It’s a tale as old as time, and one that’s been capturing imaginations for decades. Now, the musical version of Beauty & the Beast is back on the road, bringing the beloved tale to life in a re-imagined way.
As the musical prepares to enchant Sunderland Empire audiences from January 20 – February 19, 2022, we chat to the cast about what Wearside can expect on the only North East date of the tour.
"It’s got a new, modern edge to the show,” explains Sam Bailey who plays everyone’s favourite cup of tea, Mrs Potts. Speaking about the new designs in the production, the X Factor 2013 winner added: “The costumes are very modelised. Before, they were very cartoon like, but now I’d say they have this real French couture look to them.
"That, along with the fantastic set design, really creates the magic of the show, in certain parts you really hear the audience gasp at the magic. The magic in this show is insane.”
The new production reunites members of the original Broadway creative team and features iconic songs such as Belle, Be Our Guest and Beauty and the Beast, iconic songs which Sam says are a joy to perform.
"For me I love singing that song (Beauty & the Beast, also known as Tale as Old as Time), with that dress, at that moment, it’s so uplifting for people. Be Our Guest is also fantastic, it’s 12 minutes long so it’s a real spectacle. When people hear those opening notes they go crazy.
“Sometimes I’m in awe myself and I stand watching the scenes I’m not in from the wings. One song in particular I enjoy watching is Gaston, it’s so full of energy and magic and it gets a massive round of applause."
Sam says it is, indeed, a tale a old as time, but it’s also one that’s been very much been brought into the modern day. After Sam’s daughter, who wears glasses, had mentioned to her mum that no princesses wear glasses, she spoke to director and choreographer Matt West about Belle wearing them.
"Matt spoke to the big boss at Disney and they approved, so in the opening scene the first thing you see is Belle wearing reading glasses. My daughter came to see the show and she said ‘look, I am a princess’,” explained Sam.
Speaking about her character’s role in the show, the actor, whose theatre credits also include Blood Brothers, said: "Mrs Potts is the heartbeat of the show, she keeps the story going. You have Cogsworth who flaps about and Lumiere who runs around, whereas she keeps everyone where they’re supposed to be.
"She’s very warm and motherly and I love a cup of tea so she’s perfect for me. We’ve been touring since July and I really feel like I’ve made her my own. Some people say I sound like Angela Lansbury (who voiced the role in the film), but I feel like it’s very much me inside there each night.”
Starring alongside Sam, and stepping into the iconic yellow dress of Belle, is Courtney Stapleton.
Twenty three trucks transport the huge sets to venues where the show plays long runs, and Courtney, whose credits include Dear Evan Hansen, Six, Les Misérables and Bat Out of Hell, says it means audiences get the full West End experience.
"Sometimes with touring shows it has to be scaled down, but that isn’t the case here, it’s one of the biggest shows out there, they haven’t compromised that,” she said about the musical, which only a limited number of theatres are large enough to host.
And although the musical stays true to the magic of the original, Courtney says audiences can look forward to a more modern Belle.
"The creative team have been really open to making her more modern and more relatable to little girls, so this is a different version of Belle.” explained the actor. “Not that she was ever meek, but in this show she certainly knows what she wants, it brings a strength to her that wasn’t there before, which really adds to the story.
“So at the beginning you have this real juxtaposition between Belle and the Beast, before they start to see eye to eye, look into each other, and see what they love. The story has always been the heart of the show, it’s just been emphasized."
She added: "This production really takes a step up in terms of representation, I’m a mixed race, queer woman. On top of that, you have Belle wearing reading glasses at the start, it’s so important for little girls to come to the show, look up, and see themselves.”
For many, it’s their first time back seeing blockbuster musicals after lockdown and it’s imbuing the show with all the more meaning.
As Courtney explains: “There’s actually a strange parallel to the story now. When all of the objects sing Human Again and they’re dreaming of the spell being broken and life going back to normal, it really strikes a nerve in a way it didn’t before. We’ve lived that and it has huge meaning now.”
Sam added: "Some people haven’t seen a show in two years, and it’s an emotional time to be able to go back to a theatre and feel an emotion you don’t feel every day. When we opened in July there wasn’t a dry eye, from the cast and crew, as well as the audience.
"With this show you get taken on a real rollercoaster of emotions.”
*Beauty & the Beast is at Sunderland Empire from January 20 – February 19, 2022. Tickets from atgtickets.com