“Beauty and the Beast” is a story that has been developed in a number of different genres and is a frequent allusion. “Beauty and the Beast” is the title of a number of songs, including one by David Bowie for his 1977 album Heroes, as well as a lengthy poem, a ballet, a play, a pantomime, an opera, two television show—one in the US and the other in Australia, and two video games. There is also an ice skating version called Beauty and the Beast on Ice. Most famously, it is a fairy tale first published in French in the Eighteenth Century, and a number of films, including a noted one from Jean Cocteau and one from Disney, based on the fairy tale, and also a Broadway musical based on the Disney film.
The Fairy Tale
With variants across Europe, the core of the “Beauty and the Beast” story is very like the Cupid and Psyche story, which is similarly developed in multiple genres and variants, including a Twentieth Century novel by C. S. Lewis called Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold. What most of the versions of “Beauty and the Beast” have in common is a basic story like this:
A formerly wealthy merchant with three daughters, leaving to meet the last of his trading ships, offers to bring his daughters gifts. The two eldest request signs of status—clothes and jewels, while the youngest — Belle or Beauty — asks only flower: a rose. The cargo of this ship is used to pay his debts, so he is returning home empty-handed, when he becomes lost. Spotting a castle, he enters to find a meal spread, apparently for him, but no living soul.
Gratefully, the merchant eats, and then — as he is leaving — he passes a rose garden, where he picks a rose for Beauty. He is immediately accosted by the castle’s owner, the Beast, who upbraids him for stealing the rose particularly after accepting his hospitality, the punishment for which is permanent imprisonment. The merchant begs for his freedom, and the Beast agrees if one of the merchant’s daughters is willing to stay in his stead. It is, unsurprisingly, Beauty, who offers to yield her own freedom to secure her father’s.
Beauty finds the Beast not unpleasant, but turns down his periodic requests for her hand in marriage. When she becomes unbearably homesick, the Beast permits her to visit her family on condition that she return in a specified period of time. At home, Beauty’s sisters cajole her into breaking her promise to the Beast, and when she finally returns to the castle, she finds the Beast in the garden, dying of a broken heart. Beauty realizes that she loves the Beast, and when she tells him so, he is transformed back into a handsome prince. He explains that he had been transformed into a Beast for behaving in a bestial manner, and only by finding someone who loved him in spite of his appearance was the curse broken.
The Disney Version
The Disney 1991 movie of Beauty and the Beast, with songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, was the first full-length animated feature film to receive a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Beauty and the Beast did win Academy Awards for Best Music, Original Score as well as Best Music, Song for the title song, “Beauty and the Beast.”
The musical version of Beauty and the Beast is based on the Disney film and on a short live synopsized performance that was performed at Disneyland and Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park, but with adaptations. It had a Broadway run of 5,464 performances, and in 2007 had the distinction of being Broadway’s sixth-longest running show.