It's no exaggeration to say that "Beauty and the Beast" changed the face of American musical theater.
It seems hard to imagine now, but in the early 1990s, no one had ever thought of translating a Disney film musical to the stage.
Frank Rich, who was then the theater critic for the New York Times, called the film version of "Beauty and the Beast" the best musical of the year. According to theater lore, that comment gave people at Disney the idea of turning the movie into a stage musical.
"Beauty and the Beast" hit the Broadway stage in 1994. It became one of the longest-running musicals in Broadway history, and it began the Disney domination of Broadway. "The Lion King" came next. It's still running, closing in on "Cats" as the third-longest-running Broadway musical ever. "Tarzan," "Mary Poppins," "The Little Mermaid," "Newsies" and "Aladdin" followed. "Tarzan" was a financial flop, but still ran for more than 400 performances.
About six years ago, the original creative team from that ground-breaking production of "Beauty and the Beast" gathered together again, and "re-imagined" the show for a new tour. That version comes to the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa for a six-day, eight-show run that starts Tuesday.
"What's really remarkable is that all of us were still around," said Ann Hould-Ward, who won a Tony Award for her costumes for "Beauty and the Beast" and who re-designed them for the current tour. "Usually when you get back together after all those years some people have passed on."
The economics of the theater business forced some changes in the way the tour was designed. But the team still wanted to deliver the iconic musical that people all over the world loved.
"When 'Beauty and the Beast' first went out on tour it was in something like 16 trucks," director Rob Roth said. "You can't do that anymore."
Fortunately, technology has advanced so much that a lot of the down-sizing took care of itself, Roth said. Huge banks of lights were replaced by compact LEDs. The truck load full of computers that were used to change sets were pretty much replaced by a laptop.
Technology also allowed new choices for the reassembled creative team, Roth said.
"With LED technology, everything is really tiny," he said. "The theme of the show, and of the original story, is looking at what is underneath the surface. So we've made the set transparent, and it can be lit from inside. The whole set is internally lit."
For Hould-Ward, the challenge of the original production was to create the look of the movie's characters -- which include a teapot, a bureau and a candelabra -- in a way that was workable on stage. She also wanted to stay true to the 18th-century fashions.
"We spent a year researching the time period," she said. "We looked at the movie as just another part of that research."
When it came time to pare down the Broadway production for the current tour, Hould-Ward said, she had less space in the trucks for the costumes, so she had to redesign the costumes for the limited space on the tour trucks. The fact that people already know the film and even the stage musical made that more challenging.
"I had to look at what we needed to tell the story, she said, "and that would also give people what they expected to see."
In the end, Roth said. Working with new materials and new technologies, but within economic limitations, ended up allowing them to create a show that delivers the classic musical that people know from screen and stage, but actually enhance it.
"The whole show is better," Roth said.
Details: May 5-10, Morsani Hall at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa. Show times: 7:30 p.m.Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $35-$130 plus service charge. Information: 813-229-7827, strazcenter.org.
Mary Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919.