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Belle had a ball: Paige O‘Hara remembers ’Beauty and the Beast‘

From the day it opened 20 years ago, Disney‘s “Beauty and the Beast” has been hailed as perhaps the greatest of the Disney animated classics, nominated for multiple Oscars, including best picture, upon its release in 1991.

And as a new wave of ecstatic reviews greet every re-release (“the quintessential Disney masterpiece,” according to Christianity Today), Paige O’Hara, who sang the role of Belle, the “Beauty” of the title, recalls first looking at the songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken for the film.

They had scored hits with “Little Shop of Horrors” and then Disney‘s “Little Mermaid.” But O’Hara saw in the sheet music “how they wanted to leave the pop music sound of Mermaid behind and go for something more Jerome Kern/Rodgers & Hammerstein ‘legit’ with this score.”

That connection to the Broadway tradition may explain why the film became a blockbuster Broadway musical, and why its every revival in movie theaters is something of an event. It‘s back again, newly converted to 3-D.

“The style of music is just another thing that makes it timeless,” O’Hara says.

Google-search “Paige O‘Hara” and you stumble into entry after entry discussing her performance as Belle. There are YouTube videos of her singing songs from the film, including the title tune (Angela Lansbury had the honors in the movie). Whatever else she has accomplished in her life, Belle is what she’s known for. And that suits O‘Hara just fine.

“Coming from the stage, where a lot of those performances are long forgotten, this movie is forever,” she says. “Every few years, a new generation discovers it. Every time Disney puts a new edition of it, a new version of it in theaters or on video, I get a whole new fanbase of kids.”

O’Hara, now 55, is a Las Vegas-based artist who does paintings from the film for Disney Fine Art. But for all she‘d done before and all she’s done since, the native of Fort Lauderdale and Broadway veteran (“The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” “Showboat”), is still known for that one big role -- in which she was heard, not seen.

“They started videotaping us while we were recording the soundtrack with this movie, and even now, I‘m struck by the gestures they picked up -- the hair I used to pull out of my eyes, a bad habit I used to have. There are all these subtle things that are ’Paige‘ that I see, even now, that they copied with their paintbrushes. Brilliant.”

For all the psycho-babble that’s bubbled up about the “Disney Princess Syndrome” that therapists have been warning us about in recent years, much of it spinning off Jennifer L Hardstein‘s book, “Princess Recovery: A How-To Guide to Raising Strong, Empowered Girls Who Can Create Their Own Happily Ever After,” Belle is the Disney princess who gets off the most lightly.

“Belle is the only Disney princess whose goal ISN’T to meet her prince, her man,” says O‘Hara. “She wants to see the world, she trades her freedom to free her father. She’s selfless, brave, and she doesn‘t let what other people think hold her back.”

O’Hara, as Belle, sings about having higher ambitions in the film‘s opening “longing” number, “There must be more than this provincial life.”

“She was ahead of her time, both as a well-read fairytale heroine centuries ago, and as a Disney heroine 20 years ago,” O’Hara says. “The messages in this movie -- that you don‘t judge a book by its cover, that beauty comes from within -- meant something 50 years ago and will mean something 50 years from now. That also makes it timeless.”

(Courtesy Disney/MCT)
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