Last night, fans of Disney’s film classic Beauty and the Beast gathered at Alice Tully Hall for a special screening in celebration of the film’s 25th anniversary. The location and the event’s host—the New York Film Festival—was especially fitting, as the film famously made its world premiere in an unfinished version in Alice Tully Hall, part of the 1991 New York Film Festival. Reports of rapturous applause and joy from the audience that night started off the film’s unprecedented success with critics and moviegoers alike; the film went on to become the third highest-grossing film of 1991 and was the first animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
The evening began with an introduction by New York Film Society Board of Directors member Wendy Keys, who shared her memories of the film’s debut in the hall 25 years ago. Nearly two months before the film saw wide release, Disney screened a work-in-progress version of the film in the very hall where last night’s screening was held. Around 80 percent of the film was complete, but the rest was filled in with pencil tests, storyboards and sketches, giving attendees a glimpse at the incredible amount of work and artistry that went into the finished film. “I remember the evening so vividly, because while learning about, appreciating and admiring the talents of the animators, the narrative thread and the emotional impact never broke,” remembers Keys.
She also remembered the rapturous reception the film received from the audience. “There was an ecstatic outburst at the end of the evening—actually thinking back I remember many outbursts all through the screening—and it wasn’t applause. It was roars of happiness.”
We next got to see a short clip from a vintage episode of Nightline that took viewers behind the scenes on the making of the film, from the “Be Our Guest” storyboards to the New York City recording sessions where the film’s dialogue and songs were recorded; if you watched closely you could catch glimpses of such Broadway actors as Liz Callaway, Alix Korey, Herndon Lackey, Larry Moss and others who made up the film’s ensemble voice cast.
Eugene Hernandez, another Film Society board member, then introduced the guests of honor for the evening: Don Hahn, the film’s producer; Paige O'Hara, the voice of Belle; Robby Benson, the voice of Beast; Richard White, the voice of Gaston and Angela Lansbury, the voice of Mrs. Potts. The excitement from the audience at their arrival was palpable, especially so for Lansbury.
Hernandez led a discussion, beginning with Hahn, who remembered that the film was not always smooth sailing. Walt Disney had previously explored making a film out of the story, but abandoned the idea when his team was unable to solve the challenges of the plot. Decades later, Disney was preparing a non-musical version of the film which studio executives canceled after an unsuccessful screening of the first 15 minutes of the film in storyboard form. Hahn decided to pitch transforming the film into a musical to Howard Ashman and Alan Menken—fresh from writing The Little Mermaid and then hard at work on Aladdin—and they agreed. “In a producer’s life, those are the days you dream of,” comments Hahn. “Great producers hire the best people they can possibly hire, and then do exactly what they tell them to do.”
O’Hara spoke to the personal connection she has with Belle beyond just supplying her voice: “I’m a geek too.” To O’Hara, Belle changed everything as far as Disney princesses go. “She was really the first revolutionary woman of Disney heroines and then they took it to another level, with Mulan and others. She was another level; I took up kick-boxing because of her.”
For Lansbury, the joy of being in Beauty and the Beast was all about the younger audiences, saying, “They see things that we aren’t even aware of, and that’s what makes it so interesting and fulfilling to play even in a movie like Bedknobs and Broomsticks, which appeals directly to the imagination and the sense of make believe that children love to be in.”
Before finishing the Q&A, Hernandez told the audience to stay in our seats following the end of the movie, because there was another surprise in store, and what a surprise it was. While the credits were rolling, technicians rolled out a grand piano and then composer Alan Menken hit the stage to play and sing a medley of his unbelievable body of Disney compositions. From “Part of Your World” to “Out There” and “Gaston,” all of his Disney scores were represented.
As he completed his medley with a rousing performance of “Be Our Guest,” the stage lights went down and we assumed we’d had our surprise, but soon enough the lights were back up and Menken was playing the unmistakable introduction to Beauty and the Beast’s title number. And then Angela Lansbury, Mrs. Potts herself, walked out onstage and effortlessly delivered a heartfelt and flawless rendition of the song she’d made famous in the film. The audience gave her an eager standing ovation at both her entrance and after she’d completed the song.
Lansbury’s performance was a true surprise; an earlier screening of the film in California, also in celebration of the film’s 25th anniversary, included a similar pre-show Q&A with Lansbury, but her musical performance was exclusive to New York.
Last night’s screening coincides with the release of the 25th Anniversary edition Blu-ray and DVD September 20, which will include footage from the forthcoming live-action remake starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens.
Logan Culwell is a musical theatre historian, Playbill's manager of research and curator of Playbill Vault. Please visit LoganCulwell.com.