Susan Egan: The Belle of Broadway

The Walt Disney Company has big plans to mark its 25th anniversary on Broadway with an all-star line-up of actors and actresses that will pay homage to all of Disney's theatrical productions. The benefit for charity November 4th at the New Amsterdam Theatre will feature all of the Disney musical productions since Beauty and The Beast took to the Palace Theatre more than a quarter of a century ago.

To mark the silver anniversary who better to remember the Disney company taking a gamble by putting its mouse mitt on the Great White Way than Susan Egan, the original Belle from Beauty and The Beast.

“It was an experiment,” Egan recounts in a recent interview. “I think in hindsight, people say well of course Beauty and The Beast was this tremendous hit but Disney had never been on Broadway before. And really did not do things the traditional way,” Egan remembers. The actress says what started out as an experiment, “Disney decided to do it on their own in their own way and it worked, and now it is such a fixture on Broadway,” the actress observed.

Egan believes Disney's success on Broadway caused other movie studios, like DreamWorks and Universal to produce shows that helped create a renaissance in American musical theater. “I say it was sort of a one-two punch,” Egan notes “Beauty and The Beast in 1994 and then in 1995 it was Rent. So we brought in the kids and families and that brought in the teenagers and then everyone was like 'oh musical theater, singing and dancing, that's cool.'”

The actress says Disney's arrival was not greeted by a warm welcome and that it seemed there was resistance on the part of the traditional Broadway crowd to the new kid on the block. “We opened at the Palace, but our opening review in the New York Times spent more paragraphs talking about the real estate deal that Michael Eisner had just brokered with Rudy Giuliani of 42nd Street then it did on whether these actors could sing, dance or act.”

For Egan the opportunity to play Belle was not without apprehension for the actress. She had just finished a national tour of Bye, Bye Birdie with actor Tommy Tune and moved to New York City where she auditioned for everything in the 1993-1994 theater season including roles in Grease, Carousel and My Fair Lady. The 24-year-old dyed-pink-hair Long Beach, California native said it was her agent who insisted that she try for a part in Beauty and The Beast. “I had not seen the movie and thought, a cartoon on Broadway? I was one of those people.”

But it was that reluctance that paid off for Egan. “Having not seen the movie, I guess I had a fresh take on it.” The actress recalls that the audition process went on for weeks but after the final day, all of the Disney executives working on the musical hunkered down for what they had expected to be an all-night session to cast the show. Egan says within minutes everyone in the room unanimously selected every actor and actress for the musical.

Shortly after that session, she received a call that night that would change her life. The director said she had landed the role of Belle but just like Belle, Egan wanted more. “Please tell me it was Terrance Mann, please tell me it was Burke Moses, please tell me it was Gary Beach,” Egan questioned for the roles of the Beast, Gaston and Lumiere respectfully.

So what was it like for her to step into the role? She says she really had the chance of a lifetime to form the character and make it her own. “I got to choose what keys the songs were in. Or Matt West, the choreographer asked in Be Our Guest if I wanted the enchanted objects to dance for Belle or if I wanted to dance with them,” adding “I'm like are you kidding me, 14 years of ballet I want to be in the kick-line.”

The Tony and Drama Desk Awards-nominated actress says despite her youth in the roll of Belle she was embraced by the cast of Broadway veterans in the Disney production. “They ushered me through it with such beautiful love in their hearts.”

Egan will join other Disney notables in the special anniversary concert Monday night, November 4th at the New Amsterdam Theatre. The event will benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Television audiences got a sneak peak of the concert when Egan and other Disney stage actresses last month performed a melody of Disney theater hits on ABC's The View.

The star-studded concert event is produced in partnership with Disney Theatrical Productions and will feature songs from Aida, Aladdin, Beauty and The Beast, Frozen, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Mary Poppins, Tarzan and a reunion of the cast of Newsies.