A handsome but conceited prince treats a beggar woman poorly, but she turns out to be a beautiful enchantress. She casts a spell that transforms the prince’s exterior to match his beastly treatment of others. The enchantress gives the prince—now the Beast—a magical rose. She tells him that to break the spell, he must learn to love a woman for who she is and get her to love him in return, despite his beastly exterior, and all before the magical rose loses its petals.
Meanwhile in a nearby village, a beautiful young bookworm named Belle feels lonely and out of place. She lives with Maurice, her eccentric but kind inventor father. On his way to an inventors’ fair, Maurice gets lost in the woods and ends up a prisoner at the Beast's castle. Belle finds the castle and makes a deal with Beast to let her father go in exchange for her. The Beast realizes he must find inner kindness and show his love to Belle before the last petal falls.
The 1991 Disney film was adapted for the stage by Linda Woolverton and Alan Menken, who had worked on the film. In addition to the work completed by original lyricist Howard Ashman, Tim Rice wrote lyrics for the stage. The film favorite songs like “Be Our Guest” and the title tune remain, and the new songs like “If I Can’t Love Her” and “No Matter What” were written specifically for the stage musical.
Supposedly, Walt Disney had put Beauty and the Beast high on a list of fairy tales that he thought would not make good animated films. Disney considered making it in the 1930s but may have been discouraged by French filmmaker Jean Cocteau, who was planning his live-action version La Belle et la Bête.
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast has the distinction of being the only animated feature film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. It won two Academy Awards for Best Music Original Score and Best Song for Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's “Beauty and the Beast,” sung by Angela Lansbury. Two other Menken and Ashman songs from the movie were also nominated for Best Song (“Belle” and “Be Our Guest”), making it the first movie to receive three Academy Award nominations for Best Song. In 2002, Beauty and the Beast was added to the United States National Film Registry as being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
The 1946 French film La Belle et la Bête, helmed by director John Cocteau, served as one of the inspirations for the Disney animated version. In this live-action film, Belle's father is sentenced to death for picking a rose from Beast's garden. Belle offers to go to the Beast in her father's place. Beast falls in love with her and on a nightly basis he proposes marriage, which she refuses. Belle eventually becomes more drawn to Beast, who tests her by letting her visit her ailing father. He tells her that if she doesn't return within a week, he will die of grief. In this version, Belle has jealous sisters who try to detain her from returning to what they see as her rich life at the castle. In spite of their nefarious efforts, Belle reaches the Beast in time to make him human again.
The Fairy Tale
The first published version of Beauty and the Beast was by Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740. The best-known written version was an abridgement of Villeneuve's work by French novelist and aristocrat Jeanne Marie Le Prince de Beaumont. Her book, Beauty and the Beast and Other Classic French Fairy Tales, was published in 1756 in France; an English translation followed in 1757.
Villeneuve's tale includes several elements that Beaumont omits. Villeneuve provides back-story of both Belle and the Beast, which—like most original fairy tales—is a bit more adult than the more familiar Disney adaptation. The Beast was a prince who lost his father at a young age and whose mother had to wage war to defend his kingdom. The queen left him in care of an evil fairy, who tried to seduce him when he became an adult; when the prince refused, she transformed him into a beast. Belle's story reveals that she is not really a merchant's daughter but the offspring of a king and the same fairy who tried to seduce the prince. The fairy had tried to murder Belle to marry her father, and Belle was put in the place of the merchant's dead daughter to protect her.
Beaumont simplified the tale and cut characters. Beaumont included her revised version in the many magazines she published over the next 30 years. The success of this widely distributed, shorter version is why Beaumont is commonly credited as the author of the classic fairy tale.
All the earliest versions of the tale begin in an urban setting, which is unusual for a fairy tale. Beauty and the Beast is also unique because Belle’s father is a merchant. Other fairy tales typically focus on either peasants or royals, but historians speculate that the middle-class Belle and her family reflected the social changes contemporary to the tale’s writing in 18th-century France.
Other Beauty and the Beast-like transformation tales:
A Bunch of Laurel Blooms for a Present comes from Appalachia. A girl must live with a large ugly frog in exchange for her father’s freedom. One night she awakes to see a handsome young man lying next to her with the toad skin hanging on the bedpost. She destroys it in the fireplace. The next morning the young man thanks her for saving him from the spell. This U.S. version has roots in the Irish tale The Three Daughters of King O’Hara, where the heroine is punished for impatience in destroying her Beast’s disguise and has to endure a long search to find him again.
In Russia’s The Enchanted Tsarevitch, the Beast is a three-headed, winged snake for who Beauty eventually feels compassion. Russian writer Sergei Aksakov (1791-1859) included The Scarlet Flower in his Tales of Pelagea the Housekeeper, a tale in which Beauty is nameless and the Beast is described thus: "His arms were crooked, his hands were the claws of a wild beast, his legs were those of a horse, he had two large humps like those of a camel in front and behind, and he was covered with hair from head to foot. A boar’s fangs protruded from his mouth, his nose was hooked like the beak of the golden eagle, and his eyes were those of an owl." Other Russian folk tales of enchanted men saved by women and of women freed by men include The Snake Princess and Maria Morevna.
The Beauty in the Indonesian The Lizard Husband has six sisters, each of whom is rude and abusive to the mother of a lizard who requests that they consider her son for marriage. The kind-hearted youngest, Kapapitoe, takes the lizard as a husband. Eventually the lizard and his wife work together to build their own farm, during which the lizard transforms himself into a handsome man. It takes his wife some time to accept this change and the jealous sisters try to steal him away from her. One night a castle appears in which Kapapitoe and her husband live happily and protected from the malicious sisters.
East of the Sun and West of the Moon is a Norwegian tale about a prince who takes the form of a Great White Bear by day and a man at night. The Turkish version has a pig-beast, while England’s Beast in The Small Tooth Dog is of the more domestic variety. Other Beauty and the Beast-like tales that end tragically, with the Beauty forsaking her Beast, including the Lithuanian Egle, Queen of Snakes and French’s The Ram. Japan’s beast is primate in The Monkey Son-in Law, where Beauty tricks the monkey into falling into the river to be carried away.
Disney’s Beast and the Beast Trivia
- Disney’s Beauty and the Beast ran on Broadway for 13 years, and its 5,464 performances make it Broadway’s 6th-longest running production.
- Beauty and the Beast was Disney’s first official Broadway musical.
- The production holds the record of being the longest running production at both the Palace Theatre, where it opened, and the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, where it closed its Broadway run.
- Steve Blanchard played the Beast for the last 8 years of the Broadway run—11 years in the role, when his three years of road work on the show’s tour is factored in.
- Menken and Ashman wrote the song “Human Again” for the animated film, but it was cut. The musical’s success lead to an entirely new animated sequence set to the song for the film’s 2002 special edition DVD.
- Belle’s song “A Change In Me” was written into the show for R&B singer Toni Braxton in 1998 and was retained thereafter.
- Beauty and the Beast has been performed in English, Spanish, German, Portuguese, Flemish, French, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Swedish, Italian, Hungarian, Polish, Russian, Hebrew, and Slovenian.