For decades, Theatre Under the Stars was largely a Houston organization putting on shows for Houstonians. Then came a little show you might have heard of: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
When then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner wanted to break into Broadway, he went looking for a partner to teach the entertainment behemoth the theater ropes. He found that partner in TUTS, which is where the mega-hit musical got its start in 1993. And as the company marks its own 50th anniversary—and Beauty and the Beast approaches its 25th—TUTS is bringing the show back.
“Houston understood that we were here to work things out, that we were building this new thing,” remembers Susan Egan, who originated the role of Belle, the eponymous Beauty. “Those audiences were on our side when the castle broke down and when the Beast didn’t transform correctly. I can’t imagine audiences in Boston or Philadelphia [the usual spots for tryouts on the road to Broadway] being so forgiving.”
In fact, there was no guarantee the show was going to be a hit at all. Sure, the animated 1991 movie was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture—a first for an animated feature—and created legions of fans with its unconventional heroine, Belle, who wanted “so much more” than the “provincial life” she and her kooky inventor father, Maurice, had in their little French town. She goes on to save her dad from a beast, who takes him prisoner in an enchanted castle where Belle learns that people are not always what they seem. And the whole thing is powered by the songs of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken—the same team who energized 1989’s Disney blockbuster The Little Mermaid—that cemented a second wave of Golden Age animation at Disney, harkening back to the studio’s glory days.
But a stage musical of the film was still something of a crazy idea, and even though Disney had the deep pockets to pull it off, few had any idea what would happen.
Egan, who was cast as Belle almost immediately out of college, recalls that Houston welcomed the show with open arms. While that won’t come as a surprise to anyone in Houston—where the idea of “if you want to do it, come on down” is as much as part of the city’s DNA as humidity and oil—it was a delight to the band of risk-takers who turned up here in November 1993 to take a chance on the show.
“Everyone was so kind,” Egan says. “I remember we all lived in these lovely little apartments. I’d be out to dinner with Tom Bosley [of Happy Days fame, who originated the role of Maurice, Belle’s father] and people would come up to us and tell us how happy they were that we were here and doing this. The Southern hospitality really made the whole crazy juggernaut much less stressful—and helped make it successful.”
Egan had never even seen the movie before she auditioned, but once she was cast, it was first on her to-do list. She loved Paige O’Hara’s film interpretation of the role, but it didn’t quite occur to her that she had huge shoes to fill—or even that she was creating an iconic role.
“Looking back, it’s a lot scarier now than it was then,” she says, laughing. “When you’re 23, your frontal lobe isn’t fully developed—you have no idea what you don’t know. You just know that you’re doing this thing, and you’re so blissfully stuck in the details you don’t even notice the bigger picture.”
That’s certainly something Delphi Borich, who’s playing Belle in TUTS’ production, can relate to. The 24-year-old is fresh off the national tour of Cinderella, barely two years out of school, and living a lifelong dream of performing. “TUTS has definitely been on my list of dream theaters to work with,” says the Southern California native. “I feel so, so lucky.”
Like Egan, Borich loves her character’s independent streak, the way she doesn’t sit around waiting for a prince to save her.
“She has this incredible strength,” Borich says. “I’m still being surprised by that, in ways I don’t remember thinking about when I saw the movie. I love she offers to save her father by taking his place in the Beast’s castle—and I love that she’s motivated by kindness. She’s what we all aspire to be.”
Borich also hopes that children who see the show take to heart Belle’s inner strength, as well as the play’s overall concept that magic really can happen.
“I was riding the float in the [H-E-B] Thanksgiving Day parade, and there was this moment as I was looking out at all the little girls. Never in my life did I think I’d be on a parade float as a Disney princess. I’m biracial, and all I could think as I was out there was how I’ve been told this is one of the most diverse cities in the country, and I’m seeing all these little boys and girls of all shades. And I hope that I can show them that maybe someday, they can reach their dreams, too.”
Egan concurs: “This show has been out there for 25 years, and it’s still inspiring people. Children have grown up with the songs, and now they’re taking their own children to see it. It’s just fantastic.”
Beauty and the Beast, Dec. 8–23. Tickets from $43.50. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby St. 713-558-2600. More info and tickets at tuts.com.