Like a lot of little girls, Liz Shivener grew up loving the Disney films of her youth. But unlike most little girls, Shivener actually grew up to become one of the famed “Disney Princesses,” performing the lead role of Belle in a touring production of the Broadway hit Beauty & the Beast. We recently spoke with the 23-year-old New Yorker to find out how it feels to star in the “tale as old as time,” which has now played to over 35 million people.
You grew up in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when Disney was going through a renaissance. Were you a fan of the Disney princesses?
Oh, yes. I was four when the Beauty & the Beast film came out, and I loved Belle. She’s my favorite Disney princess because she stands for something and is more integral to the plot. It’s becoming huge to wear the princess tiaras and the costumes, but Belle is a substantial role model because she’s a very strong woman. She’s a renaissance woman before her time, and it’s cool to be a part of that.
It’s obviously a huge role. How did you get the part?
The casting director saw me in my senior year of college at Otterbein University [in Westerville, Ohio]. I scheduled an audition and went back for many callbacks, with more important people behind the table every time. I was lucky enough to get it. The entire Broadway creative team: director Rob Ross, choreographer Matt West, costume designer Ann Hold-Ward and writer Linda Woolverton (who wrote Beauty & the Beast and co-wrote The Lion King) were all integral to the rehearsal process. Being with the people who had the most knowledge about the show was an incredible opportunity, and gave us access to incredible insight.
How is the stage production different from the film?
It’s the same story everyone loves, but with added material. You get to see Cogsworth before he was a clock, why the Beast is so angry, and you learn more about Belle and her father. What I love about the play is that there’s more music: all of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s original songs are there, along with new songs Tim Rice wrote the lyrics to after Howard Ashman’s passing. It’s just a well-rounded story that allows you to spend more time with the characters you love.
This role has been around for decades, in books, movies and TV shows. How do you put your own stamp on Belle while staying true to the history of the character?
That really is the challenger — respecting the precedent — because Belle is so iconic to little girls and they have a preconceived notion of who she is. I’m trying to make her 3-D, rather than a cartoon, so I really try playing into her bookworm side. When the love story takes hold, I portray the awkwardness, the way you snort when you laugh, make silly decisions and make a goofball of yourself. I’m trying to bring reality into this fairytale story, playing Belle as goofy, sassy and kind of a smart-aleck.
What does it mean to you to inspire a new generation of girls?
It’s incredible! Meeting the children afterwards is one of my favorite parts. It’s great to be able to talk to them and to put theater into the lives of people across the country. With the recession, average middle class families like the one I grew up in can’t really go to Disney World anymore. To be that escape for them is really an honor. I worked hard, and here I am living this dream of mine. It’s quite a privilege to be a princess, to be Belle, to these children.
Beauty and the Beast plays the Fabulous Fox Theatre from Jan. 12-16.
Bret Love is the founder of ecotourism/conservation site GreenGlobalTravel.com; the National Mng Editor of INsite magazine; and Music Editor for Georgia Music Magazine. He freelances for more than a dozen other national and international publications, and performs on numerous improv teams with Jackpie at Relapse Theatre.