I spent Friday night with Bighead and a couple of other friends watching the Gala Theatre Stage School perform the stage musical adaptation of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
It was a fascinating experience. I’m never entirely sure what to make of the actual story. I have two fundamental problems with it, one from the Disney interpretation, and the other as old as the tale itself (which is not, one assumes, as “Old as time”). I find it very difficult to entirely shake off the feeling that the overall message of this particular yarn is that if you’re prepared to fall for someone ugly, you’ll get yourself a reward for being so nice as to forgive their repulsiveness. Now, there are plenty of good counter-arguments to this interpretation. It’s possible to view the moral of the story in exactly the way it’s presented: true beauty lies within. That might come across as a little clearer had the Beast, say, become gradually more attractive as the tale progresses, but then that would sacrifice the drama in the set-up, so it’s hardly surprising that route wasn’t taken. Even so, I remain uncomfortable each time I see Belle profess her love to the dying Beast, and then see the look of happiness on her face when he turns out to have been a Gallic pretty boy all along. This is why Shrek’s inversion of the tale works so well. The point isn’t that inner beauty translates into outer beauty, it’s that the former, we hope, renders the latter largely irrelevant. Belle’s reward for being willing to forgo physical attraction is to receive it. Shrek receives no reward other than the love of the woman he loves in return, and that’s absolutely all he needs.
I realise I am probably being uncharitable, in addition to potentially applying far too much thought to a tale for children (though that attitude taken too far is profoundly dangerous). Nevertheless, the issue remains. It’s accentuated by the Disney approach itself, in which all that stops Belle from leaving the Beast forever is him saving her from being torn to pieces by a pack of slavering wolves. That, at least, seems fairly unambiguously rooted in childhood fantasy. “She might not notice me now, but I bet if I saved her life she’d see how awesome I am”. The man who confuses gratitude for affection does himself – and the object of his desire – no favours.
So I have some problems with the structure of the story. The execution, however, was flawless. I really should go to the theatre more often, but my inexperience has the happy knock-on effect of being amazed every time I go as to just how much can be achieved by an inventive and dedicated troupe. Watching a man turn from man to beast and back in front of your eyes is truly astonishing. The battle for the castle that forms the film’s conclusion was brilliantly, impossibly recreated, with added lashings of French farce (a lovely and smart touch) for good measure. The cast’s rendition of “Be Our Guest” actually outstrips the source material, which shouldn’t be humanly (furnishing-ly?) possible – I’m really not sure why they didn’t end the first act on that, rather than what I can only assume was meant to be some kind of musical suicide note by a moping Beast. Absolutely nothing fell short of expectation, and frequently the show outstripped all hopes for it. Even the new songs, whilst not up to the standard of the originals, were engaging and interesting in their own right.
My only major niggle was the desperate lengths the cast went to imitate the accents and voices of the original stars. In this, I differ markedly from BigHead’s opinion, but if I’m watching an interpretation of a work from another medium, that’s what I want; an interpretation. Not something that is as close to a copy as possible within the structure of the new situation (something you could argue Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, for example, fell afoul of). Obviously, when you’re dealing with something as popular as a Disney film (or The Lord of the Rings, which also came up whilst I was talking this over with BigHead), the major heresy is not to copy too avidly, rather to change for the worst, but that makes replication merely safe, not necessarily good.
Over the course of this conversation, BigHead pointed out that I would be hardly likely to raise similar complaints had we seen a band that night rather than a play. And to some extent he’s right. Indeed, I am on record as disliking, say, Counting Crows’ habit of re-jigging their songs during live sets – though in fairness that has less to do with purism and more the fact that they’re often just not very good at doing so. On the other hand, I’ve seen live performances by Coldplay (on TV, admittedly) which were indistinguishable from their recorded versions, to the extent that it took me much of the song to determine they weren’t miming.
That holds absolutely no interest for me at all. I want some variation in a live performance. That, in large part, is the point of a live performance in the first place, at least to me. You can keep your shared experience. I want change. Not too much, perhaps, but surely some Goldilocks Zone of alteration and innovation must exist. This is especially true because the analogy above is faulty. We weren’t watching a band perform one of their songs. We were watching them play someone else’s song. Anyone ever loved a cover version because it was essentially indistinguishable from the original?
I’m betting no.
Still, I’ve gone on at length about this because it’s an interesting topic, not because the problem that led to it was particularly crippling. On the contrary, I was profoundly impressed and entertained. Even if I am worried about the fact that I thought the French maids were more attractive as feather dusters...