For whom the Belle tolls

Emily Behny is ready to play Belle in Beauty and the Beast.

It wasn’t until she played the role of Liesl in The Sound of Music during her sophomore year at Ball State University that Emily Behny realized she might actually be able to make a career out of performing.

“I started performing in church when I as about five or six, but it wasn’t until I got into high school that I dove into theater. That’s when I got the bug, but I waited until I got to college to take performing seriously,” says Behny, now taking the role of Belle in the award-winning smash hit musical Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, coming to the Academy of Music June 4 to 10.

And what a role it is, this classic story of Belle, a young woman in a provincial town and the Beast, who’s really a young prince trapped in a spell placed by an enchantress. If the Beast can learn to love and be loved, the curse will end and he will be transformed to his former self. But time is running out. If the Beast does not learn his lesson soon, he and his household will be doomed for all eternity.

Playing Belle was always a dream role for Behny, who just turned 25. But in order to get it, she was faced with stiff competition.

“I was competing for the role with over 300 girls. I think I was number 191,” she said. “I was waiting for a long time, and by the time they got to my group, they had cut the singing time down from 16 bars to 8 bars. That’s not a lot of time to show what you can do. It gives you about 30 seconds to make an impression, and that’s hard to do.”

But she did it. She was called back for a second audition, a dance call, then asked to come back again with three other girls to sing for the role of Belle.

“And here I am today,” she said. “I can hardly believe it. They had seen so many people, so to be chosen from all of the others and get the role is a real honor.”

Behny, from a small town in Indiana, has been traveling with the show for 16 months, and said she’s enjoying every minute of it — with only one slight challenge.

“And that is to resist falling into what I call ‘Disney Princess Land,’” she explained. “Belle is not a princess, and it would be easy to fall into that trap in a very melodramatic way. So we have to be very careful not to do that and just make her seem as human as can be for the audience.”

Whatever they are doing obviously works, for audiences keep coming back to see this treasured musical. And Behny thinks she knows why.

“I think it’s because the story never gets old. It’s the classic love story that people can relate to because it talks about people seeing through the exterior of somebody and into somebody’s heart, which is how Belle falls in love with the Beast,” she said.

“In a very image-driven society it’s sometimes hard to stop and look into the humanness of someone and what makes them who they are,” she continued. “And I do think that’s the main draw of the show, aside from all the characters, the dialogue, the costuming and the big Broadway numbers. That makes it fun for the whole family.”

Admittedly excited and overjoyed to be playing this role — her first since graduating from college — Behny hopes her future will just get bigger and brighter with each passing year.

“I’d like to do more musical theater as well as act in some ‘straight plays,’” she said. “I’d also like to do film and TV someday, too. I have many, many interests, and I hope they all come true.” ••

For times and ticket information, call 215–893–1999.