As I mentioned yesterday, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast musical is currently touring the nation and is likely headed to a city near you. We caught up with the decidedly charming man who is currently bringing everyone’s favorite Beast to life one city at a time. I’ll be seeing the show at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music on February 16 and I will return with a full report! Until then, enjoy getting to know the man behind the furry costume.
PC: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
SH: Absolutely! I’m originally from Nebraska. I grew up there, went to school in Lincoln, Nebraska. I studied theater performance, and kind of got to play both sides. Both colleges were across the street from one another, the School of Music and the School of Theater, and I got to cross over into both, because a degree does not exist as far as the musical theater scene goes. So I got to kind of do my own thing, which was wonderful, and left with a really well-rounded education. I moved to New York a few years ago. I always knew I wanted to act and perform, and here I am.
PC: When did you first discover your love of the theater? What age were you?
SH: As a child, I took acting classes at a local community theater. I think the first class I took, I was 7, and I just knew there was something about it. I think it was part make-believe and part getting to be in someone else’s shoes for a while. Also, there was just something special about allowing an audience and a group of people to experience something together. There’s nothing like making someone laugh or allowing someone to cry.
PC: What is the most exciting part about playing the Beast?
SH: Everybody loves the movie. So they come with this expectation of what they think it’s going to be and what they know. He is that, but we sort of joke that the stage musical is Beauty and the Beast 2.0. There are seven new songs that are not in the movie and the brilliant part of Alan Menken’s writing. The stage musical is sort of scored like a film, so there are so many different themes played throughout the musical that you will hear in songs. There’s a great scene that has been turned into an incredible ballad called “If I Can’t Love Her” that I get to sing at the end of Act I. We don’t hear much from the Beast musically in the movie. He only sings a small part of “Something There,” so it’s kind of thrilling to be able to show people that, and break down that expectation in a new way. We really get to see the Beast, the human inside, and look past that gruff exterior of this monster everyone describes him as. We get to see this really beautiful heart. Also, one of the neat things about getting to do this is that the adults bring their kids who are just now getting exposed to Beauty and the Beast for the first time in their life, and the adults are leaving the show as that young child self that grew up with this movie, and seeing it in a different way. It’s getting to see that live and in front of your face that makes it seem a little more tangible. It’s a pretty cool thing to be a part of.
PC: I exposed my son to Lion King last summer, and he’s 6 now, and just seeing him light up and seeing it through his eyes brought the whole experience to a different level for me. So, as a mom, I totally understand where you are coming from. It’s the element of having your child with you and it being something you grew up with. It’s sharing a piece of that with them.
SH: Yeah, and how impactful it still is. Disney is these art antiquated lessons and stories being told that are still so poignant in a lot of ways. There are, and will always be, kids feeling ostracized, feeling like outsiders. Belle is described as a “beauty, but a funny girl,” and she’s ostracized by this entire town for just being different. Everyone has felt that in some way in their life, and it’s interesting, actually, when you approach that as an adult. I’m 27, and there are things hitting me now in new ways that went over my head in the movie growing up. I think it just hits you two-fold, each next generation you belong to when you revisit these stories.
PC: One of the things I love most about seeing shows multiple times is that I feel each actor brings something different the character. What unique personality traits do you lend to the Beast in this production?
SH: I am 6’2” and I think last year’s Beast was 5’10”, and we wear quite the costume as the Beast. So he’s an imposing figure period, just because of the incredible costume design. But I’m a pretty large guy in general, walking down the street, Sam Hartley. So with Disney magic added to that, it’s quite an imposing figure on stage. The thing I love about the Beast and wanted to make sure I brought to the Beast is that he was just a kid. The woman who wrote the book for the stage musical also wrote the movie, so we take a lot of lines verbatim directly from the movie. So the prologue is the same: a young prince is turned into a beast. You think about those horrible puberties we all have gone through, or as kids, will eventually go through, and smack in the middle of that, you are turned into a literal, hideous, monstrous beast. You may feel as such already with hormones and young adulthood, so I wanted to make sure I still brought out that child. He’s turned into a beast, but that doesn’t mean he’s suddenly turned into an adult. Belle and the Beast, the prince, are still very young. We get to see that incredible transformation they both go on throughout the musical. So I wanted to make sure we didn’t lose sight of that, that they are both still just kids figuring out all these feelings they are discovering.
PC: What is the coolest piece of equipment you get to work with on stage? I can only imagine the gadgets and gizmos aplenty you have at your disposal.
SH: Yeah, there’s a lot of Disney magic for sure. I can’t speak too detailed as far as that’s concerned, but I will promise there’s every bit of magic from the movie that you will see on stage. We have a household of enchanted objects that are transformed before your eyes on stage. To see that live, in person, is so cool, and of course to work with it is an absolute dream come true. It’s like a kid on a playground everyday; I get to do that for a living and I won’t ever forget that. It’s absolutely a dream, but there is some just incredible magic throughout the whole musical.
PC: If you could be any other character in the show for one night, who would it be?
SH: I would say Gaston. One of the cool things we play with in the show is this opposite journey Gaston and the Beast take. We are introduced to Gaston as the hero of this town, who everyone loves and admires. Every guy wants to be like him and every girl wants to be with him. He turns into this horrible, jealous beast by the end because the one thing he wants, he can’t have, because Belle doesn’t like Gaston that way. I start out in this world that no one wants me to be part of and get to go the opposite direction. Also, for people who have not seen this yet live, the number “Gaston” that Lefou sings is such a crowd-pleaser. The choreography is so cool, so intricate, surprising, it just kind of takes your breath away. It’s probably one of my favorite numbers of the whole night. Yeah, I think I’d say Gaston.
PC: So, what is your typical day like on the road?
SH: It depends on the schedule. For example, we are currently in Huntsville, Alabama, and the last city we played at was two nights ago in Daytona Beach, Florida. So we perform a show and our crew gets there very early in the morning, loads the show, puts up all the sets, gets the costumes ready, gets wigs ready, and everything that needs to go backstage. We show up and do a sound check and then perform the show. If it’s a one-nighter, immediately following the show, we will begin loading up the sets, putting it back on to the bus or truck, and then the next morning, begin traveling to our next location.
Coming up, we are in Atlanta for about a week, so that’s a little different. Those are the lucky parts of this experience for us – we get into a city, load our show, perform, but get our days free. We get to explore and see this country, which is just the coolest addition to this dream we are all living. Not only do we get to do this incredible show, we get to see all these cities across the country, and play in these theaters. Some of them world-renowned, and others, not necessarily well known, but still just incredible, beautiful venues. So it just depends. There are absolutely days when we feel like waking up and staying in bed and resting. It is hard work, definitely, but there is nothing more rewarding than getting to see some of these different cultures and food around the country.
PC: What was your favorite Disney movie growing up and is it still the same as when you were a child?
SH: I think it’s a tie. My favorite was Peter Pan for a very long time. That one I think my parents got before I could even understand words and who everyone was. And most people think I’m lying when I say this, but Beauty and the Beast was a major one for me. It’s kind of bizarre, but I remember being in daycare, I was 5 or 6 and was probably having a bad day, as young children might. But I got very emotional during the song “Something There,” which begins our Act II in the stage musical, when they are playing in the snow and discovering they might have feelings for each other. I honestly couldn’t tell you what it is that got to me, but I remember getting this incredible homesickness, this understanding of that love they were experiencing, I guess. I’m sure I probably didn’t know that’s what it was at the time, and honestly, it could have been just a bad day. But it just became this movie that made me feel this emotion that I don’t think had specifically felt. So when I would watch it again, there was this sense of feeling at home with something, kind of safe with something. Also, a close third was Robin Hood, the old animated Robin Hood. It’s so easy to love Disney, because it’s written in such a brilliant way, Of course, I love and know them all by heart – Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Lion King. And what’s even cooler is experiencing the newer movies as an adult; you appreciate them the same way. They still bring me back to that childlike place, which is wonderful. They are just so smartly written.
PC: Have you ever been to the Disney Parks?
SH: I’ve only been in California. We are playing Ft. Lauderdale in June or July, and we are dying to get over there on one of our days off. I don’t even think we actually have a full day off. But especially now, even if it’s when the tour is done, I have to go. I have to go to the Be Our Guest restaurant. So I can’t wait to get to visit there.
PC: So who’s your number one: Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck? Or maybe someone else?
SH: I think I’m going to say Goofy. I mean, how can you argue against Mickey? But with no suggestions, the first thing that popped in my head was Goofy.
PC: The magic of Disney is a pretty amazing thing. They go to infinity and beyond to preserve Walt’s dream and make sure it’s alive in everything they do. So where do you think the magic of Disney shines brightest in this production?
SH: Number one, just to see everything on stage. Two, as the Beast, I’m not in these moments, but hearing the end of “Gaston,” and the end of “Be Our Guest,” it feels like we are at a rock concert to hear the response from audiences. I remember the first couple times we heard it, we were all just looking at each other backstage like, “What are we a part of that we get to hear this response from people?” It was just out-of-this-world incredible. I will say for me, the thing I love getting to experience every night is that everyone knows the title track, “Beauty and the Beast.” It’s the one song everyone knows by heart, for sure, when you ask someone about the show. The moment Belle is revealed in the very famous yellow dress, it doesn’t matter what city, what venue, what type of day – every single show, we hear on stage the minute she’s revealed in that dress. The audience reacts on cue, almost like we have a sign that says,“Gasp” and “Ahhh.” It’s unfailing. That for us is a little bit of Disney magic that’s not behind-the-scenes or anything, but we get to experience every night that is so cool because everyone is excited to see it. It’s definitely one thing you’re expecting to see because of the movie, and then to see the actual dress live and in person, I think, just blows people away. And then Stephanie Gray, who’s playing Mrs. Potts, has such a perfect, beautiful voice for the song, and it’s just a special moment that, again, has that comforting quality you come to expect.