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‘Beauty and the Beast’: How Bill Condon Built Hollywood’s Most Expensive Musical

"Beauty and the Beast" may have cost more than any musical in history, but Disney has reason to believe it's worth the price.

Beauty And The Beast

“Beauty and the Beast”

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Bill Condon knew that turning the 1991 animated musical classic “Beauty and the Beast” into a live-action musical would be a huge risk.

In many ways, Condon’s a perfect match for “Beauty and the Beast.” He’s one of the few directors who know how to deliver intimate, swoony romance, believable singing musical sequences, and  digitally enhanced visceral action. He wrote Rob Marshall’s Oscar-winning “Chicago,” wrote and directed “Gods and Monsters” (starring Oscar-nominated Ian McKellen) as well as the Oscar-winning musical “Dreamgirls,” and shepherded the last two “Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn” sequels to $1.52 billion worldwide.

Emma Watson Beauty and the Beast

Emma Watson as Belle

Disney

Given the chance to make the biggest-budget movie of his career, he embraced what could be the most expensive Hollywood musical of all time. “Beauty and the Beast” clearly has The Condon Touch: two men in love with the same feisty heroine, digital wolves, magical creatures, Ian McKellen, swirling cameras, gorgeous production values, a rich orchestral score, and a cache of musical references that include everything from Busby Berkeley to Bollywood.

READ MORE: ‘Beauty and the Beast’: Why Dan Stevens Shot the Ballroom Dance Scene Wearing 10-Inch Platforms

Assuming “Beauty and the Beast” cost its reported $160 million, there’s only one other movie musical that cost more (adjusted for inflation): Period musical “Hello Dolly” cost $25 million in 1969; today, that’s $165 million. Add “Beauty and the Beasts” global marketing costs, and you get to $300 million.

That’s pressure, but it’s preceded by multiple success stories that made Disney CEO Robert Iger direct studio chief Alan Horn to pursue live-action remakes of animated classics. They’ve overachieved all over the world, far better than stateside: Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” ($963 million worldwide), “Cinderella” ($534 million worldwide) and “Alice in Wonderland” ($1 billion worldwide). A unique and muscular family brand, Disney knows how to globally push its products via licensing (toys), marketing, and promotions via its own media (ABC, ESPN, and Disney Channel) not to mention theme parks. (Just look at the robust “Beauty and the Beast” website and IMDb page.)

Still to come: live-action remakes of “Dumbo” (Tim Burton), “Aladdin” (Guy Ritchie), “The Lion King” (Jon Favreau), “Cruella” (starring Emma Stone), and “The Little Mermaid,” with songs by “Mary Poppins” star Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Moana”).

“Beauty and the Beast”

“Beauty” producer and former Disney executive David Hoberman said the 13-year global stage hit “Beauty and the Beast” musical also boosted Disney’s confidence, as did Universal’s global smash “Momma Mia!” and the success of Disney’s original princess animated musical, “Frozen” ($1.2 billion worldwide). Hoberman had developed a darker “Beast” narrative (from the Prince’s perspective) before Disney came back to him with the live-action musical remake. He brought Condon to the studio.

“It was irresistible,” said Condon in a phone interview. “I knew how invested Disney was in this property. It’s their crown jewel. It was probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shoot a live-action musical and be supported.”

Hoberman and Condon convinced the studio to let Condon build two enormous, connected sets at London’s Shepperton Studios, on a scale that not even Martin Scorsese can command. Condon argued that real brick and mortar was necessary to ground animated characters like Framestore Studio’s candlestick Lumiere, clock Cogsworth, teapot Mrs. Potts, and the magnificent Beast, as rendered by ILM.

“It was important to make everything that could be real, real,” Condon said. “I’m not a big fan of CG movies. The idea is to feel grounded in a world and not be distracted by things that felt like additions. It felt right. The spirit of the production was a golden-age MGM backlot musical.”

The Beast (Dan Stevens) in Disney's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, a live-action adaptation of the studio's animated classic which is a celebration of one of the most beloved stories ever told.

The Beast (Dan Stevens) in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”

Production designer Sarah Greenwood (“Sherlock Holmes,” “Atonement”) constructed an elaborately detailed French village as well as an intricate before-and-after magic castle. Some sets had to be torn down before they could erect others. “We built the castle across five stages,” said Condon. “You could walk to the fireplace, outside the dining room, through the entryway into the ballroom onto the terrace.”

The movie announces the scope of its ambitions with the Beast origin myth, loosely based on the 1740 French fairytale adapted by Jean Cocteau in the 1946 classic “La Belle et La Bête.” Inside the castle, we see a spoiled young prince (“Downton Abbey” grad Dan Stevens) presiding over a gilded Rococo ballroom worthy of a 18th-century Donald Trump, gazing at a bevy of twirling white-gowned beauties seeking to catch his eye.

The director expanded the world by adding backstory, supporting relationships, and recreating many of his favorite musical moments, as well as several new songs. Alan Menken and Tim Rice’s “Days in the Sun” gets three spins in the movie, starting with the debutante ball, where it is sung by Broadway belter Audra McDonald.

“It’s a lullaby the prince would sing, as his mother would sing to him,” said Condon. “The court invites its best diva to sing the song he loves. It’s a musical, so we want to start by telling it in musical form. We give the diva a partner, Stanley Tucci, the maestro, who turns into a harpsichord.”

When the prince sends an ugly hag back into a raging storm, she turns out to be an enchantress who casts a spell on the selfish scion and his castle staff that can only be broken if he can fall in love and be loved in return.

That’s where bookish Belle (Emma Watson) comes in. Her academic father (Kevin Kline) sought refuge in the country after he lost her mother in Paris. “There must be more than this provincial life,” Belle sings, walking through the village surrounded by 150 extras, livestock, and 28 wagons. Feminist Watson embraced Belle’s identity as an independent outsider; she disdains the attentions of hunky soldier Gaston (Luke Evans), who seeks to tame her. “She represents a dangerous character in the social structure,” said Condon.

READ MORE: ‘Beauty and the Beast’ Review: Disney’s Animated Classic Gets A Needless Makeover

“The creation of Belle’s character stemmed from Emma,” said Hoberman, who worked with screenwriters Evan Spiliotopoulos and Stephen Chbosky. “We did a lot of thinking and talking and writing about making Belle a modern woman and aspirational for girls in 2017. The Beast character was someone raised in royalty. We felt making him an intellectual was a good idea; it was something they could bond about. Gaston never read a book in his life.”

Belle runs from Gaston, but chases after her father when he stumbles into the Beast’s lair. She surprises the Beast by substituting herself as his prisoner, and by standing up to him. Like any self-respecting feminist, she civilizes her man.

With Disney’s approval, Condon also wrote a subtle subplot featuring Gaston’s comic sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad), who harbors a crush on his master and has an eye for a cross-dressing villager. Condon regrets letting the cat out of the bag ahead of the opening; it dominated headlines, and led Russia to slap a more mature rating on the family film, and, after Malyasian censors insisted on cutting the movie, Disney shelved its release in that country until further notice.

“I am so heartbroken it’s out there,” Condon said. “It’s so overblown. Le Fou is the court jester who knows what going on in the middle of the action.”

“Beauty and the Beast”

The deep dining room is the setting for the joyously giddy “Be Our Guest” centerpiece, which Hoberman and Condon admit is likely the most expensive single musical sequence ever put on film. Not only does magical candelabra Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) welcome Belle to dinner, accompanied by Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) and Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), but the extravaganza whirls into an expanding pixelated Busby Berkeley musical sequence complete with glittery kaleidoscopic fireworks. It’s huge, and something that could only be imagined in a computer. “That took six months of planning and 15 months to complete,” Condon said.

“Bill had a vision for that scene from the get-go,” said Hoberman. “We were all referencing ‘Fantasia.’ He wanted it to be an historic film number.”

ILM used performance capture to read Stevens’ expressions on-set, where Stevens walked on short rolling stilts to lend him seven-foot height and movement as Beast, even in the exuberant ballroom dance scene. The sound team piped in the sound of Stevens’ own lowered voice into an earpiece, which “helped him with his acting to hear the deeper timbre,” said Condon. “Dan did hard work, and took time after we shot it to keep working on his song. He refined and killed it.”

The cast pre-recorded their own songs (Kline sings his quiet songs live), including three new ones by Menken and Rice, plus some final closing lyrics written by the late Howard Ashman for the 1991 animated film. “It was a beautiful way to end the movie,” said Condon.

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