Beauty and the Beast is a tale as old as time. But the story of how the film was made? That legend is best told by the people who worked behind the scenes on the modern Disney classic. In honor of its release on Blu-ray, digital and DVD (and in celebration of its 25th anniversary), E! News spoke exclusively with producer Don Hahn, composer Alan Menken and a trio of voice cast members: Angela Lansbury (Mrs. Potts), Paige O'Hara (Belle) and Richard White (Gaston).
The 1991 movie musical had been stuck in development for decades, as the late Walt Disney and his team of animators couldn't find a way to make the story to work. "Walt tried to develop it but couldn't figure out the second act. It was really about an ugly guy coming downstairs and asking, 'Will you marry me?' Belle says no, and he says, 'OK, well how about tomorrow night?'" Hahn explained. " That's the whole second act."
"There was nothing to do to change that. So you bring in [lyricist] Howard Ashman, you bring in the directors, Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, and they start playing with the objects, and the musical possibilities, and the comedy of falling in love and breaking the spell over a number of months and days—and it starts to be possible."
"We're no Walt Disney, but we did have Howard Ashman, and in a funny way Howard was our Walt,'" he told E! News. "He was able to kind of cut through all that and help make this movie." (Ashman died from complications from AIDS in 1991; the movie was dedicated to his memory.)
Menken, who'd scored 1989's The Little Mermaid, knew the film's heroine inside and out. "As far as I'm concerned, I'm the original Belle, because I wrote it from my voice, and that's the way it works," he told E! News. But O'Hara was the perfect person to bring her to life. "Paige was dead-on the right kind of voice for Belle. I loved her voice before she was involved with this. I can't remember what I saw her in, but I knew her voice and I loved her voice," Menken said. "There is a wholeness to her voice and a roundness to the quality of her voice that's beautiful."
Naturally, O'Hara was among the first to be cast.
"What was so wonderful is it was such a collaborative experience, between the writers and the animators and the directors and myself, and Linda Woolverton, who wrote those wonderful words. They accepted all of our ideas, and truthfully, Linda is Belle, as well. I think she and I are both so similar in life to that character. She could be my sister, you know? But it was wonderful that they were open-minded to those ideas," O'Hara said. "We actually were allowed to record together and ad-lib. Ultimately, for me and my relationship with the Beast, recording with [Robby Benson] is what made it such an incredible relationship and added so much dimension."
Benson, whose booming voice made him perfect to play the Beast, was cast a month after O'Hara was told she was the Disney Princess. "The film came together when Robby was hired," she said.
Around that time, Lansbury signed on to play a talking teapot—the first and only of its kind, really. "I kind of patterned her after a type of little English cockney woman whom I'd known as a child and had been part of my life growing up. I loved that person in my own life, in my own history, and I remembered her so well," she told E! News. "I think I infused this little cartoon lady with a great deal of her humanity, and that was very helpful to me when it came time to talk and appear to be that person on the screen. The guys who drew me picked up on that, and they got it from my voice. And, after all, you record your part in a small cubicle. You're not doing it out onstage. People think, 'Oh, they probably did this in a scene.' No! You do it in a little cubicle. You have to use your imagination to a great extent to be able to bring that voice alive."
As far as inspiring Mrs. Potts' appearance, Lansbury quipped, "God help us, nobody wants to look like a teapot! But they came about as close as they could to showing me as a character."
And then there's Gaston, the vain villain who's "roughly the size of a barge," as the song goes. White had worked with Menken before on Kicks: The Showgirl Musical, which "never saw the light of day." But after doing a "number of workshops," White had developed a "good sense of what his creative process is and what his music sounds like," allowing him to flesh out the character.
"He's a little bit unique in just how happy he is with himself and how happy much of his community is with him," he said. "Gaston's a villain, but he's not a typical villain—maybe no villain is typical. I like the guy a lot! Finding all of those things that are likeable helped me make him the ultimately unlikeable guy that some people tell me he is. That's what some people say."
Beauty and the Beast premiered as an unfinished film at the New York Film Festival on Sept. 29, 1991, and the team behind it reunited for a screening on Sept. 18, 2016. "I remember being here 25 years ago, introducing the movie going, 'God, I hope people don't rush the stage or run out,'" Hahn told E! News. "But instead they applauded after every number and stood up at the end in a way that blew us away. It kind of changed the face of animation for a long, long time."
"Twenty-five years ago tonight, at Alice Tulley Hall, was the beginning of that Oscar campaign, because the guys at the studio thought, 'Let's start to popularize animation as an art form. Let's show people how impossible it is to make an animated film, how hard it is to sit down and do a drawing, much less 24 drawings a second.' So this night, 25 years ago, was when people started to realize that animation was more than just a cartoon—that it was an art form," the producer continued. "That led to the Golden Globe and that led to the Oscar nomination, and now, a booming industry full of great filmmakers. I don't want to lay that all on Beauty and the Beast, but a lot of that happened on Beauty, and a lot of that happened right here at Lincoln Center."
Beauty and the Beast earned $425 million worldwide and immediately became a pop culture phenomenon. It became the first animated feature film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and it inspired Disney to create its first Broadway musical. "When the movie was first released all over the world, it got a tremendous response," Lansbury recalled. "The whole thing was so unique and original and wonderful...To be part of that, even at that time, was pretty special." Of course, the actress first worked with Disney in 1971 on the movie Bedknobs and Broomsticks, which blended live-action and animation. "Is it really 45 years?" she asked E! News. "Oh, time passes!" Being "part of the Disney legend" gives her a great sense of pride. "To be in that group is a great, great honor, as far as I'm concerned. I really do feel that."
The film's success didn't shock some as much as it did others. "We were part of a dynasty," White said. "It's a classic, but there's nothing instant about it." In contrast, Hahn said, "When you start off with these movies, they are hard fought and they are not easy. You're not sure if you have a movie that hangs together, much less to this day."
Even today, Hahn still can't believe how much Beauty and the Beast resonates with audiences. "We're the beneficiaries of a lot of amazing people, a lot of great talent, a lot of great animators. To be here 25 years later and to see people still celebrate the movie and still want to be told this tale as old as time is humbling," he said. "We love stories. We love to hear these stories again and again and again."
As time has passed, Lansbury said, the movie became a "wonderful legend" to many people. "We're still part of it, but only to those who've seen it. An awful lot of people have seen this movie, oddly enough. Thank goodness! It's lovely, because it's an absolute one-off, you know? It's one of the greats."
"I'll never forget, as a child, seeing The Three Little Pigs, with my brothers, who were five years younger than me," Lansbury said. "I remember us all singing the songs of that Disney movie. To find myself as one of those characters—as Mrs. Potts—was kind of marvelous. I'm thrilled, because I considered those characters to be legendary in my childhood, and I hope that children today will have the same feeling about Mrs. Potts and the beast and the lovely girl."
Beauty and the Beast "totally changed my life," O'Hara said of the blockbuster. "It created a role that will be around for hundreds of years to come—I mean, generations and generations, long after I'm gone! I think that it's amazing to be part of something that will live on forever."
Beauty and the Beast is available now on Blu-ray, digital and DVD.