More than 20 years after ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ Paige O’Hara still remembered as voice of Disney princess

The “Beauty and the Beast” tour may be leaving Las Vegas today, after the last of nine performances at The Smith Center.

But Belle’s not going anywhere.

The original Belle, that is.

After all, she’s got a show to do.

These days, Paige O’Hara performs in the Luxor’s “Menopause The Musical,” which celebrated its 3,000th performance last week.

But for all her success as “Menopause’s” resident Soap Star , O’Hara’s signature role is, and always will be, Belle, the brainy bookworm heroine of Disney’s 1991 animated feature “Beauty and the Beast.”

More than two decades after its instant-classic debut, “Beauty and the Beast” has never really disappeared from O’Hara’s life. Or from the public’s memory.

On a recent Sunday afternoon at downtown’s outlet mall, international shoppers throng the Disney Store Outlet, merrily singing along with the Mouse House’s greatest-hits soundtrack.

And as “Beauty and the Beast’s” opening number (appropriately titled “Belle”) floods the store, O’Hara’s voice capturing her character’s yearning, the customers join in: “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere, I want it more than I can tell.”

O’Hara’s own “Beauty and the Beast” adventure began when she joined about 500 fellow performers at a “huge audition” in New York.

After reading about the tryout in The New York Times, O’Hara called her agent and said, “ ‘I have to be there.’ ”

After all, “they were looking for Broadway people,” she recalls. And she definitely was that, appearing in (among other things) a series of Jerome Kern revivals at Carnegie Hall.

“Beauty and the Beast” lyricist (and executive producer) Howard Ashman was already a fan, thanks to her presence as Ellie on the definitive 1988 studio recording of Kern’s classic “Showboat.” (O’Hara remembers Ashman praising the recording and telling her, “ ‘You’re wonderful on it.’ ”)

Before the role of Belle was hers, O’Hara “went through five auditions,” but she “knew it was my part” after the third.

“I’m not usually confident about auditions,” she admits, “but I just understood (Belle) so much. I feel like I nailed it.”

In part, she says, it’s because “there’s a lot of Paige in this character.”

She identified with Belle because “I was an oddball,” because of her interest in the arts.

Besides performing, O’Hara enjoyed “painting, copying famous artists” — a talent she still employs for Disney Fine Art. (More about that later.)

While attending a performing arts high school in her native Florida, “I literally created havoc in ninth grade when I retired from cheerleading,” O’Hara recalls. (As she explained to her classmates, “it’s messing up my voice.”)

That voice — and its “womanly, old-soul quality” — proved a key to O’Hara winning the role of Belle.

Having already hit 30, O’Hara was older than most Disney princesses, reflecting screenwriter Linda Woolverton’s concept for the character.

And Disney animators “actually changed her look” after O’Hara was cast as Belle’s voice, adding “my funny little picture” to a series of reference photographs that included Natalie Wood, Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly, she recalls.

In the original drawing done by supervising animator James Baxter, Belle “looks like Angelina Jolie. Just perfect,” O’Hara says.

When she was cast, however, Belle became a little more identifiable — as well as the first brown-eyed Disney princess ever. Overall, it took more than two years for O’Hara and her fellow performers to record the dialogue and songs.

“I knew it was going to be well-received,” she says.

But it wasn’t until a half-finished cut of the movie previewed at the New York Film Festival earned a 10-minute standing ovation and cheers that O’Hara truly knew “Beauty and the Beast” was “something really, really special.”

Shortly after the movie opened, Disney officials “had me in the studio, really fast,” to record Belle’s voice for “interactive toys, books, Leapfrog games, dolls” and direct-to-video sequels.

“It’s been a real blessing financially,” O’Hara says of her ongoing Belle vocal gig, which ended in 2011 — the same year she received a Disney Legend Award.

Following the movie’s success, her concert requests “were off the charts” as well, O’Hara says.

Although O’Hara’s never played Belle in the stage version of “Beauty and the Beast,” she played a pivotal role in its development.

Disney’s chairman at the time, Michael Eisner, was adamantly against a Broadway adaptation — and then-studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg “thought it would be a perfect fit,” O’Hara says.

So, when Disney threw Eisner a huge birthday bash in New York, Katzenberg hired O’Hara, Richard White (who voiced the movie’s vainglorious Gaston) and a full chorus to perform “a miniconcert version,” after which Eisner said, “ ‘OK, you convinced me.’ ”

Five years after “Beauty and the Beast’s” Oscar-winning debut, O’Hara came to Las Vegas to headline the Flamingo Hilton’s “Great Radio City Music Hall Spectacular.” She and her husband, Michael Piontek, (who proposed the day before O’Hara won the role of Belle) have been Southern Nevadans ever since.

Although O’Hara’s never appeared in the stage version of “Beauty and the Beast,” Piontek has, playing the Beast for almost three years in Los Angeles, she says.

O’Hara and Piontek also have performed together in several “Beauty and the Beast”-related shows — including a 21-city tour of Japan, during which Piontek played both the Beast and Gaston.

And though O’Hara is no longer Belle’s official voice, her connection with the character continues — on canvas.

O’Hara said that at first she started doing paintings for birthday presents. But when an artist suggested she showcase her work in public, the head of Disney Fine Art saw her work and told O’Hara, “ ‘It’s time you joined Disney Fine Art.’ ”

Since then, she’s been commissioned several times to paint “Beauty and the Beast” scenes; her work also is on display locally in Renaissance Gallery locations at the Palazzo and Town Square.

Coupled with her ongoing “Menopause” role, “I pretty much have two full-time jobs,” says O’Hara, who turns 57 next month.

No wonder she doesn’t have time to answer all the fan mail she still receives for being Belle.

“The fan mail makes me cry,” O’Hara admits. “I’m so behind” in answering it. But, she vows, “I’m going to answer all of them. Eventually.”

And while “it’s fun to just go onstage and make people laugh” in “Menopause,” she says, there’s no question that Belle was “one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences.”

When the adventure started, “I was a working Broadway actress” — with roles in everything from “Les Miserables” to “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” — and “was very proud to be,” O’Hara says.

But after playing “Beauty and the Beast’s” Belle, she knows that the “classic love story, the tortured soul” of the Beast and “the message that beauty comes from within” will “live on forever,” she says.

“There’s no time-frame for that.”

Contact reporter Carol Cling at
ccling@reviewjournal.com
or 702-383-0272.