To hear Robby Benson tell the tale, the only reason that this "Ice Castles" star wound up doing the voice of the Beast in Disney's acclaimed animated feature was because Robby knew his way around a Walkman.
"This is a story that I always tell the students in my acting classes. How I got past that first audition for 'Beauty and the Beast,' " Benson recalled last week in NYC. Where Robby and Paige O'Hara were doing publicity for this Academy Award-winning film. Which Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment will be releasing in a Diamond Edition Blu-ray tomorrow. "I walked into that room and - believe it or not - Disney was using a Sony Walkman to audition people for the Beast."
"I was lucky. I auditioned in New York with a real microphone," O'Hara interjected. "But a Sony Walkman? But that's ridiculous."
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
"But it just so happens that - because I write & record music - I'm something of a sound engineer. And as soon as I looked at the mic on that Walkman, I thought 'Man, that's a ton of compression. And probably everyone else who came in here has been roaring. Which is going to sound all squashed & limited on this tape because of that mic,' " Robby continued. "So I just used mic technique and tailored my performance to the limitations of the recording equipment. And that's how I got past that first audition."
But before Benson was officially awarded the part of the Beast, Disney would put him through four other auditions. And even after he won this role, the Mouse's marketing machine deliberately downplayed Robby's involvement with that project. At least initially
"To be honest, I think that they were wise to do that. Just let the movie speak for itself. Don't try and put a spin on things," Benson said.
Paige O'Hara at last week's "Beauty & the Beast"Diamond Edition Blu-ray press event. Photo byFlorence Doyle
As for where Robby found just the right voice for the Beast, Paige laughed and explained that Benson's kids are very, very familiar with that voice.
"Everyone thinks that Robby is always so soft-spoken. But his daughter, Lyric - who's 27 now - will tell you that she heard the Beast's voice a lot when she was growing up," O'Hara said. "That her Dad - especially when she and her brother, Zephyr were misbehaving - would get angry and sound just like the Beast at those times."
"This role was the closest I ever came to being typecast," Benson smiled.
Robby Benson & Paige O'Hara together againPhoto by Florence Doyle
Listening to these two kibitz back-and-forth on the 43rd floor of the Times Square Doubletree, it was pretty obvious that Robby & Paige are old friends. A fact that these two attribute to Disney allowing them to record some of their dialogue for "Beauty and the Beast" together.
"They don't usually do that. But the directors wanted Belle & the Beast to have some real chemistry. So they encouraged us to be spontaneous, to be silly and ad-lib. And a lot of the humor and ad-libbing that this one did," O'Hara gestured toward Benson," wound up in the finished film. So it was wonderful."
Mind you, Paige & Robby aren't the only members of this mutual admiration society. These two were also quick to praise the other members of "Beauty & the Beast" 's vocal cast.
Kirk Wise consults with Angela Lansbury at a "Beauty and the Beast" recording session.Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
"Like Angela Lansbury. I was a huge fan of hers. I saw her six times in 'Gypsy.' But that's a whole 'nother story," O'Hara explained. "But did you know that she initially rejected the idea of singing 'Beauty and the Beast' ? She supposedly told Alan and Howard that 'I don't have that sort of range in my voice anymore.' But they convinced her. And the version that they used for the film? That's Angie's first take. Can you believe it? We were all in tears as we listened to her record that with a full orchestra. It was very emotional. I'm so glad that Howard lived long enough to hear Angie record that song."
Speaking of Howard Ashman, Paige & Robby took a moment during last week's interview to reflect on Ashman's illness (Howard passed away on March 14, 1991 - a full eight months before "Beauty and the Beast" was released to theaters - due to AIDS-related complications) and the impact that this had on the movie.
"For the first year or so that we were working on 'Beauty,' Howard was with us. For the last 8 months, he was in and out of the hospital. It was then that we realized ...," O'Hara paused. "I'm pretty sure that - the entire time that Howard was writing for this film - that he knew that he was sick. In retrospect, if you look at the writing -- particularly at 'Human Again,' which was his favorite song in the score -- he was writing that one about himself."
"Beauty and the Beast" 's songwriting team,Howard Ashman & Alan Menken. CopyrightDisney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
But even with Ashman's passing, O'Hara and Benson claim to have nothing but good memories when it comes to "Beauty & the Beast." Especially in Paige's case. Given that Belle (the character) is the gift that keeps on giving.
"I'm usually in the studio 7 or 8 times a year recording new dialogue for Belle toys, that Disney Scene It? game or Kingdom Hearts," Paige explained. "Whereas Robby doesn't just do the Beast. He does all sort of voicework these days. Like the 'Prince Valiant' cartoon series. And those 'King's Quest' computer games."
And let's not forget about those "Belle By Belle" paintings that O'Hara has been creating for Disney Fine Arts. Which has really made Paige appreciate all of the hard work that Disney's animators put in on "Beauty and the Beast."
A sample of Paige's "Belle by Belle" series of paintings. CopyrightPaige O'Hara. All rights reserved
"To be honest, James Baxter and Mark Henn are just as much Belle as I am. We - as actors - have to share the acting thing with the animators," O'Hara said.
As for acting ... Given that Paige & Robby are both Broadway veterans and Disney's "Beauty & the Beast" is now a long-running Broadway musical, I asked these two if they might someday consider appearing in the stage version of this Disney animated classic.
"I don't know. I think we're both a little too old for these parts now," Benson concluded.
The Beast, Robby Benson, Paige O'Hara and Belle at Sunday's premiere of the Sing-Alongversion of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" at the El Capitan Theatre. Copyright DisneyEnterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
"Maybe we could play the parents," O'Hara laughed. "You could play Maurice and I could play Belle's long-lost Mom."
And speaking of the stage version of "Beauty and the Beast," be sure and come by JHM. When I'll share my interview with Terrence Mann & Gary Beach, two members of the original Broadway cast of this long-running musical.
"Beauty and the Beast" is probably the best of Disney's Silver Age films. The drawing and animation isn't as solid as Pinocchio's (probably the best Golden Age film), but its story is as strong and compelling as anything created under Uncle Walt. And the music is amazing. I'm looking forward to buying the DVD. I hope it'll have lots of behind-the-scenes goodies.
Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorites and I never knew Robby Benson was the beast! I didn't even recognize him in the recent photo. I did love him in Ice Castles though. I guess he's a two hit wonder now! :)
Judging by these recent pics, Robby Benson appears to be transforming into the Beast!