‘Beauty and the Beast’ reimagined: In conversation with director and choreographer Matt West

Courtney Stapleton as Belle and Shaq Taylor as Beast in Disney's 'Beauty and the Beast'. Photo by Johan Persson, courtesy of Disney.
Courtney Stapleton as Belle and Shaq Taylor as Beast in Disney's 'Beauty and the Beast'. Photo by Johan Persson, courtesy of Disney.

It is with deepest pride, and greatest pleasure that we introduce to you Matt West, director and choreographer of Beauty and the Beast. Having landed in Australia only weeks ago, West is deep into rehearsals for the Australian Premiere on Wednesday 14 June, at the Capitol Theatre in Sydney. Get ready to have a ball!

Dance Informa caught up with West and had the most insightful and entertaining conversation. We spoke about the Beauty and the Beast production and everything from — the evolution of the production, reimagined ideas that speak to this new generation, and the complexities and collaboration process in preparing such a grand production. We also gained invaluable audition tips and discussed the importance of being your authentic self, making room for laughter, and the essence of the message in Beauty and the Beast and how that can be applied to life.

Matt West.
Matt West.

West has been associated with Disney since his youth and as a professional dancer and actor. Years on, he played a pivotal role in bringing Beauty and the Beast to the stage. The musical production is based on the 1991 animated film, and played for more than 13 years on Broadway, remaining to this day one of the top 10 longest running shows in Broadway history, and touring to 37 countries worldwide. Working on the production has been a thrill for West, and he has played a key role in the evolution of the production from what it was, to what it is today.

“The animated film opened in 1991, and Michael Eisner – the CEO of Disney back then – called us straight after the opening and we started working on it after opening weekend. So it’s been more than 30 years and it’s been astonishing; it’s the gift that keeps on giving,” West recalls.

As a Olivier Award nominee, he has returned with the creative team from the original Broadway musical to reimagine this classic tale. Today, West leads a world class team that includes original composer Alan Menken, lyricist Tim Rice, book writer Linda Woolverton, scenic designer Stan Meyer, costume designer Ann Hould-Ward and lighting designer Natasha Katz. Collectively, they have received five Tony Award nominations and a win for Hould-Ward’s costume design, when Disney first debuted Beauty and the Beast on Broadway.

“I have come and gone from Beauty and the Beast, and had a life outside of it and Disney, but it has been fantastic to come back to the show – time after time – and take another look at it,” West says. “Thomas Schumacher (president of Disney Theatrical Productions, a division of The Walt Disney Studios that was formed in 1994) called me and asked if I would be interested in directing and choreographing this new production, and of course I was – with the caveat that we could reinvent it. So, we started over with the heart, love and truth of the story, that people around the world expect from this telling.”

Describing how the production has evolved, he adds, “All the incidental music is different, the underscoring is different. All the dancers are brand new, brand new,” he emphasises with jazz hands bursting with excitement. “It has all new music by David Chase, who is the premier dance arranger in New York City, and it just has so much life to it.”

This Sydney production brings spectacular new sets, costume designs and state-of-the-art technology. The classic romantic tale of Belle and her Beast will be brought to life on stage by a magical Australian cast, starring Shubshri Kandiah as Belle, Brendan Xavier as Beast and Rohan Browne in the role of Lumiere. Andy Cook steps into the role of Gaston, Cogsworth will be played by Gareth Jacobs, and Jayde Westaby will play Mrs Potts. Nick Cox joins as Le Fou and Rodney Dobson will play Belle’s father, Maurice. The role of Babette will be played by Hayley Martin, and Alana Tranter will play Madame.

Reflecting on past classics, West says, “When you think of Disney ‘fairy tales,’ this is one about a girl, who is not waiting for her guy – she wants her own adventure – and that is the world today. So, the piece really lends itself to being updated, and that is also what we have done with the costume design, lighting technology, scenic technology and design. It’s been a thrill!”

Tom Senior as Gaston and Louis Stockil as Le Fou lead the company in Disney's 'Beauty and the Beast'. Photo by Johan Persson, courtesy of Disney.
Tom Senior as Gaston and Louis Stockil as Le Fou lead the company in Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Photo by Johan Persson, courtesy of Disney.

Contemplating back to when it world premiered in the UK, West recalls the audience’s responses to the new updates. “We started this production in the UK with the intent of coming here to Australia, and during previews, I noticed that all these little girls were coming dressed in their Belle dresses – as they all do. Adorable!” he smiles. “However, I noticed a lot of them were wearing glasses. With this, I thought, ‘There is another connection we have here. Belle reads a lot, so let’s put Belle in glasses.’ So throughout the show, she wears her glasses now, and the response to that has been enormous! That is what it’s all about!”

That connective tissue to audiences and bringing a new generation of theatregoers to the theatre is what sparks his delight. When asked what it is about directing that brings him so much joy, he shares, “I would say, I mean why do it if there isn’t joy? I am surrounded by the most talented artists ever, from graphic designers, costume designers and scenic designers, and what inspires me is being able to get all these different personalities, with all these different talents into a room, and make a cohesive piece of theatre with all of their ideas.”

Pulling back the curtains, and delving into the creative and technical process, he adds, “The advancement in theatrical technology and lighting and what you can do to make a cohesive piece of theatre with all those different ideas, and people, that is what inspires me the most – to see it all come together. It’s not easy, because everyone has their opinions and varying personalities, but to be able to tie it all together and see it come to life and make sense, and be one world, is what gives me the most gratification really…along with the human part of it. Meeting some of the most talented actors of my career here in Sydney, and Melbourne – all over Australia. People flew in to audition. It’s the most talented cast you will ever find!”

Coordinating the technology and all the cues is a big task in order to achieve a seamless and magical show. West says, “Every 30 seconds of the show needs a tech check, and it takes an hour. To have it all land at the same time, to have the lights come up and the actors arrive safely in that scene, you go through it step by step.”

He adds, “That is what we are doing right now, we are going into tech rehearsal. Yesterday, we finished at 10pm, and we completed ‘Be Our Guest,’ which is now a 10-and-a-half minute extravaganza! It encompasses every style of music you can imagine, from tango, to big band, to classical, and just to see it come together, and see the actors so thrilled with the colours and the look of it, that’s why we do it!”

Placing a spotlight on the elements that make for a seamless show, West explains, “The cues are computerised, but people are calling it for safety issues, especially when you have so much flying scenery. The technology we have is extraordinary. We have these scrolls that fly silently through the air and go from room to room, and they are quite large, too. They land, close to the stage and fly closely to the actors, and those were quite the effort during tech rehearsal to combine all of those elements.”

Reflecting on the magical dreamlike quality, he adds, “It’s like a ballet in the air. It’s really beautiful. I think the movement of the show is so cinematic, without it looking like a movie. We don’t want the audience to go to the theatre and be in the movie theatre – movies are fantastic – I go to them all the time. But it’s theatre, and you pay special attention to make this cinematic movement apply to theatre, and the theatre going experience.”

Of course, a key element of the production is the choreography. Fascinated by how one approaches such a large undertaking, we asked West about his personal process of mapping out all the scenes and creating the choreography for each. Insightfully, he shares, “Once I have the music and song in my possession, I go walking in Central Park – I live in New York City – and I make up this movie in my mind. I play this movie in my mind, over and over again, and I choreograph it in my mind. Then I get with my associate Chandon Jones, and she puts it into the computer, and we can look at it there, with actual bodies, which are shapes and colours – the ensemble.”

West continues, “Then we move them around for the shapes.” This is the point where it starts, and then they again work with David Chase for the dance arrangements and storytelling. “I only know how to tell a story in the dance, and so we make up the story and write it down. For example, here is the story of the tavern – what happens at the beginning; Gaston is depressed. Le Fou cheers him up. The townspeople join in. Gaston has feats of wonder. Gaston jumps up on the bar and he stamps on the bar and mugs fly up in the air, so you write this little scenario and then you take that and start making little scenes out of it.”

For those dancers who have dreamed of performing in one of these iconic Disney scenes, West shares his top three audition tips from a directors perspective. “1) Don’t try to read the director’s mind. You don’t know what they are thinking. 2) Surprise the panel! 3) This is connected to 1 and 2. Be yourself.  Find yourself in the character. Only then will it be authentic.”

Generously adding invaluable insight from his extensive years of experience as a director, he shares, “I believe all directors and choreographers are looking for something new, and something we haven’t thought of. You know these actors in Beauty and The Beast here in Australia, this is going to be like no other production I’ve directed and choreographed in my lifetime, because these actors are bringing new interpretations of these characters. That’s what you want!”

Reflecting back to personal experiences, he recalls valuable memories. “I know from growing up as an actor, I was allowed by Bob Fosse, for example, and others who I worked for, to bring in my own interpretation of a character that had already been created.” Allowing West to make it his own is what he believes is so important. He adds, “For a director to be surprised when someone walks in, even if it’s not quite right – it’s different! It’s inventive. It’s organic!”

For West, collaboration from the cast, crew and creative team is imperative. Having worked extensively with Thomas Schumacher and Anne Quart (senior vice president and co-producer at the Walt Disney Company) who both lead Disney Theatrical, he states, “Collaboration is what they are all about.” Having spent time with Anne a week prior to this interview, he and Anne were discussing the new elements of this show. “I have added new props – like giant props – that we have never used before and we dance with them in this production. We have added new costumes to ‘Be our Guest’ that are exquisite. They are so beautiful and we found the right fabric and the right colour, and she was part of the collaborative process with me.” For West, this has been his experience throughout the whole process. “Thomas and Anne, they are smart people and they are fun!” he exclaims. “You surround yourself with smart people, and you look even better …and we laugh a lot! That is another thing that is important to me, and we do this by throwing in some bad dad jokes throughout rehearsal, because it keeps us connected. Collaboration is the key.”

When asked who his favourite character is in Beauty and The Beast, he contemplates the story holistically. “That’s a hard one, because without one character, the others don’t work. I love how the characters have been written and rewritten for the production in Sydney. We have new elements to the script here. But you know, my favourite character is the message: ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover!’ You never know what someone is going through…be kind. Love is love is love! No matter who we choose to love in our lives. The world could use more of that, in my opinion. The world could never have enough of it. The message is also to understand, to forgive, to accept, to listen.”

Because we as writers are curious and enjoy understanding people, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to listen and learn more about West and about two things people wouldn’t generally know about him.

Animatedly, West shares, “Okay, number one, I’m left-handed; so much of my choreography goes that way, and most dancers go the other way. So, dancers sometimes look at me and say, ‘It would be easier for us if we went that way,’ so then I’ll change it – sometimes, that is. And I’ve learnt over the years that it’s kind of different for people, so I find that kind of funny and fun,” he smiles. By this stage, our cheeks are sore from laughing and smiling so much.

Matt West.
Matt West.

Next he adds, “Number two, I am actually, I believe at the heart of me, I am that shy kid. When I was younger, I was very, very shy! I was working from the age of 13 professionally. I was touring for Disney, and I was in a big show called Disney on Parade, and I was quite shy, and people thought I was stuck up.” Having such knowledge helped him to grow and understand people who are shy. “They appear to be aloof, but at the heart of it, believe it or not, I’m a bit shy – even in interviews I get nervous. Once I meet you, I am fine.” Recalling his younger years, he adds, “but when I was kid and I’d get on stage, I would come alive and I could express myself in ways I couldn’t growing up. I was bullied because I did ballet when I was younger, but I persevered, I just ignored it and I kept going because I loved it so much.” 

Growing up, West loved watching The Ed Sullivan show and would dance around all the time to The Jackson 5. But as a kid, he couldn’t recreate those dance moves in his bedroom. He recalls, “I would watch The Osmond Brothers; they were very smooth! Donny Osmond was five years old like me, and he was my idol.”

With a spark of excitement, he connects the past to the future. “Lo and behold, our 10th year with Beauty and The Beast on Broadway, who becomes Gaston? Donny Osmond!” So West went in, and he said, “I am going to teach him the show!” Recalling that moment fondly, he says, “So I go in, and I teach my childhood idol the show – Beauty and the Beast – my other love! It was amazing!”

Destined to have a long and successful career, we were curious to learn if West had ever considered any other pursuits. “You know, growing up because I travelled so much as a kid, I flew on the private Disney jet and it was called the ‘Mickey Mouse,’ and I was always curious about aviation. I think maybe I could have been a pilot, except I am afraid of heights! So I think in the test to become a pilot, that may have been a downfall!” he laughs.

Considering there is so much aerial work in productions these days, we had to ask if there was ever a moment when West needed to conquer his fear of heights. “Yes, when I was Peter Pan when I was a kid working for Disney. I was on a live television show called Captain Noah and His Magical Ark. They put me in a harness really quickly, we rehearsed the harness lift, and they wanted me in the live promo. I knew something wasn’t quite right, but I didn’t say anything, and I went flying up sideways and went ‘Ahhhhhh’ on live television!” So they never flew me again!”

With a seriousness about the thought of pursuing another career like aviation, he reflects on his true love and states, “But to be honest, theatre and production have been my life, and I haven’t thought about anything else, because I am just so passionate about it!”

Finally, when asked which country he has enjoyed the most when touring, he bursts out with excitement, “Australia! I’ve flown to Australia maybe 18 or 19 times. I love it here! I love the people and the warmth and the passion for theatre!” One must not forget the accent. He smiles and says, “Oh, the accent, really good accent – it’s really charming – I have to admit it! I’ve learnt ‘Oh that’s gorge!’”

Interjecting his love for the Aussie accent, he closes, “No lie, I am so blessed and so happy to be here for an extended period of time for the entire rehearsal and opening night and to meet people. I want to let you all know that this is a special experience for me and the team, and for the cast.”

Sydney, light the candles and lift your glasses – this enchanting and timeless tale, from the producers of Aladdin, The Lion King, Mary Poppins and Frozen, will be brought to life boasting all the spectacle and grandeur audiences know and love, and will fill the hearts of this new generation. Get ready to revisit the nostalgic songs of Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice including “Belle,” “Gaston,” “Human Again” and “Be Our Guest.”

Tickets are on sale now for performances through to 5 November, exclusively through Ticketmaster. For more information, visit www.beautyandthebeastmusical.com.au.

By Renata Ogayar of Dance Informa.

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