Keeping Disney's magic alive

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Gareth Jacobs, Hayley Martin, Shubshri Kandiah, Rohan Browne and the company performing 'Be Our Guest'. Photo by Daniel Boud.
Gareth Jacobs, Hayley Martin, Shubshri Kandiah, Rohan Browne and the company performing 'Be Our Guest'. Photo by Daniel Boud.

'Beauty and the Beast' moves to Melbourne from Brisbane this month. Olivia Stewart talks to the show's long-time choreographer and director.

Matt West may have risen from teen hoofer to internationally acclaimed director and choreographer – but he still leads with the values he learned as a dancer.

West’s professional career began at age 13 touring the US with Disney. Among many triumphs, he gained a world-wide audience in his role as Bobby in the 1985 movie of A Chorus Line. When we meet he is in Brisbane in his role as choreographer and director of Beauty and the Beast, Mark 2, overseeing its transition from Australian premiere season in Sydney.

While West is no stranger to Australia, both he and Beauty and the Beast are completely new to Brisbane. Although he choreographed the original 1994 Broadway production, it only played in Melbourne and Sydney.

Matt West in rehearsal for 'Beauty and the Beast'.

Fuelled by showbiz pep and pedigree, he graciously continues our chat well after its scheduled end. The conversation spans his arc from Disney kid to wiz and is engaging and entertaining, intertwining the personal and professional as he shares background, anecdotes and insights that are as fascinating as they will be instructive to any budding performer. If you’ve ever wondered why, after dancing and singing up a storm you didn’t get the job, read on.

Despite how cut-throat the business can be, kindness is a reassuringly recurrent theme. “I happen to have been taught really well, from Disney,” he acknowledges. “I was around people who were kind and saw what kindness brings you. And then when I was a dancer on Broadway in many shows, I saw some unkind people and what that gets you.”

In both facets of his career, he’s experienced the win-win of “being kind and generous and open to whatever is out there and what could be”. As the decision-maker, “I have been surprised more times than I can tell you, where I thought I knew: ‘you're not right for this’ and they bring this special spark that changes your mind,” he attests.

Case in point: this production’s Beast, Brendan Xavier. “He is much younger than I ever had in my mind,” West reveals, but, “I saw something there.” He worked privately with the “very sweet, kind” Xavier several times to draw out the antithetical character: “I knew he could do it.”

Even after decades as a choreographer and director, casting days remain the hardest part of the job, he admits. With musicals, the process is much more complicated than many might realise. Aside from technical requirements, practicalities are involved.

Gareth Jacobs, Hayley Martin, Rohan Browen, Jayde Westaby and Alana Tranter performing 'Human Again', a scene in 'Beauty and the Beast'. Photo by Daniel Boud.
Gareth Jacobs, Hayley Martin, Rohan Browen, Jayde Westaby and Alana Tranter performing 'Human Again', a scene in 'Beauty and the Beast'. Photo by Daniel Boud.

With B&B cast’s two leads, the balance of their experience was important. Shubshri Kandiah was a natural Belle, and also an experienced performer. Beyond being “so talented”, West praises her as the “ultimate professional (with) a quiet power on and off stage”.

The versatility required by the ensemble is particularly challenging because, “They have to tap and have beautiful ballet line. They [also] have to sing great.” Then they also have to be able to understudy the leads, which is “why we see thousands of people,” West explains. (Required too are swings who can fill any ensemble role.)

Each ensemble member is entered into a grid to map out the permutations of reshuffles. While there can be some flexibility – for example extraordinary dancers with limited acting experience “that you just want” – the grid still has to be filled, “and it's a daunting task”.

So West advises young performers starting out to remember: “It’s not always about you. Specifically, it's about the job and the coverage; maybe you're not right to cover and that's why you don't get the job in the ensemble.”

Ultimately, his choices are governed by what’s best for the show. “I like the show to be the star. Audiences are paying hard-earned money so the most important thing is to give them the best possible performance. Whatever that takes I do.”

This B&B has been updated to resonate with contemporary audiences while staying true to the Broadway classic of 30 years ago.The new production design, visual elements and special effects are even more spectacular and of course, being Disney, magical. There’s also welcome nostalgia through the legendary late Angela Lansbury’s prologue narration, and the revamped version of “Be Our Guest” that channels classic Hollywood and Broadway musical numbers.

'I like the show to be the star' - Matt West

Since the new show’s 2021 UK debut the tweaking has continued. West sees it as a living work. “It's a modern fairy tale (that) lends itself to being rethought and reimagined. It’s the first of Disney's where the girl saves the guy and she's not looking for her prince to come. The girl wants adventure – we all do; all of us are Belle. So I love that.”

The result affirms West as the right person to direct. “Being a part of Disney for well over 50 years from that little kid dancing his heart out, I know Disney,” he declares. “I know how to bring it to life and how to add that special feeling.”

In return, he says Disney “wants me to dream”, and to fulfil that vision. “Be Our Guest” is a fantastic example: the 10-minute extravaganza has everything in the kitchen except the sink – literally and figuratively. He’s used cutlery, crockery, taps (albeit the terpsichorean kind) and a turntable to serve up Busby Berkeley flavour, feather fans and a tip of the hat to A Chorus Line in the new lavish tap finale. It’s a genuine showstopper that gets a standing ovation.

He and dance arranger David Chase also reworked the mug-clinking tavern number, “Gaston”, to override worldwide appropriation. The result featuring more than 821 clinks is “just brilliant”, he toasts.

For all the razzle-dazzle though, the show would fall flat without emotional verity, so a reality check before each new season is essential. Every show always needs it, he says, “because eight shows a week doing the same thing, you can forget”.

So as his Broadway directors Bob Fosse, Michael Kidd and Michael Bennett did before him, he returns to recalibrate the show. He’ll be back again in June before the Melbourne season’s opening.

In an unusual reversal, this Australian production is now forming the template for the show’s 2025 North American tour debut and its promotion, so West isn’t ruling out the possibility of Australian cast members transferring: “Never say never. I'm open to everything. You never know.” 

‘Beauty and the Beast’ is presently playing at the Lyric Theatre, QPAC, in Brisbane, before opening at Her Majesty's Theatre in Melbourne on June 27.

This is an edited version of an article published in the April/May/June print issue of 'Dance Australia'. Get your copy HERE. Print is for keeps!

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