Admiring a well-dressed 'Beauty'

THEATER

Designing the costumes for 'Beauty and the Beast' was a tremendous challenge for Ann Hould-Ward. Turning characters into objects and back again was only part of the problem.

November 07, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun theater critic

When Ann Hould-Ward took on the task of making an actor look like a candlestick, she faced challenges most costume designers would never imagine.

Turning Lumiere, the character of the valet in "Beauty and the Beast," into a candelabrum wasn't just a matter of making him resemble the object -- although that in itself involved a series of about 30 sketches. There was, for example, the issue of making actual flames shoot out of his hands.

Speaking from her New York studio, Hould-Ward ticks off the escalating difficulties: "So here is a tool that makes Lumiere's hands light up. Then we have to route the cord for it. He actually has to wear the [tank of] propellant on his body. Then how do you protect the actor? His costume has to be fully protected from burning. Then who does he come near on stage so they are also fireproofed?"

That question had an alarming answer. "He's going to dance with a feather duster," she exclaims. "What a bad idea!"

But by the time "Beauty and the Beast" arrived at the Palace Theatre in New York in 1994, Lumiere was both luminous and fireproof, just one example of the innovative problem-solving that made "Beauty" the most technically complex musical Broadway had yet seen.

"Much of what we were doing was determining that it could be done, and opening the doors so people could further the work in the future," says Hould-Ward, whose tour-de-force efforts earned her the show's sole Tony Award. Her costume wizardry will be on display in Baltimore starting Nov. 18, when "Beauty and the Beast" begins a 2 1/2 -week run at the Mechanic Theatre.

The show's demands were not merely technical, however. Some had to do with storytelling. The musical is based on Disney's hit 1991 animated feature, whose executive producer and lyricist, the late Baltimorean Howard Ashman, came up with the ingenious idea of creating a supporting cast of enchanted objects.

Gradual changes

The movie revised the fairy tale so that not only had the selfish prince been turned into a beast, his servants were also under a spell, one that turned them into various household objects. The only way to break the spell was for the Beast to learn to love -- and be loved in return.

Besides the valet-turned-candlestick, the butler has been turned into a clock, the housekeeper into a teapot, a maid into a feather duster, and so on. In the movie, these transformations are a fait accompli; the characters are objects from the moment we first see them.

This presented several problems for Hould-Ward, chief among them: How to let the actors convey the underlying humanity of these objects, instead of being engulfed by them, and how to provide a rationale for the disparity in scale.

"One of the keys, I think, to deciphering this process came about because of a song that had been written by Howard and Alan [Menken, the show's composer], which was not in the movie, and that was 'Human Again,' " says Hould-Ward. Restored in the stage show, the song allows the objects to open their hearts. It also gave the musical's creative team the inspiration to show the servants gradually evolving into objects.

For Hould-Ward, this meant designing three costumes for each of the major objects, culminating in their restoration to human form. Lumiere, for instance, "is probably 60 to 70 percent the object at beginning," she explains. "His boots are turning into the bottom of the candlestick. His hands have turned into torchiers. His hair is still hair, but the top of it is turning into a candle.

"At the top of the second act, it has completely turned into the wax of a candle, and his boots are completely the bottom and the collar is the sconce on the candlestick. He's being trapped."

Mrs. Potts, the housekeeper, undergoes a similar objectification. Her hat becomes the top of a teapot, her body and apron the porcelain teapot itself, and one arm becomes the teapot's spout -- complete with gushing steam.

Hould-Ward's work on "Beauty and the Beast" began two years before the show opened -- about four times longer than she spends on the average show. "It was a very generous amount of time, but quite necessary," she says.

Her first step was to meet with the movie's animators. "I tried very hard to re-create, as much as I could, the outer silhouette shapes from the animation. I felt it was very important that kids be able to recognize things that were their friends from the animation."

Next she indulged her passion for research, filling the margins of what eventually amounted to 350 drawings with reference aids ranging from china patterns (for Mrs. Potts) to elaborate candlesticks (for Lumiere). "I did a lot of looking at ... clothing from the actual period, the late 18th century, then looking at, like, a clock from that period, and saying, 'I can see how scroll-y trim would turn into the molding of a clock and morphing them into each other.' "

Breaking ground

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