It has been over 20 years since Disney’s Beauty and the Beast became a blockbuster and made a best-picture breakthrough at the Oscars by scoring the first-ever nomination for an animated film. In addition to playing the snarling title role, Robby Benson has had a lot of other hairy experiences. The Broadway actor/singer, who also starred in Ice Castles and The Chosen, has had four open heart surgeries due to a congenital valve defect, and recently wrote the autobiography I’m Not Dead … Yet! as a way to tell his own story while encouraging others who face health problems.
He designed it himself as an iPad-friendly, multimedia book, available now for download. And to help spread the word, he agreed to share an excerpt with EW’s The Family Room, focusing not on his health struggles, but on one of the happiest times in his career – giving voice to the fearsome, frightening Beast. It starts with a script, and ends with him on the Oscar stage … sort of.
I read the pages of dialogue and my immediate take on Beast was to treat him as a three-dimensional character, not a cartoon character. To me, Beast was as real as any part I had played in a live-action film or a Broadway show.
My first audition was recorded on, of all things, a Sony Walkman. As a musician, I had branched out into recording engineer and loved to play with sound. When I saw the Sony Walkman I knew it had a little condenser microphone in it, and if I were to get too loud, the automatic compressor and built-in limiter would ‘squash’ the voice— and there would be very little dynamic range to the performance. I did a quick assessment and wondered how many people who had come in to audition for the part were making that error: playing the Beast with overwhelming decibels, compressing the vocal waveforms. I decided to give the Beast ‘range.’ Because of my microphone technique, and an understanding of who I wanted Beast to be, they kept asking me to come back and read different dialogue. After my fifth audition, Jeffrey Katzenberg the hands-on guardian of the film, said the part was mine …
Beauty and the Beast was so refreshingly fun and inventively creative to work on that I couldn’t wait to try new approaches to every line of dialogue. Don Hahn is one of the best creative producers I have ever worked with. The two young directors, Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, were fantastic and their enthusiasm was contagious. I not only was allowed to improvise, but they encouraged it. It never entered my mind that I was playing an animated creature. I understood the torment that Beast was going through: he felt ugly; had a horrible opinion of himself, and had a trigger-temper. Those are things that, if done right, are the perfect ingredients for comedy. Painful and pathetic comedy— but honest. The kind of comedy I understood.
In the feature world of Disney animation, the actors always recorded their dialogue alone in a big studio, with only a microphone and the faint images of the producers, writers, directors and engineer through a double-paned set of acoustic glass. Paige O’Hara and I became good friends; it was her idea that for certain very intimate scenes, such as when Beast is dying, we record together. We were able to play these scenes with an honest conviction that is often absent in the voice-over world.
What a voice! Even my Broadway/rock goddess wife was thrilled to hear the breathtaking sound of Belle come from the heart and soul of Paige O’Hara. It was because of Paige that Beast sang in “Something There.” She explained to Ashman and Menken that I had made records and sang in Broadway musicals.
We were all sent to New York, and just like every Broadway show, each song was recorded live with the orchestra. We sang our song(s) once— twice at most. Paige and I were standing side-by-side when Angela Lansbury sang “Beauty and the Beast.” It was a moment in time I will never forget. Something very ‘Disney-esque’ happened: it was magical.
The success of this film was the culmination of a team effort but I must say, the honors go to the animators— and for me (Beast), that’s Glen Keane — and to Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. This was the perfect example of a crew who ‘cared’. And the final results (every frame) of the film represent that sentiment.
During my time promoting Beauty and the Beast, I finally got the chance to show off the lower end of my voice. I have a freaky range as a singer and I can easily sing the lowest male part in any opera — but I can also sing along with Freddy Mercury (if only I could sound like Freddy Mercury). Because my singing voice was so low I developed a falsetto to reach the high notes. It amused me that some journalists questioned my soft-spoken voice and kept pushing me about ‘voice enhancement’ — I’d just wait for the perfect moment and then go ‘Beast’ on them! It was fun to roar (without compression) during the interviews and see their expressions change, along with their opinions, so quickly!
[My wife] Karla, [my son] Lyric and I were flown down to Disney World where I would do press. At the time, Karla was pregnant with [our daughter] Zephyr, so when we signed our names in the cement, we also wrote: ‘Baby on the way’ in the lower right hand corner. What a cool thing it was to revisit that spot years later, for another publicity tour, and bring ‘the baby on the way’ (Zephyr) with us. And Lyric, too.
When Beauty and the Beast won the Golden Globe Award for Best Film (Comedy or Musical) and received six Academy Award nominations in 1992, I was again asked to be a presenter.
Just days after Zephyr was born, I chose to stay home cuddled up with Karla and watch it on TV like the rest of the world. I still got to do the honors — without putting on the dreaded tuxedo: Paige O’Hara and I prerecorded Beast and Belle, and the great Disney team animated our presentation.