Arguably the greatest Disney movie ever made, Beauty And The Beast is getting a DVD and Blu Ray release to celebrate its 20th anniversary (well 19th – the 20th is next year, for which we’ve been promised a 3D re-release). As OTB’s (and possibly Britain’s) biggest fan of the era-defining 1991 picture, I spoke to Paige O’Hara, the voice of Belle, about making the move from Broadway to animation and playing a Disney Princess for almost two decades…
You’re probably one of the very last actresses who weren’t already well known in Hollywood before being cast in a Disney animation. How did you get discovered from Broadway? How did you come to land such a role in the first place?
Well it was interesting because Alan Menken and Howard Ashman wanted Broadway actors in the film because the wrote Beauty And The Beast as a Broadway musical on film. I’d been working for many years in the New York community and Broadway, so I was known there but not elsewhere and I went into an audition with 500 other actresses…
500?! How many stages of audition were there?
There were five auditions: at the first two we just recorded our voices and they sent them back to LA, and then, at the last few auditions, the entire Disney group were there – the directors, the composers, the producers… It was wonderful. I’d been in the theatre since I was 17 and I was now 30 years old. I’d been around for a little bit and I knew the characters; [Belle] was like me. It was one of those times when I knew it was my part.
The character of Belle has been around for coming up to 20 years. How has it changed your life?
Oh it’s totally life changing, totally. I was a working actress which was a wonderful thing, but it’s enabled me to do so much more worldwide, in terms of my children’s charities, my concert work, raising money for auctions for charity – even if I just send a piece of artwork or a Belle doll.
Did you have a feeling at the time of, “This is my thing”?
You know… I knew it was going to be wonderful, but I had no idea it would last this long… and then meeting Ileen who passed away recently (she was Cinderella); she said, “You’ll get older, Belle will stay the same, it’ll be part of your life till the day you die and it’s an incredible blessing.”
Do you ever wish you could get away from Belle at all?
You know, I do, because I constantly work. I’m in a show in Las Vegas at the moment called Menopause The Musical and I paint for Disney now.
Yes, your Belles by Belle artwork. How did that come about?
Well I’ve always painted since I was three years old. Part of me, the part that always made me feel like Belle, is the oddball. When I was a kid, I would copy Sergeant and Turner and Da Vinci later on and I was listening to Gershwin and Oscar Hammerstein and my friends were into Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, so I definitely could identify with her as being the oddball. But it’s wonderful to be a part of this – I love the fact that Belle was really the first Disney princess that was looking for adventure, not to get married and have kids. She was strong… and she saw right through Gaston.
Do you feel that it’s strange that you’re such an iconic Disney Princess, but most people wouldn’t recognise you if they saw you?
Only the people that are in Disney fan clubs would recognise me: “Oh there’s Paige”. I’ve been recognised by my voice in the grocery store. I was talking to my husband and this little boy came up to me and said, “You sound just like Belle. Are you Belle?”
When you were recording Beauty And The Beast, did you get the feeling that it was a masterpiece or were you just going along for the ride?
I knew it was great…. We recorded it over a period of two years off and on. But I didn’t know it was going to be the masterpiece it was until we did the unfinished version for the New York Film Festival and being a Broadway actress, I knew how tough the film critics were and when they all stood up for 15 minutes cheering I was like… “Okaaaay. Ok… you guys don’t understand, these guys are New York critics and they’re tough and they just loved it”.
What was it like to perform at the Oscars? I was watching the show before I came out to interview you.
Oh my god! That horrible Bo Peep dress! Oh, it was horrible!. It was great to perform, it was horrible to have to wear that dress. Nothing against the designer but it wasn’t Belle – it was much too frilly, she’s much simpler. Sorry… designer.. It was really wonderful: they give you the opportunity to sing live or lip synch and I sing live. They had a few sound disasters a couple of years prior – the mics went out so they always cover themselves now, so they have them on track if they need to.
It was weird, I was standing in the wings with Angela Landsbury, nervous as a wreck and she was nervous too. And I said, “why are you nervous?” and she replied, “Honey when you get to my age, you know when you’re supposed to be nervous and this is it”. She leaned to me and said, “Honey, Paige, if I sang like you I wouldn’t be nervous” and she kind of patted me…
Is it true that she did Beauty And The Beast in one take?
Oh my gosh. She was so nervous about doing the song Beauty And The Beast because it requires a lot of long, extended notes and she said that she wasn’t in vocal shape. She was a Broadway star, if you don’t know her, you’ve got to look her up – she starred in a lot of Broadway shows and I was a huge fan. So, she came into the studio with the full philharmonic and all the Disney high execs and puts on her headset, they start it, she sings it in one take and… most of us had tears in our eyes because it was so heartfelt. If you listen to her old Broadway stuff, you’ll hear she was a great Broadway belter. You’ll fall in love.
What’s the process of recording like? Is there a big difference between doing Broadway and doing it in the studio?
Actually, musically it as similar to recording a Broadway CD because you’re in a booth and you sing live with them. But in term of the acting, it was totally different because they wanted Belle and Beast to be very subtle. Of course, Beast gets really loud when he gets mad but in terms of the intimate scene work, Robby Benson and I requested to work together and that made such a difference.
That’s not something that they do these days, they split them up.
Yes, they split them up. It’s hard to get that chemistry otherwise. But when they put the camera on you, it’s just playing to the camera instead of the second balcony.
What was it like working with Robby Benson (Beast) and Richard White (Gaston)?
Well Richard and I had done several shows together, so I knew Richard really well. Oh my god… we did Showboat together, we did The King And I where he was the king and I was Anna.
He’s got such a great booming voice…
Oh my gosh, so I actually got to work with him in the studio too. I got pretty sassy with him when they told me I could adlib.
Which bits did you adlib?
Ohhh, they cut them, because it was way too modern and I was really putting him down in the scene when he puts his feet up on the table: “Urgh, smelly, stinky….” It was fun.
There’s a big thing in our office about Gaston – he’s our favourite Disney villain.
Really?! Richard was perfect casting.
The Gaston song sounds a lot like Drink from The Student Prince. Do you know if there’s any connection there?
It might have been inspired by it. I actually did The Student Prince when I was younger.
Because characters are not recorded together anymore, they must lose out on so much great material. David Ogden Stiers (Cogsworth) famously adlibbed “If it’s not Baroque, don’t fix it” and “Flowers, chocolates, promises you don’t intend to keep”.
Robby and I adlibbed quite a bit in the book scene when she’s reading to him and Linda (writer Linda Woolverton) kinda fixed it. After he turns into the prince, she’s looking and touching him and looks at his eyes and realises, “it is you!” and the magnificent kiss. Afterwards, I looked and him and touched his chin and said, “Do you think you could grow a beard?”.
So it’s getting a 3D re-release next year?
Here’s hoping. They’re not telling us and it’s taking so long. It’s Disney and they’re perfectionists.
What do you think of everything being in 3D these days?
It’s wonderful. And seeing the Blu ray… the detail. They’ve got so many things that I’ve never noticed before, like Belle blushing… subtle things.
Tell me a little bit about Menopause The Musical which you’re in at the moment.
Well, Belle would approve of Menopause The Musical because it’s about empowering women. They’re going through the change; the character I play is the opposite of Belle. The thing they have in common is that she’s attractive but she’s a vain, egocentric, crazy person and is freaking out because she’s being replaced on a soap by younger actors. And her friends sit her down and say, hey beauty’s only skin deep. It’s very very funny, my character’s very similar to Sally Field in Soapdish and I’ve been doing that for five years.
Did you enjoy your cameo in Enchanted?
It was fun, it was so much fun. I’ve been friends with Jodi Benson (The Little Mermaid’s Ariel) for years, so it was fun. We work together much more with Disney in terms of concerts. I’ve known Jodi from way back in the Broadway days.
And finally, we ask this of everyone but it’s especially poignant today. Who’s your favourite Disney villain?
Oh… that’s tough. My favourite Disney film is Mary Poppins, I’m a huge Julie Andrews fan. But villain… I love Cruella De Vil.
Darla K Anderson (The producer of Toy Story 3) said Cruella De Vil when I spoke to her too, what is it about her?
I just hated her so much and wanted to kill her. There were certain likable qualities about other villains, but there was nothing likable about her. Ursula was pretty horrible too. The most frightening one to me was the Queen from Snow White.
Would you like to play a Disney villain?
I think that would be great fun – Belle gone bad!.
Beauty And The Beast: Diamond Edition is released on Disney Double Play on 1st November 2010.
Beauty And The Beast 3D is in cinemas now.
All images © Disney.