How Beauty and the Beast Prepared Me For #TheDress

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Taylor Swift is scared, people.  Scared!  According to her tweet regarding #TheDress, the fact that individuals throughout the world view the colors of this trending-fashion-dud differently, due to scientifically-explained pre-dispositions of the individual human retina, worries her.  She is worried.  She is young.  She is … blond … and for the record, no one disputes that.

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[For more on #TheDress “controversy,” and celebrity responses read NY Times article …..]

I was young once (upon a time), too. I had the privilege of wearing a famous dress; it was yellow. Or was it??

Beauty and the Beast was Disney’s first foray onto the Broadway stage and, like Ms, Swift, the company was scared.  The public loved the animated film in record numbers, the movie was nominated for a “Best Picture” Oscar, hundreds of thousands of little girls wore their own yellow (YELLOW!) dress bought from the Disney Store … and wear them they did until their parents ripped them off of their screaming bodies for a far-too-occasional, desperately-needed washing. The company didn’t want to disappoint those loyal fans … or challenge them in any way; either would be tantamount to treason!  So when it came to Ann Hould-Ward’s designs for the Broadway costumes, she walked the tremulous line of duty vs. creative genius, and somehow, magically, she created costumes for objects and princesses alike that both honored the Disney brand and took audiences further into the fantasy. She won the Tony for this, of course!

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Ann Hould-Ward’s beautiful rendering and source inspiration for Belle’s yellow gown.
Terry and me backstage in Houston, during technical rehearsals, before we hit Broadway.  This photo became an American Express add - couldn't tell you why - and I was always sad, because we are so clearly not in character, but literally just hanging out as Sus and Terry.
Terry and me backstage in Houston, during technical rehearsals, before we hit Broadway. This photo became an American Express ad – couldn’t tell you why – and I was always sad, because we are so clearly not in character, but literally just hanging out as Sus and Terry.

My yellow dress, and it was yellow, was nearly forty pounds of hoop, silk, brocade, beading, flowers and bows … every young girls’ dream gown.  It was true to the film in some respects, but actually based on several historic portraits and works of art —- and it was beautiful.  On one particular night, I entered into the golden spotlight (yes, even the light was yellow!) and a little girl in the audience, wearing her own, now-thread-bare version, exclaimed so all could hear, “She looks just like me!”

The dress accomplished all it was meant to accomplish, and then some … I built core muscles as I “waltzed” with the Beast and had to change trajectory as choreography demanded, while the skirt’s inertia kept pulling me in the opposite direction.  The dress was so elaborate in detail and scope that it didn’t even fit down the stairwell to my basement dressing room. So, once the Beast and Belle danced and fell deep into the romance of the sunset, and the Beast “let the girl go” true-love style, so she might save her father, I would rush off stage, strip down to my bloomers, and three crew guys would hook the dress up to wires and “fly” it up into the rafters backstage where it would live until the next performance.  I liked to boast that everyone could look up my skirt.

The Dress (my dress) was the first costume built for the production, as savvy Disney marketers wanted to do a photo shoot with Terrence Mann (the Beast) and myself six months before we even started rehearsals.  We shot publicity stills and a television commercial in a sound stage in Brooklyn, way back in 1993.  Following that, I was unemployed for six months, then went into rehearsals, then out of town to Houston to work out all the kinks in the show, and then we opened on April 18, 1994 in the Palace Theatre on Broadway! The following Sunday, the New York Times Art Section boasted the very first, COLOR, Al Hirschfeld line-drawing ever!! We were so honored!  I rushed to the news stand (no website in those days) and flipped to the Arts as fast as I could, and there above the fold, was a giant color painting of Terry and me in the iconic Beauty and the Beast pose … and the dress was pink!  PINK!!!!

The first color Hirschfeld ever to appear in the New York Times.  But was Al wearing rose-colored glasses when he painted it?
The first color Hirschfeld ever to appear in the New York Times. But was Al wearing rose-colored glasses when he painted it?

Disney threw a fit.  They were Taylor Swift scared!!  What would people think?  Never mind that the accompanying article was an, ahem, less-than-decent review of the actual show, the dress was PINK (and for the record, the Beast’s coat was greenish, not royal blue).  What to do, WHAT TO DO?!

Well, I rushed to the Al Hirschfeld gallery and bought a limited print of the darned thing, that’s what I did!

The Disney producers, however, called the Times and ultimately Al Hirschfeld himself – that icon of the art and publishing world, famous for his black and white line drawings of every Broadway show since, well, Broadway began, I suppose.  Mr. Hirschfeld was well into his 90’s at this point, and marvelously could not care less what Disney thought.  The deed was done.  The papers in print.  The phone call short.  When Disney asked why, WHY (!) he would do such a thing, he simply answered, “The costumes may have been blue and yellow, but they made me feel green and pink.”  It was simple as that.

The publicity still from which Hirschfeld created his painting.  Is it the trick of the lighting, or exposure, or does the dress look ever so slightly pink?
The publicity still from which Hirschfeld created his painting. Is it the trick of the lighting, or does the dress look ever so slightly pink? Funny, I never noticed until now that he also reversed the image. I’m calling my agent!

The success of Beauty and the Beast, the audience’s willingness to think beyond the film, and I daresay, Mr. Al Hirschfeld, taught Disney a very valuable lesson: relax and allow for a more expansive world view.  Let people take what they want from art, fashion, and personal retinal tendencies.  We at Beauty and the Beast were placed within the confines of the images dictated by an exquisite film, so no worries there, but Disney wisely took their next behemoth in new directions with “The Lion King.”  Simba might have been a cuddly, four-legged lion cub in the blockbuster film, but in director Julie Taymor’s imagination, he and all his pals became so much more!  Lucky for us.

Sweet Taylor Swift – young beauty – it’s going to be okay.

 

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