Broadway star Audra McDonald calls Beauty and the Beast controversy 'overblown'

Broadway star Audra McDonald adopted a "larger than life" diva persona and paired it with an Italian accent for the role of the wardrobe in Disney's new Beauty and the Beast film.

But that's all been brushed aside by controversy. 

Weeks before debuting on the big screen, the film sparked a boycott based on its characterization of Lefou as Disney's first "openly gay character."

McDonald thinks the whole thing has been "overblown."

"This is a film and an age-old story about love and the power that love has to change people," said McDonald, who plays Madame de Garderobe.

"That's the message of this film, so the controversy to me, just feels way overblown and way beyond the point."

'I will do this for free'

The six-time Tony winner is looking past all that; the role is a big one for her.

She opens the film in song, as an over-the-top opera singer visiting the prince's castle. When the spell is cast, her big personality gets squeezed into a lumbering wardrobe, not the easiest thing to play.

"For me it was making the voice heavier, because she's weighed down by it," McDonald told CBC News. 

"She still tries to find a way to be as expressive as she possibly can but she's having to do it in a much more laboured way," she said. "That's what I worked on more than anything."

Unlike the 1991 animated version, the live action Beauty and the Beast includes a diverse cast. McDonald credits her involvement with a push on the part of the producers to make diversity a priority.

"I don't think I would have been in the cast had they not focused on making sure that it was a more diverse cast."

McDonald jumped at the chance to star in the film and called it an "honour" to sing the famous theme Tale as Old as Time in the movie's final scene.

"I just said 'I don't know why you guys as paying me to do this,'" she joked. "I will do this for free."

'A new set of paintbrushes'

The reboot changes the fabric of the story, offering more insight into the character's back stories.

Audiences discover what happened to Belle's mother, and why the prince was turned into a beast in the first place. It's a fresh take, one, McDonald explained, that isn't burdened by the constraints of the cartoon classic.

"Now we have a whole new set of paintbrushes to paint with," said McDonald. "You've got this technology that you didn't have back in 1991," when the original was released.

One thing the film retains from the original? McDonald said the movie's message hasn't changed.

"To take the time to know the person on the inside and to realise that different does not mean bad," she said. "It just means different."

Watch what CBC's film critic Eli Glasner thought of the movie