the Beast, which opens this Friday.They spoke about the project at a recent press day for the film.
Question: What is it about the first film that’s made it so beloved?
Alan Menken: When I first came to Disney, I thought of The Little Mermaid first and foremost our follow-up to Little Shop of Horrors. Howard Ashman’s and mine. We were still working in musical theater. We were these off-off Broadway guys coming and bringing our skills to Disney. And we didn’t calculate beyond telling the story and serving the characters and trying to give it – and each of the follow-up projects – its own unique musical stamp. Beyond that it’s just storytelling. These stores have endured for hundreds of years because they contain wisdom and human truths, and they still speak to the things that make up life. Disney puts its own spin on them, but they always ensure that those core elements are in place.
Q: How do you approach adapting something like that for live action?
Bill Condon: Get over the terror first, I think. But then you just start with the basic idea. You’re going to take it into a new medium which is live action. That means live actors playing characters in real locations. An animated film can be a little more exaggerated in terms not only of physical space and continuity, but of characters. You’re encouraged to be a little broader in animation, because it suits the medium more. So the first step was making that shift: grounding the characters in reality a little more, making their emotions a little subtler. That naturally leads to interesting questions worth exploring. How did Belle and Maurice wind up in this village where they’re outsiders? That leads to things like new songs and suddenly you’re creating something new.
AM: When Bill came aboard, we had meetings about songs to add, and one of the things we talked about was the backstory of how Maurice and Belle came to the town. We also wanted to explore the backstory for the Beast, how he became such a cold and callous young man, and to root ourselves much more in the time and place, 18th Century France. That really helped create a new tone for this movie and a new story to tell.
Q: How did that affect the songs, both new and old?
AM: First of all, you have the initial tent pole moments from the animated movie and you know those are going to stay. Belle’s song, “Be Our Guest,” the title song. As you put them in place, you look at them as architecture. Where do we need the emotional support? What’s been covered and what needs to be added? Sometimes the songs will respond to a moment. Sometimes you need a song in a specific spot, and we will massage the story so a song could fit there.
That process is always collaborative, and there’s no more collaborative form than musicals. I’m the composer, but the truth is it’s a director, it’s a choreographer, it’s a lyricist, it’s a book writer, it’s a composer, it’s a orchestrator, it’s an arranger, it’s an actor/singer, it’s everything put together. A lot of collaboration goes into what song is going to come, where’s it going to go, what it needs to accomplish and how it will interact with the song that preceded it and the song that came after it. What will be the overall effect of it? What character is underrepresented in songs? Those are the questions that need to be answered when you assemble a film like this.
Q: How did that process work? How did you go about doing that?
BC: Let’s take one example, instead of talking about all of them. The song “Evermore,” the song for the Beast. They often say in musicals that people sing when it’s no longer enough to speak: when their emotions are running so high. I think it’s one of the dramatic high points in the story: the fact that the Beast, when he lets Belle go, becomes worthy of love. He discovers what love is, but at the same time he sacrifices his future. So we talked about the fact that we needed a song there, and of course there had been a song in the stage adaptation.
AM: In the Broadway show there was a song called “If I Can’t Love Her.” But each iteration of Beauty and the Beast is a different medium in a way. There’s an animated musical, there’s a stage musical, and there’s this: and they all have sort of different shapes. The stage musical is definitely a two-act structure, so we wrote this song for the Beast, because at that act break arrives when the Beast’s anger has driven Belle away and it was important. We needed the Beast to sort of howl for redemption at that moment. But in the structure of a live-action film, which is more of a three-act structure, Bill and I felt that the moment where the Beast lets Belle go carries more weight. She’s no longer his prisoner, and he loves her, and the spell will not be broken now, but at least he knows what love is. That needed a song, that needed a moment. So we added it.
Q: There’s been a lot of talk about the sexuality of LeFou these past few weeks. How did that decision come about?
BC: We talked earlier about how we translate this into a live action film. That means filling out the characters. We’re also looking at a translation to 2017. And what is this movie about? What has this story always been about? For 300 years, it’s been about looking closer, going deeper, accepting people for who they really are, and in a very Disney way we are including everybody. I think this movie is for everybody, and that was important to me. I think it was important to all of us.