(This interview was originally published on December 21, 2021, shortly before the hit show was shut down due to COVID. It has been updated with current performance information.)
Olney Theatre Center’s Beauty and the Beast has garnered national attention since it opened in November, largely due to the innovative nature of the production and the casting of the lead roles. Evan Ruggiero, a performer who lost a leg to cancer as a young adult, plays the Beast. Jade Jones, a self-described queer, plus-sized Black woman, plays Belle. These casting choices have attracted the attention of media outlets including MSNBC and People Magazine. A video of Jade singing “Home,” Belle’s solo number from the show, has gone viral. Marcia Milgrom Dodge directs the production. I spoke to Dodge last week about her approach to the show and asked why she thinks it is resonating so deeply with audiences.
Dodge has a long history of working in DC theater. She got her professional start at Arena Stage, choreographing a production of On the Town in 1989. At Arena, she also worked on a 1990 revival of Merrily We Roll Along, alongside Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, who were in residence for the production.
More recently in 2009, Dodge directed a production of Ragtime at the Kennedy Center. It was the first time that the Kennedy Center had hired a woman to direct and choreograph a musical. Dodge’s production of Ragtime met with great success and transferred to Broadway, where it received several Tony Award nominations, including a best direction nomination for Dodge.
Here are excerpts from our conversation about Beauty and the Beast. The conversation has been edited for clarity.
Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me!
Anything for my fabulous little show. I’m so proud of it!
I saw it with my ten-year-old daughter a few weeks ago and we had a great time. I think it’s just what people need right now. It’s such a release.
A release with a little more “there” there. I saw so many little Black girls in the audience just scream and lose their minds when they saw Jade. It was so thrilling to me that we are able to “smuggle in some deeper meaning.” I heard Don Cheadle say that once about a caper movie he was doing and since then I’ve always thought that’s what I like to do with my direction: smuggle in some deeper meaning.
I like that! How did you smuggle deeper meaning into this production?
Adding those remarkable performances expands the definition of beauty in all its forms. And that was really what I set out to do. Figure out my way into it and also make it extremely meaningful for the audience that’s seeing the show today. I can’t do replicas. If someone wants a replica, they should hire someone else. That’s just not what I do. I dig. I wrestle with the text. I try to find a reason to make the story palpable for an audience today. And I couldn’t do that in this show without casting outside of the box. Now that we’ve done it this way, I hope we let people know that there is opportunity for people of all sizes, colors, shapes, abilities to wear a princess gown or be the Beast. Evan says that when he was a kid, he used to run around his house pretending to be the Beast but never in his wildest dreams did he think he would play this role.
What has changed and what hasn’t changed in this production?
Well, I didn’t change a word of text. I was working inside of a very specific structure. In bringing a modern lens to a classic like this you have to dig into the relationship between Belle and all the male characters in the show. In doing that, you honor the original work but also expand it. That expands the definition of beauty in all its forms. And the way that we cast the show challenges assumptions. Asking the audience to use their imagination challenges assumptions. In stretching the characterization a little bit to allow for someone like Jade Jones to assay that role, I don’t think we did anything but make it more exciting.
When you were initially talking about doing this with Olney, at what point did the idea for the casting come in?
Right away. I told Jason [Jason Loewith, Olney Artistic Director] that if he hires me to do Beauty and the Beast it’s not going to be your mother’s Beauty and the Beast. He was fine with that. I had worked with Jade before on 110 in the Shade at Ford’s Theatre. When I told my husband that Olney wanted me to do Beauty and the Beast he said, “Jade Jones.” I said, “I’m already on it.” So we invited her to audition for Belle. I don’t think she understood what was going on. She was like “what?” I knew her voice but I wanted to hear her sing the Beauty and the Beast songs. I heard her sing “Home” and that was it. Now she’s blowing up social media with her version of that song. Even Susan Egan [the original Belle in the Broadway production] commented on it.
In what other ways have you updated the Belle character?
Jade and I were very determined to make Belle heroic. When Linda Wolverton wrote the animated Disney movie in the 1990s, she gave Belle a skill set [reading]. Which most princesses didn’t really have. I mean, Cinderella is the one who had the most skill set of all the princesses because she actually has to scrub and clean. But none of the other princesses do anything. Snow White lies in bed and sort of looks beautiful. There are not a lot of objectives other than let’s get a prince. I think our Belle is a feminist. She is transparent in the way she responds to the advances by Gaston. She is caring and understanding about her dad. We’ve even discussed that her dad might be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, which in the fairy tale wouldn’t be explored but if you look underneath, you can certainly see that with a more modern lens. She is more than just a woman who loves her dad and then marries a prince. She is feisty. When she meets the Beast and realizes that this is a being that is affecting her, it’s complicated and life is messy. I give actors permission to be messy.
What about Evan?
The thing that I love about Evan is that he has this petulant arrested development approach to the Beast. He told me later that he was going through the lines with his girlfriend and she said, “Why are you being so petulant?” and he said “I think that’s how he is. I’m just going to go for it.” It was a new choice but also such a good choice. Because think about it: the Beast stopped growing up just when his body would have gone through puberty. He became an animal at age ten so what does he know about manners and respect? Because now he is an animal living with no parents.
The production begins with a prologue, where we see the prince as a child before he becomes the Beast.
The first thing I did was read the script and ask why is this prince such an angry little boy in the opening scene? And why is he being raised by a teapot and a candelabra? I saw the prince as being ten years old before he is turned into the Beast. He spends about ten years as the beast but those are the crucial years when he would have gone through puberty and learned social graces. He never had that. Where are the parents? Where did they go? So Evan and I talked about it and decided that maybe there was some sort of tragedy in which his parents perished and he lost his leg and he’s left with a lot of anger. From there, we invite the audience’s imagination because I want them to fill in those blanks. Having Evan in the role really allowed me to go in and dig deeper into the Beast’s background and then incorporate that into who he is. When he’s transformed back into a human at the end of the show, what Belle sees is that he’s still the same person. He wouldn’t look like a storybook Prince. He’s been in the same clothes for ten years. He’s in pants that are too small and his shirt’s a mess and he’s got stubble. It’s like puberty happened during the transformation.
What are some ways that you observed Evan and Jade make these roles their own?
One of my favorite things that Jade and Evan do together is after the wolf chase scene when he saves her, and she is trying to nurse his injuries. They have this little fight and they both growl at each other. That was all Jade. She just did it one day in rehearsal and then she was like, “Wait, can I do that?” and I said, “of course!” Because they are connecting in their own unique way. Only these two characters, played by these two actors, living truthfully in this moment can connect in this particular way. It’s wonderful and real and authentic. And then it becomes essential. Now I can’t imagine that little moment in that scene without that. They have rebranded that relationship.
Why do you think the production is resonating so deeply right now? You’ve got a lot of national press coverage.
We have and it’s thrilling. I want to create theater for people to see themselves on stage, and I think we are giving them a smorgasbord. We have a Latinx Cogsworth, a Black Mrs. Potts and Chip, a very diverse company. The show begins with a nonbinary actor as the enchantress. We have women playing little boys. I think we have presented a world where diversity thrives, and if that is the takeaway then wonderful because what I set out to do was truly make an inclusive company. Picking up those conversations today is essential.
It’s also a beautiful fairy tale with wonderful music and lyrics, and it’s being produced during the holidays when we are struggling through this pandemic. People are coming to the theater knowing they are taking a calculated risk but coming because they need that sense of community and to be in that dark space sharing that sense of adventure together. There is something beautiful about that. Seeing Jade Jones come downstage center to sing Belle. Audiences are being jolted in a good way to say, wow, I never imagined Belle this way, and now I can’t imagine her any other way. That to me is the validation. That says to me that the choices we made are resonating because they are right. Jade will tell you, she is good at her job. Why can’t she play a princess? Just because she doesn’t look like the little teeny tiny animated character? I want to dig underneath and look for that true sense of community and authenticity. What is happily ever after? In our world now, and in this show, it is acceptance and kindness.
Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast plays through January 1, 2023, at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD. Tickets ($42–$99) can be purchased online or by calling 301-924-3400. Discounts are available for groups, seniors, military, and students.
The paperless program is here.
The November 22, 2022, opening night souvenir program is here.
COVID Safety: Olney Theatre offers both mask-required and mask-recommended performances for patrons in the Mainstage Theatre and 1938 Original Theatre: For performances on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, face masks are recommended but not required. For performances on Wednesdays and Sundays, face masks are required. Olney’s Health and Safety page is here.
Olney elevates ‘Beauty and the Beast’ to new and exciting heights (review by Darby DeJarnette, November 12, 2021)
Fresh and fun ‘Beauty and the Beast’ returns to Olney Theatre Center (review by Julia Amis, November 15, 2022)