How Alan Menken & Bill Condon wove new songs into the established tapestry of ‘BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’

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The Beast (Dan Stevens) and Belle (Emma Watson) in the castle library in Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Most of us can remember by heart the words to the classic songs Alan Menken and Howard Ashman wrote for Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. We’ve got every lyric, note, and inflection memorized. The highly-acclaimed animated classic circa 1991 took home two Oscars – one in the Best Original song category for the title song and also another for Best Original Score. There’s even been a hugely successful Broadway stage show keeping these songs, as well as a few others, alive and thriving for the past few decades.

So when it came time for director Bill Condon and Menken to re-tell the “tale as old as time” as a breathtakingly grand live-action, cinematic affair, great craft and care went into how each new, enchanting song would organically be woven into a more modernized narrative.

At the film’s recent Los Angeles press conference, Menken mentioned that each iteration of Belle and Beast’s classic love story has been its own “beast.”

Each iteration is a different medium in a way. There’s an animated musical, there’s a stage musical, and there’s this – and they all have sort of different shapes. And the stage musical is definitely a two act structure, so we wrote this song for the Beast [“If I Can’t Love Her”], because at that act break is the moment where the Beast out of anger has driven Belle away and it was important – we needed at that moment for the Beast to sort of howl for redemption or just say I’ve given up.

For purposes of the three-act, live-action structure, where this moment hits opens things up in a whole new way, spotlighting a different emotional beat.

Bill felt, and I agree with him, that the more satisfying moment is the moment when the Beast lets Belle go because she’s no longer his prisoner, and he loves her, and the spell will not be broken now, but at least he knows what love is.

It’s at this juncture in the story where the Beast pours out his heart and soul into the new song, “Evermore.” Condon elucidated,

They often say in musicals that people sing when it’s no longer enough to speak – that their emotions are running so high. I think it’s one of the dramatic high points in all of literature. The fact that the Beast, at this moment, lets Belle go, and becomes worthy of love. And discovers what love is, but at the same time sacrifices his future. We talked about the fact that we needed a song.

For Condon, the process was primarily about finding which song would set the right tone and move our character-driven journey forward.

It was us sort of working out moments that we wanted to musicalize.

Menken looked at this process as something similar to drafting architecture.

First of all, you have the initial tent pole moments from the animated movie and those are going to stay. And then what we do is, as you put them in place, you look at it as like a architecture. Where do we need the emotional support? Sometimes the songs will respond to a moment. Sometimes you’ll go, I feel like we need a song in this spot, and we will massage the story so a song could fit there.

Essentially a lot of thought and a lot of collaboration goes into what song is going to come; Where’s it going to go? What does it need to accomplish? And how will it interact with the song that preceded it and the song that came after it? What will be the overall effect of it? What character is underrepresented in songs? There’s so many factors.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST opens on March 17.

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Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.