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How “A Change in Me” wound up being added to Broadway’s “Beauty & the Beast”
Toni Braxton made her Broadway debut as Belle in Beauty and the Beast beginning September 9, 1998, when she replaced Kim Huber. During her run in the show Alan Menken wrote a new song for the musical called “A Change in Me,” which was specially written for Braxton and has been used in the musical ever since. Her role in Beauty and the Beast marked the first (and only) time a black woman commanded the leading role of Belle on Broadway. It also marked the first time a black woman would star in a Disney musical on Broadway. [SOURCE (2)]
How “A Change in Me” wound up being added to Broadway’s “Beauty & the Beast”
According to Robert Jess Roth, the original director of the stage version of “Beauty & the Beast,” this is exactly what happened back in 1998 when Disney began wooing Grammy winner Toni Braxton to come play Belle in the Broadway production of this show.
“I got a call from Disney that spring,” Roth recalled during a recent phone conversation. “They asked me to fly out to LA to meet with Toni. See if this sexy R & B singer was actually capable of playing Belle.”
This stage veteran wasn’t sure that Braxton would be right for the part. But two minutes into his first conversation with this acclaimed singer, Robert knew that Toni was an incredible actress.
“Based on her songs and videos, everyone thought that Toni was this huge sexpot,” Roth explained. “But that was just the role she was playing in order to further her recording career. The real Toni Braxton was actually this brainy, down-to-earth woman who – to be honest – was already a lot like Belle. In that she was kind of a nerd.“
So Robert reported back to Disney and said that he thought that Toni would make an interesting Belle. So that’s when Disney’s lawyers and Braxton’s management began trying to hammer out a deal. Which was to have had this then-five-time-Grammy-winner appear at the Palace Theatre for eight shows a week over three months.
“And Toni was really anxious to get started. She actually came to New York a number of times and watched ‘Beauty and the Beast’ from the audience. So that she could then learn everything about the role before she began rehearsals,” Roth continued. “But the negotiations kept dragging on and on.”
They dragged on for so long that these still-uncompleted negotiations disrupted Robert’s plans for a congratulatory dinner. When Braxton was supposed to have gotten together with Roth, “Beast” ‘s composer Alan Menken, the show’s lyricist Sir Tim Rice and “Beauty” ‘s choreographer Matt West to talk about the show.
“But by the time we were all supposed to get together for dinner, Toni – for some reason or other – still hadn’t signed her contract. And then I wasn’t able to make it to New York,” Roth said. “But Alan, Tim and Matt had already set aside that evening to get together with Toni. So even though she still hadn’t signed her contract and I was out of town, the four of them still went out to dinner.”
And – according to what Robert heard later – this dinner went great. Toni, Alan, Tim and Matt had a lot of fun getting to know one another. More importantly, they went through numerous bottles of wine over the course of this several-hours-long dinner.
“So a few days later,” Roth remembers. “I get this call from Toni. And she says ‘I finally signed my contract.’ And I say ‘That’s terrific.’ And then Toni says “So when do I get to hear this new song?’ And I say ‘Excuse me?'“
And that’s when Robert learned that – over dinner - Tim Rice had promised Toni that, if she finally signed her “Beauty & the Beast” contract, Rice would then write Braxton a brand-new song to sing in this Broadway show.
“So I ask Toni if I could please call her back. We then hang up and I immediately call Tim and ask him if he promised to write a new song for Toni Braxton,” Roth laughs. “And Tim says ‘Oh, crap. I think I actually did say something like that after the second bottle of wine.’ “
But before Robert can launch into a full-blown panic attack (As in: that he’s going to have to tell Disney management that Toni Braxton backed out of doing “Beauty & the Beast” on Broadway because she was promised a brand-new song to sing when there actually was no new song), Rice asked for 24 hours.
“ Tim tells me ‘Let me go over the show again. See if there actually is a place where we can then add a new song,’ “ Roth says. “And one day later, he calls me up and – sure enough – he’s found this spot in the second act that would be perfect for a brand-new song. Where Belle tells Maurice about how the time that she spent with the Beast in his castle has changed her.”
Which is why – when Toni Braxton debuted in the Broadway version of “Beauty & the Beast” in September of 1998 – not only did this Grammy Award-winner get great reviews for her performance as Belle, but people also walked away from the Palace singing the praises of the show’s exciting new second act number, “A Change in Me.”
“And you wanna know who really liked that new song? Michael Eisner,” Roth continued. “He came to Toni’s opening night. And – afterwards – he comes up to me and says ‘I love ‘A Change in Me.’ I think that we should insert this number into every other production of ‘Beauty & the Beast’ that we’ve currently got out there.’ Which is why I then spent the next month on planes, traveling from city to city, teaching each company of ‘Beauty & the Beast’ the proper way to perform ‘A Change in Me.’“
Of course, what’s kind of ironic about Robert being forced to revisit “Beauty & the Beast” back in the Fall of 1998 is that – just this past year – Roth voluntarily revisited “B & B” yet again. Only this time around, he was working with his collaborators from the original Broadway version (i.e. choreographer Matt West, scenic designer Stanley Meyer and costume designer Ann Hould-Ward) to find a way to reinvent this long-running Broadway favorite. Seeing if stripping away some of this show’s enormous sets (which – Robert will admit now – were deliberately made as ornate as possible because Michael Eisner & Jeffery Katzenberg wanted Disney’s first Broadway musical to have sets & costumes that were just as elaborate as “Phantom of the Opera” ‘s were) might then better serve the story.
And the end result – NETworks presents Disney’s Beauty & the Beast – has been chugging around the country for about two months now (This reimagined production actually had its world premiere at the Providence Performing Arts Center back on February 9th). And according to Robert, this new version of “B & B” actually seems to be playing better than the Broadway original.
“Because the pieces of scenery aren’t quite so big this time around, the scene changes in the show happen that much faster,” Roth explained. “Which means that the audience is getting sucked into the story that much faster.“
So if you’d like to check out what has – more importantly, what hasn’t – changed about the stage version of Disney’s “Beauty & the Beast,” this NETWorks presentation rolls in Pensacola, FL tonight for one performance only at the Saenger Theatre. From there, “B & B” heads up to Baton Rouge for two days of performance at the River Center Theater.
And then – from there – this talented young cast of performers wanders all over the State of Florida. Spending April 13 – 18th at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall in Fort Myers, then on to Daytona Beach for a two day stint (i.e. April 19 – 20th) at the Peabody Auditorium. From there, it’s up to the state capital, where “Beauty & the Beast” will then be presenting performances at Tallahassee’s Leon County Civic Center from April 21 – 22nd. [SOURCE]