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Sunday, November 17, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Voice Behind The `Beast' Hunk Is From Broadway

Seattle audiences haven't seen much of Richard White's face, but they're beginning to know who he is anyway.

He played the masked heroes in the 5th Avenue Theatre's productions of "The Desert Song" and "Phantom," which inspired a local chapter of the Richard White Fan Club. This week he's making his movie debut as the baritone voice of the conceited hunk, Gaston, in Disney's latest animated feature, "Beauty and the Beast," which goes into national release Friday.

"I'm very lucky to be doing one project after another," White said over lunch toward the end of "Phantom's" run. "Broadway has only two musicals slated so far this season. I've been doing a lot of regional theater, plus this film, which is a musical, too."

Indeed, "Beauty and the Beast" reunited composer Alan Menken and the late lyricist Howard Ashman, who won Academy Awards for their score for Disney "The Little Mermaid," which White calls "the best musical of 1989."

He points out that both films are the work of Broadway performers and songsmiths. Also in the cast of "Beauty's" voices are Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, Robby Benson (the beast) and Paige O'Hara, as the heroine who rejects the handsome Gaston and finds inner beauty in the beast.

"When you work on a Disney film like this, everyone involved feels like they're being hired to do part of a classic," said White. "And I think that shows."

White started recording the soundtrack at the Disney studio nearly two years ago, returning two months ago to put some finishing touches on his character. After a few days of rehearsing "Phantom" in Seattle, he then flew back to New York for the premiere of "Beauty" at the New York Film Festival.

"They made quite a few changes after we recorded the voices," he said. "Gaston was originally very loutish, brutish, more fat and snarly. In the process of refining the character, he became more devilishly handsome, and they played on the irony of his attractiveness. But he's still full of himself and how wonderful he is."

The animators worked from a videotape of White recording songs and dialogue, and used it to alter the visual characterization. He doesn't think Gaston actually looks like him, although there's a resemblance.

"I've seen expressions there that I've only seen in a mirror," he said. "They were definitely using me. Andreas Deja and his staff (the animators who worked on the Gaston characterization) are amazingly talented. They take little voice inflections and in three lines on paper capture it. I have no skills at that at all.

"In the recording sessions, you do 100 versions of every line, and you end up giving them so many choices. When you think you've exhausted all possibilities, they ask: What else can you think of? I think we found some things out that way. Working this way is collaborative on every level, and the most fun I've ever had in this business."

Although the film was officially co-directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, White said that Ashman - who was 41 when he died of AIDS earlier this year - did more than create the lyrics: "He did what would be called a directing function in the theater during the recording sessions. He was there for all of them, and he had quite a bit to do with what the film sounds like."

Before his involvement with "Beauty and the Beast," White got to know Menken by working on a New York workshop production of Menken's musical, "Kicks," which has still not seen the light of day. He's hoping to appear in it if it's ever produced. The last project Ashman and Menken did together, "Aladdin," is Disney's next animated feature.

Although their treatment of "Beauty and the Beast" will undoubtedly become as pervasive as Disney's "Peter Pan" and "Cinderella," for some film buffs it will never replace Jean Cocteau's 1946 live-action black-and-white French classic, starring Jean Marais and Josette Day. Disney will have a tough time winning over Cocteau's fans, among them White's 6-year-old daughter, Amanda.

"She has enjoyed watching the Cocteau film for the past two years," he said. "It will be interesting to see the Disney version through her eyes. But I think they've captured the quality of the story really well, while adapting it to fit the medium and time span."

Married to Sharon Halley, a choreographer who worked on "The Desert Song," White made his stage debut at 12 in "The Sound of Music." He toured with Yul Brynner for a year in "The King and I," made his Broadway debut in a revival of "The Most Happy Fella.

"My family always sang," he said. "They were very musical, but none of them had done any acting. My parents always said the arts are wonderful, but don't expect to make a living at it."

As much as White enjoyed the Disney experience, the stage is his first love, though he's uncertain whether he'll be able to have a theater career in 20-30 years.

"As long as I'm working I'm happy," he said. "But we're not getting much new product from Broadway. New York is so expensive, the stakes are so high, and at those prices theater can't be a normal part of people's lives. A teenager used to be able to take a date to a Broadway show. It wasn't a cheap date, but it was affordable. Now it's not.

"So many people who see `Phantom' tell me this is the first time they've ever seen a live show, with the character right there in front of them," he said. "It's what makes the medium unique, yet so many people - of every age - have never seen that."

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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