Beauty and the Beast: An oral history of Disney's original 1991 hit song
It's a tale as old as time, but behind the titular Beauty and the Beast hit single lies a tale specific to the early '90s.
Before the song's 1991 release, Céline Dion wasn't yet a household name outside of Canada, Peabo Bryson was known for his Born to Love duet album with Roberta Flack (and not yet for reviving Disney soundtracks with two hit singles), and Angela Lansbury was in the thick of solving crimes as Jessica Fletcher — with her major kids' film being 1971's Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
But Disney — whether it knew it or not at the time — would rely on each of them to create the perfect storm of a hit it desperately needed. Little Mermaid, released two years previous, was the first Disney movie since the '60s to garner huge critical attention — winning two Oscars for the soundtrack — but "Beauty and the Beast" was the first to crack Billboard Hot 100's top 10 (as well as collect a Golden Globe, two Grammys and an Oscar). Lansbury, the voice of Mrs. Potts, sang "Beauty and the Beast" for the film's pivotal scene, but for that hit radio single, Disney hired Dion, and wanted to pair her with a singer who could bring more name recognition in the States.
Bryson had previously told Jay Landers, his A&R rep at Sony, that he'd sing something with Dion — "I said yes, she has an incredible instrument" — and when Landers got a sneak peak of the then cutting-edge animation on Beauty and the Beast and found out Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman had written a single, he knew who should sing it. While there were 17 years between them, Dion and Bryson had enough in common: two voices who started young and could go all the way.
With Disney's live-action Beauty and the Beast hitting theatres today, we thought it a good time to check back with some of the voices on the original song for stories of their recording — and see what they think of John Legend and Ariana Grande's new one.
Below, Bryson and Lansbury take us back to the makings of their respective "Beauty and the Beast" hits, telling us what actually happened at the Oscars and on Jay Leno, and what they honestly think of 2017's reboot.
Editor's note: all interviews have been edited for clarity.
On the making-of
Lansbury recorded her version of the song in an October 1990 session.
Lansbury: We recorded it in New York, and we were recording with [a playback of] the New York Philharmonic. I think we were all excited and I had an interesting time getting to New York, actually, on that occasion. Our plane had been forced down due to there being a bomb [threat], which is sort of frightening, and we had to make a forced landing. And then we started off again and I got to New York just in time to do the recording of course, and that was thrilling. And thank goodness, and with God's help, I was able to record the song in one take, which is kind of exciting. And I hadn't really thought about doing that, but as it turned out, the take that they accepted was the first take, the first and only take that I ever did as the song. That's the take you hear in the movie [laughs].
Bryson and Dion recorded together in a separate studio session from Lansbury. They sang with a glass partition between them, so that they could still see each other while preventing any audio bleeds. Dion and Bryson's duet version was released as the only single from the movie's soundtrack.
Bryson: When you're a great singer like [Dion], oftentimes you find yourself in situations where you have to dial back. I learned that from doing duets: the key to it is to play to your duet partner's strength and weaknesses equally. So essentially that renders [it] into a situation where there are no weaknesses because you're playing to them both equally.
There's a partition between us and she's very tentative, she's looking at me, and so she sings some of her — let's call it her B stuff. And she's waiting for my reaction to see how I'm going to respond to it. Am I going to go, "Oh my goodness" and shrink or am I going to step up and give her some B-plus stuff and encourage her to raise her game? So that was the exchange. Probably the first take, she relaxed and realized that she could just go for whatever she wanted to go for. And it didn't take long. Maybe an hour.
We never said a word to each other until we walked into the studio, [that] was our first greeting. And when you're just greeting someone for the first time, it's all about being polite and trying to make your potential duet partner feel comfortable with you. I mean, she knew my work and I knew her work. We knew each other through our music. Not through personality. And that's the other thing that made her apprehensive, you know? You don't know what's real and what's not real until you're actually in the studio with that person and they're standing across from you, facing you. Is it the real deal or is it not? Are they the real deal or are they not? You don't know really until then. Because you can fix anything in studio [laughs]. Trust.
I looked across at her and she looked back at me and what went on from the point of becoming relaxed was extremely intimate. You can't buy that. You can record it, though.
On the legacy of 'Beauty and the Beast'
Lansbury: I don't think Disney themselves knew or realized that that song would be the key song to that particular part of the story. And you know, these things happen in the entertainment business. Certainly one song becomes the song. Because there were many other wonderful songs in the movie. But because it was a little teapot and she was such a romantic, I think that was the thing about Mrs. Potts. She just adored the idea of the romance between these two mismatched characters [laughs]. This monster and this lovely young lady, you know? So from that point of view, it was a natural. But we didn't really understand it until the movie came out.
Bryson: I'll tell you what, it's one of those things, when you're learning it, you have to listen to it repeatedly, but repetition can be [sighs]. Especially if the song doesn't have legs. But I never ever got tired of listening to it. And in my profession, we know when a song has legs and when it doesn't.
Lansbury: I was so busy doing other things and movies were not really the main part of my agenda in those days. I was doing a lot of theatre. And so [playing Mrs. Potts] took its own place. But thanks to the longevity of the film being in the homes of children who then grew up and became part of the original audience, they introduced it to their children, and that is why the song has become such a famous part of that Disney period. And mine, too, of course. And thank goodness because it's a lovely way to be introduced to a whole generation of youngsters, you know?
On working with the duet material
Bryson: I'm gonna tell you something: Alan Menken/Tim Rice songs are difficult to sing [laughs]. It's not a joke. It's a difficult thing to do because the melody is so structured. This is what you're meant to sing when you're saying this. And it's so specific to how they want your feelings to progress through what they're saying. Because the song is an overall synopsis, really, of the film itself.
These [songs] don't come with any instructions. There's nobody, there's no vocal guide on the music or anything, there's nothing. It's only what you bring to it and what you give it. Nobody's going to make a suggestion that you sing it this way or that way, or do this or do that. It's nothing. Nothing. Zero. Nadda. Zilch.
On the Oscars
Bryson: What I did not get was when there was a lot of opposition to us doing the Oscars — Céline and I doing the Oscars. Behind-the-scenes stuff that you didn't know; we didn't know until a week, 10 days before the Oscars if it was gonna happen or not. [Angela Lansbury] wanted to sing the song herself. You're a teapot. I'm sorry. Let's be honest, she's a teapot. What's she gonna wear, a teapot outfit out on the stage at the Oscars?
In the animation itself, within the structure, it works perfectly. It's OK, you can take liberties vocally in theatre. She took liberties in Sweeney Todd. So hey, great. I'm not mad at you for that, but this is totally different. This is not Sweeney Todd. With her as a teapot, I think it is really appropriate. But there's a difference between singing a song as a teapot, Sweeney Todd, and singing a song at the Oscars that was recorded by two honest-to-goodness great vocalists. And there's a difference between those three things. I mean there's a lot of difference. So to appease her, they let her come out and sing a verse. And then we came out and sang the real version.
Lansbury: No, I don't [remember discussions regarding who would sing at the Oscars], to be quite truthful. I don't remember there being any altercation on the subject of who would be singing it. They may have been more aware of it than I was. But I just went along for the ride. And, no, I didn't know at the time.
Peabo Bryson and I sang it at the same time, we sang it together in L.A. at the Academy Awards. We sang it with the great lady, Canadian singer [Celine Dion]. But of course to reach the broadest possible audience, they put the three of us together singing as a better way to get it launched with the mass audience. And that was the time. I also sang it in Paris at Disneyland in Paris, and that was very exciting, because we were singing with opera singers and God knows what. But it was a huge song. "Tale as old as time." And it is, absolutely, I cherish the song. I think it's so special.
On fighting with Jay Leno
For the 1992 Oscars, where Lansbury, Dion and Bryson performed "Beauty and the Beast" onstage together, the duet partners only got two tickets each to the show (for Dion and husband René Angélil, and Bryson and his date). Dion brought her parents, thinking they could stay in the dressing room area, but Bryson says, with shared dressing rooms, her parents ended up standing in the hallway. So he gave them his seats to the show — "I figure anybody's got 19 or 20 children [Dion is one of 14], they need a seat" — to the consternation of the security guards. Later, it was a story that Jay Leno wanted Bryson to tell when the two singers were guests on his show.
Bryson: We got into a fight about this with Leno. He wanted me to tell this story. Well, Céline had been crying all day long, we don't know why. So I'm going on. [Leno] keeps feeding me the line to tell the story, and I won't tell it. I'll tell another story. About the Oscars. But not that one. So the commercial comes up and he gets in my face. And he's like, "I kept feeding you the lead-in for the story." I said, "Listen, listen, listen, listen, listen, hold on. Céline's emotional today, everybody knows it, and we don't know why. She's my friend, you're not. We have time. If she wants me to tell that story, maybe she doesn't want 20-30 million people to know she only had two seats and didn't have a seat for her parents. So let's ask Céline and then you can ask me again."
He said, "But I fed you the lead-in." I said, "Listen, you're the talk-show host, ask the intelligent questions. I can give another intelligent story." So you know, we really got into it. Next thing you know, I'd called him something, and he'd called me something. And I said, "F--k you," and he said, "F--k you" back. So I [said], "Now you're not gonna get it out of me after all. I don't care how many times you lead into it, ain't 'gonna happen." If anybody wants to know who put that dent in his car, when I was leaving, I'm the one. Look no further. I did it. And turned over the bike. I did it.
On 2017's Beauty and the Beast
Lansbury: I really haven't [listened to the new version of the song]. I stick with mine because that's the one that I care about.
Bryson: It's a good rendition, it's just you can't — the thing not to do is not to compare it to its original. And [it's] falling short. Way short. It's an easy thing to fall into. The mentality is if you're not being challenged by anyone, then you can get full of your own salt, you know?
Younger artists have a tendency to put a curly-cue behind every single word [laughs]. You follow me, right? We won't call any names or anything. Very famous ones, as you well know. And it's OK but it's like making love, really [laughs]. You've gotta approach it the same way. I would think it's probably a revelation of self that you're probably not a good lover [laughs] — if you're giving it all up at the beginning [laughs], you ain't gonna have much left. What about your partner? Are you a considerate lover or? I mean, it's not lewd or lascivious, it's just a sexual metaphor [and] is actually really accurate when you're talking about how you approach something and how you don't. I mean, whereas they did a good job, it's not magical.
I think if they'd been able to stick to the melody in the new one, it would've been better. You know, you're taking liberties at the end of things, and they tried to do it tastefully, they just went too far. Everybody's going to know it's you singing, you don't have to go too far, and again, you build. You start something, you move just a little bit more; you move just a little bit more; then you're building to your climax and then to your resolve. You have your release in the bridge, and then you climax, and then you hold her close and tell her how important she really is and what a wonderful person she really is.
Lansbury: No I don't [think we need a new Beauty and the Beast] [laughs]. To be quite honest. I really don't. I don't know why they're doing it. I really don't. Do you?