More than love, more than lust, more than bigotry, what “Beauty and the Beast” deals with most is what it means to be human. It is a story about a beast trying to undo a curse by learning to love: trying to find his way back to being human by finding his humanity. Despite having been a part of the American cultural standard for decades now, these themes of empathy, love, and common humanity still feels as relevant in 2016 as ever before.
Following a reunion of the original team behind the Broadway production — including director Rob Roth, choreographer Matt West, and Tony-award winning costume designer, Ann Hould-Ward – the production began to tour once more, finally landing in San Francisco for a brief run from June 29 to July 10.
This traveling production brought ornate set design courtesy of designer Stanley A. Meyer — a staircase illuminated solely by electric candles was one particularly beautiful touch — to add drama to its staging at the Orpheum Theatre, as well as an intricate carved staircase that towered far above the casts’ heads. Featuring Brooke Quintana and Sam Hartley in the title roles, respectively, as well as a show-stealing turn from Ryan N. Phillips as Lumiere, the cast is predominantly composed of actors making their national tour debut.
The tale of two people learning to love each other is, as the title number sings, “a tale as old as time,” and holds as well as ever in this production, but it’s the small details in the telling of this tale that we recognize even in our own lives today that really make it interesting.
At this point, most audiences — and, indeed most Americans — know the plot of “Beauty and the Beast”: Belle, a brilliant woman utterly suffocated by the patriarchy and her small town, escapes marrying a misogynistic, violent, entitled alpha male (Gaston), and ends up being held captive by another man in his castle.
This second man, however, currently looks a lot less like a man and a lot more like a beast – hence his title as “the Beast.” Initially, both Gaston and the Beast have a lot in common — both are in pursuit of Belle, and both try to convince her to spend the rest of her life with them by a combination of insulting her, threatening her, and downright pestering her. Gaston proposes marriage to her with the charming monologue of “Escape me? There’s no way / Certain as ‘Do, Re’ / Belle, will you marry me? / So what’ll it be? Yes, or is it ‘oh yes’?”, and later both drags her across the stage motionless and raises a hand to her on separate occasions, only to stop at the villagers’ horrified gasps.
The Beast, on the other hand, proposes Belle join him at dinner on her first night in the castle (and, as he has decided he will keep her hostage in this castle for the rest of her life, this is essentially the Beast’s own special brand of a marriage proposal) by demanding that she come eat with him. She refuses, saying she isn’t hungry, to which the Beast responds, “You’re hungry if I say you’re hungry.” After a few more exchanges, the Beast gets angrier and angrier that she is an autonomous person with her own free will, and finally says, “If you don’t come down to dinner, I will drag you by the hair.”
His quickness to anger and the lightning speed (and lack of moral concern) with which he resorts to domestic abuse against the woman he grows to “love” is terrifying enough by itself, but only becomes more sickening when the audience remembers that this is not the villain: this is the hero.
This man – the one who threatens to drag the woman he “loves” down a flight of stairs by the hair if she doesn’t come eat a meal with him right now — is the man with whom Belle, the main character of this entire story, will spend the rest of her life. To be clear: avoiding one physically abusive man to end up with another is, according to “Beauty and the Beast,” a happy ending for our heroine.
Counter to that fiction goes the narrative that every woman knows to be true, and that every man should, too: that Belle deserves better. That all women deserve better.
And the kids here in this theatre — for “Beauty and the Beast” is still a musical mainly marketed to children, after all, so there are many of them — deserve better, too. It’s 2016, and the children in this theatre will grow up to shape the world around it. We need to do better for them.
One of the greatest joys of musicals — and perhaps one reason why they are so popular with children — is that they break our lives down into motifs and themes; the essential bits that we come back to again and again. They fill and shape the narratives of our story, and the beauty of musicals is that they lay our stories bare in song.
It’s just a shame that the motif we’re still stuck on as a society, all these years later, is violent masculinity and domestic abuse. “Beauty and the Beast” may be a great American classic, sure. But we can write new songs; reshape the cultural narrative around gender roles and domestic abuse. We can do better.