It may be a tale as old as time, but Paige O’Hara never seems to tire of talking about her role in it.
The actress, who came to Las Vegas in 1996 with “The Great Radio City Music Hall Spectacular” at the Flamingo and never left, had credits including “Show Boat,” “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” and “Les Miserables” when she joined hundreds of other Broadway performers in auditioning for Disney’s animated “Beauty and the Beast.”
She sang “Heaven Help My Heart” from “Chess,” and after a handful of callbacks, she became the voice of Belle, a role to which she clung for 20 years until Disney “retired” her and the actresses behind several other princesses in 2011.
“Truthfully, it’s the closest part to who I am of anything I’ve ever done,” O’Hara says of that “most peculiar mademoiselle.”
With the live-action remake hitting theaters this weekend, she’s officially passed the torch — or the singing candelabra — to Emma Watson, the “Harry Potter” actress who will be the embodiment of Belle for a new generation.
“She’s adorable. She screamed when I met her. Started screaming,” O’Hara, 60, says of their interaction last week at the movie’s red carpet premiere. “And then she went, ‘Oh my God, oh my God!’ When she hugged me, she said, ‘I love you so much! I listened to you every day that I did the movie. Every day.’ She was like a little kid.”
Once Disney began raiding its vaults for animated fare to remake as live-action movies, O’Hara wasn’t surprised when the talking clock struck for “Beauty and the Beast.” “I thought that they were going to inevitably do it, because I know that they want to make money,” she says, laughing. “And this is going to make them a fortune.”
O’Hara was lucky that the original “Beauty and the Beast,” released in 1991, came along when it did. Were the animated version debuting now, it surely would feature a big-name vocal cast — Scarlett Johansson as Belle, for instance; maybe Chris Pratt instead of Robby Benson as the Beast. But because Broadway veterans Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were in charge of the music, they insisted that the cast also have Broadway experience.
“That was a real blessing,” O’Hara says. “I hope they get back to that more. I hope they do. With some of the upcoming movies, they could hire one star and hire other Broadway people around them. Why not?”
The new film does include Tony nominee Josh Gad from “The Book of Mormon” as Le Fou and six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald as Madame Garderobe. She’s married to a new character, a harpsichord named Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci), who’s just one of several changes from the original.
“Truthfully, I think the biggest change in this film is the Beast,” O’Hara says. “You know, having Dan Stevens be, like, almost an adult. When he becomes the beast, he’s totally educated. So he’s more of a man beast where Robby Benson was a child beast, you know? The humor is different. It’s darker, it’s sexier. It’s just darker (with) Dan Stevens. I think it works.”
And as for her successor, she admits watching Watson in the role “was bittersweet and nostalgic, and part of me I felt like I wanted to cry.” But, O’Hara adds, “she’s really wonderful in the part. … She’s got the emotional makeup of a Belle. She’s got the intellect. She’s very smart. She’s quirky. She has all the qualities as Emma that are very similar to Belle.”
O’Hara still has one connection to Belle that time will never take away: She paints scenes from the movie as part of the Disney Fine Art program. Her paintings can be seen at the Magical Memories gallery at Town Square and soon at a new Magical Memories at Caesars Palace, as well as at PaigeOHara.net.
She’s taken a two-year break from acting after having left the local cast of “Menopause: The Musical” following a nine-year run. “In the fall, probably, I might rethink this about maybe getting back onstage again,” she says. “I’m enjoying being able to work out and paint. Right now, this is making me really happy.”
O’Hara has one more connection to Disney that can never be broken. In 2011, she was named a Disney Legend, the entertainment empire’s version of a hall of fame that also includes her “Beauty and the Beast” co-star Angela Lansbury, Fred MacMurray, Dick Van Dyke, Robin Williams and, closest to her heart, Julie Andrews.
“That was an overwhelming moment for me. I never expected it,” O’Hara says of the award, which sits on her piano in her downstairs living room.
“I know it sounds really corny, but I’ve been a Disney freak since I was a little kid. I’ve been an animation freak since I was a little kid. ‘Mary Poppins,’ Julie Andrews was one of the reasons I went into show business. … It’s just kind of an amazing circle that came around to a really wonderful end.”