Going Undercover

updated 12/02/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/02/1991 01:00AM

Perhaps there are other worlds where a monster sighs for love and a teapot sings hopefully of romance, but nowhere could these characters be as eloquent and vital as in Disney's sumptuous new animated film, Beauty and the Beast. Here are the voices behind the good, the bad and the enchanted.

I'M NOT A TENOR-NOT EVEN A BARITONE. I'm a bass," says Robby Benson, 35, explaining how an actor best known for boyish ardor {The Chosen, One on One) could convincingly growl, howl and snarl as the hairy hero. Disney artists gave Beast his features—a mix of gorilla, buffalo, wolf, boar—but Benson, who impressed the studio with his passionate audition, provided the soul behind those still-blue eyes. "I thought of him as very tragic and lonely." Such feelings can age a person. Can't they? "People still think I'm 18," says Benson (who has a daughter, Lyric, 7, with his wife, singer Karla DeVito, and another baby due in March), "but I'm getting there."

It's a voice, yesssss, but I don't think you could call it a part," Angela Lansbury says modestly of Mrs. Potts, the talking teapot who clatters about Beast's castle scolding—but never scalding—her mischievous son, a cup named Chip. The Murder, She Wrote star styled her character (who, along with the Beast; Lumiere, the candelabra; and Cogsworth, the mantel clock, is really under a spell) on Mrs. Bridges, the gruff, good-hearted cook on Upstairs, Downstairs. Lansbury, 66, took the part for two reasons: She got to sing the title ballad, and she got the chance to make a second Disney film for her three grandchildren—she did Bedknobs and Broomsticks 20 years ago. The two eldest (ages 6 and 8) have seen it and, she admits, "were a little scared of the monster. But there's always that element in Disney—the children suddenly buried in their parents' laps."

As fairy-tale heroines go, Belle is ahead of her époque. A book lover who rejects the advances of the town hunque, Gaston, she sings of—belts out, actually—her dreams of escaping provincial life. "She really is liberated," says Belle's voice, Paige O'Hara, 35. "Belle wants something real, and she is willing to hold out for it." O'Hara, who developed those powerful musical lungs touring in Oklahoma! and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, was something of a Belle herself, growing up in Fort Lauderdale. "I was a bookworm and an odd girl who felt offbeat and didn't always fit in." Romantically, though, she has avoided no beasts: Her husband, Michael Piontek, is starring in the L.A. production of The Phantom of the Opera. But as dashing Raoul, not the Phantom.

Jerry Orbach was a natural choice to provide the voice for Lumiere, the candelabra, the warmest presence in the castle—although his casting had nothing to do with his career on Broadway (Promises, Promises and 42nd Street), TV (including Lansbury's Murder, She Wrote) or movies (Crimes and Misdemeanors). "I always read my kids bedtime stories at night," says Orbach, 56. "I played all the voices, just like every parent does." As for ze very French voice of ze candelabra, "I did a Maurice Chevalier. You stick out your lower lip and sneer a little bit." In some ways, though, Lumiere is pure Orbach. "The animators," he says, "ended up giving him the same exaggerated nose as mine."

You might describe Cogsworth as a clock who has too much time on his hands or, as David Ogden Stiers sums up his character, "a punctilious, nagging majordomo who knows how the Beast's castle should be run but can't make it happen." (That sounds not so many ticks away from Stiers's best-known role, M*A*S*H's persnickety Major Winchester.) And how did Stiers, 49, make Cogsworth happen in the recording studio? "You do the most exaggerated gestures," says Stiers. "Even your toes clench and curl." Currently filming an HBO movie, Ishi, Stiers is glad to have wet his feet in this, his first animated role. Says he: "It's another possibility in the arsenal of staying employed."

The real beast of the movie is Gaston, the strappingly handsome sexist pig who insists on Belle's hand in marriage. But in the early, sketchy stages of the movie, says Richard White, Gaston was closer to plain pig. "At first he was real brutish," says White, 38. "By the end, girls were swooning over him." And audiences are clapping for his showstopping hymn to himself, "Gaston"—the most hummable example of egomania since Bob Goulet sang "C'est Moi" in Camelot. But White—like O'Hara, a veteran of musical theater—isn't applauding Gaston's exuberant love of hunting (testified to by the antlers he uses as a decorating motif). Says White: "I kept getting sad visions of Bambi."

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