Mary Costa

The voice of Princess Aurora talks about this classic film and the wonderful enhancements for the 50th Anniversary release.

When Mary Costa first signed on to play the voice of a character called Princess Aurora in Walt Disney’s new film called Sleeping Beauty, the year was 1952 and the young singer/actress was just 22 years old. Seven years later, the film, then considered one of the most ambitious projects of all-time, was released and 50 years after that, we’re celebrating this timeless classic for its golden anniversary. To commemorate the event, Disney has brought the film out of the vault and has been restored to its magnificent original aspect ratio of 2.55:1 and the picture and sound quality have been digitally enhanced as well.

I got to see these wonderful improvements on the big screen, at a screening of the film at the marvelous El Capitan theater in Hollywood a few months back and the film’s picture and sound quality are truly something to behold. Now fans can see these improvements for themselves when the Sleeping Beauty 50th Anniversary Edition comes back to DVD and, for the first time ever, on Blu-ray as well on October 7. The day after attending that screening, I got to sit down with the voice of Princess Aurora herself, Mary Costa, for a wonderful half-hour conversation that spanned many a topic. Here’s what the actress had to say.

I was at the screening at the El Cap last night.

Mary Costa: Were you? You know, I really hardly slept. I’m anxious to know how you feel because I feel like it’s perfected for the first time.

Absolutely. I’m glad they showed the comparative parts, with the sound and the film clips, because a lot of times when you see that it’s been “remastered and restored”, if you’re just seeing it for the first time or you haven’t seen it in a long time, then you can’t really tell the difference. Now when they showed the new clips with it all cleaned up, it was amazing.

Mary Costa: It felt like there was such a clarity to it, but there was that richness of sound, there was a depth of sound and it felt like… you know at the beginning when they showed those Eyvind Earle paintings? The screen was like the paintings coming to life. I was just absolutely thrilled. I don’t know about you but… have you ever been in music?

Not really.

Mary Costa: Acting?

No. Just writing

Mary Costa: Really? Well that’s fabulous because you’re creative. As a singer, I like to listen to things that have a level of sound. I don’t like to listen to quiet. I mean, the music can be quiet, but I want to hear it. Last night, it was at a point where I just loved it.

When we saw the whole movie, it was like the colors and everything were just so vibrant for, pretty much, the first time. It almost looked like it was washed in a color-safe bleach or something like that.

Mary Costa: (Laughs) I know! I know it. That’s true. I think, also, I loved the godmothers and knowing them, and the prince and to hear Maleficent and to hear their voices, the core of the voice, I don’t really believe that we’ve heard it to that extent before, in this movie.

Yeah, because you were saying at the screening that there was a part that you didn’t even notice before in the movie.

Mary Costa: Yes, that (singing slowly) ‘Aurora’, that was almost like a moan and everything. You didn’t hear ‘Aurora’ or that through there, no no no. Not to that extent. I feel like, also, they showed me the DVD. Have you seen the DVD?

Not yet, but I did go to a demonstration where they showed us all the BD Live features, like the chat.

Mary Costa: Oh, did they? I think that’s marvelous.

They had a part where, they’re trying to make the cake, and they had a part where a father was sending a video to his daughter and when that scene comes, this little video box popped up with a “Happy Birthday” message.

Mary Costa: (Laughs) I know. It’s just so much fun. The amazing thing I saw is that if you go on the Internet and if someone wants to chat with you, it’s very safe for children, the way they have it. To be able to sing with the characters, I don’t know. I was just fascinated. I think it’s going to be a very very good DVD.

This is the first one that they’re releasing with all these BD Live features and it really sounds like it’s going to take off, with everything you can do with it. You can chat, you can do a trivia game. It’s just amazing how they can do all this stuff now.

After a brief chat about where I was from, and her early singing career and her performing at the Ordway Theater in Minneapolis, near where I grew up, we had a brief interruption from room service before we got on with this wonderful conversation.

So how did you start singing when you were younger? Just in front of a mirror by yourself?

Mary Costa: No, no, never in front of a mirror. Like in a sandbox and in buildings and everything, I’d be always singing, or in a room by myself, but not in front of a mirror, never. I just loved making sounds.

Well, it definitely paid off for you, that’s for sure.

Mary Costa: I asked Walt why he chose me. I said, ‘I just would like to know what is it?’ He said, ‘I really shouldn’t tell you.’ He loved to tease me. He said, ‘You use your voice as an extension of speech, and I like that. And that’s why I’m glad you could do the dialogue too, because with your accent, I wasn’t sure we could get an English accent.’

So was it done separately? Normally, would they have someone for the dialogue and someone for the singing parts?

Mary Costa: Sometimes, sometimes they would. I auditioned and… well, this is a long story. I was born in Knoxville and when I was 14, my parents came to Los Angeles to visit my father’s relatives. I sang when I was there, at a little dinner party, these dinner parties brought me wonderful luck. A lady said, ‘What do you plan to do with her?’ They said maybe Julliard or something. She said to maybe have me take my 6th period of school and go to the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. There’s somebody really wonderful there that she would like. I never thought they would do it, but they did and my mother was one of 12, I’m an only child and so I went to Glendale High School. My father told me what Walt told me later on. He said, ‘Don’t do anything that you’re not ready to do, that you don’t think out and have your own colors.’ Walt would say to me, ‘Drop your colors of your vocal palate. Paint with your voice.’ My father really was training me in that way too. He died in my senior year and it was like my world collapsed. We went back to Knoxville for his burial and I didn’t think that my mother would come back out, but she did and we were joined by three cousins and an aunt. I finally got a little agent and finally one day, I had sung with Martin Lewis at UCLA, soap commercials, nothing was small to me. Everything was just wonderful that I got to do. He said, ‘I want to take you to Paramount Studios,’ and I sang for Victor Young. I met Frank Cashlin so he was so wonderful to talk to. He was just fun and he wanted to know about my background and what I was doing. Two weeks later, he called and asked if he could take me to a party where I would meet some influential musical people. I got to go and after the dinner, I went over and sang at the piano and then I was at the studio the next morning to audition and then they were talking about the accent and that if Vivian Leigh (in Gone With the Wind) can do this, than I can do this and then the amazing thing that happened was I got the part. Working with Walt and having him observe and kind of knowing me to the point that I was just beginning, he established a work ethic in me. He totally did. He knew I wanted to sing in the opera and he said that’s where you really had to have the four D’s: your dreams, dedication, determination and discipline. I said last night that the fifth D would be Disney, because he gave me something. I felt like if I hadn’t watched him and watched the way he did things, whether it be Disneyland, that’s why it was so late with the picture coming out, because he started Disneyland.

What did it take, I believe, seven years to finish this?

Mary Costa: Oh, yes.

It seems like now, with animation, the voice work gets done separately. It seems like this one was a more altogether process with the drawings and they had some shots of you with Marc Davis. Were you there for the whole visual process and the creating of the characters?

Mary Costa: I was. The thing is that Marc Davis always came in and observed me when I was recording. I could not record without moving my hands and just everything. He drew that and some of the things he got from me and they had Helene Stanley who came in and did some of the movements too. I’d never seen anything like my mother, when she was in her late 90s, came in to see it. I thought she was going to be very quiet, but in the middle of the movie, she said, ‘Oh, Mary that looks just like you!’ I had to put my hand over her mouth. It was so funny. Here is an interesting thing. I was doing an event with Marc Davis, maybe eight years ago and we were sitting in directors chairs. A lady came to me and said, ‘Miss Costa, how does it feel to be the voiceover of a famous Disney princess?’ This is how funny he is. He says, ‘Madame, the voices are the ocean of sound, upon which we animate.’ I looked at him and she said, ‘Oh, oh.’ She had no idea that this was not voiceover and he really really wanted to tell her. After she left I laughed so hard. Honestly, we had such fun times together. For instance, if they had decided to do a scene, or they had decided they wanted to do it in a different way and maybe they would keep some of it but they wanted to have the head turn or the eyes be different or whatever, we had to go and do the whole scene again. Redo everything. It was really hard to do because they knew the lilt they wanted. I was able to see that character so much better last night and it was all so clear that the voice work came out better for me, seeing it with such clarity.

I brought a friend with me and Sleeping Beauty is her favorite movie of all-time and throughout the whole thing she just kept saying, ‘Wow.’ It’ll be a huge hit on DVD.

Mary Costa: Wouldn’t that be great?

I was curious about the whole process. A seven-year production is almost unheard of these days. Was it going to be shut down at some point or what other challenges were there throughout this production?

Mary Costa: They weren’t, and neither was Walt, in a rush to do it. It’s not like today at all. For instance, I could work for two weeks and maybe be called two or three times a week, and I could go five or six weeks and I wouldn’t be called. Then they might decide what we worked on, they were going to do a little bit different and we’d do that again or they’d bring in an entirely new way of approaching it. I found myself enjoying it so much and I loved watching the animators, I loved watching Mark and Alice Davis and I were very close. I liked to talk to Walt after I first met him, but then when he started working on the Disneyland project, you could hardly see him even walking around anywhere. So, everybody was working and it was never shut down. It was just that Walt was up there and Walt will always have the approval.

So it wasn’t put on hold, it just went very slowly?

Mary Costa: It was very slow. He was always so in love with the Tchaikovsky score. I’ve always thought, what a perfect thing for him to choose, because Tchaikovsky, he must have had the kind of mind that Walt had and every little piece of music he needed for anything. I think George Brun did a very good job, and especially last night, you could hear everything beautifully. This has been called because of the way everything has been perfected and the way the animators continued through with their character and they didn’t change – in some of them the characters would change – but it has been called the pinnacle of the art of animation. After seeing it last night, I would have to agree.

I was blown away also by the Ervynd Earle paintings and that he painted that all by hand, every single key background himself in the entire film. That’s just astonishing.

Mary Costa: Oh yeah. Tony Baxter, he has a lot of the originals as a part of his home. Sleeping Beauty is his favorite picture and it is John Lassetter’s also. The thing about it is that John Lassetter says, ‘There will be no sequel to Sleeping Beauty.” I am so glad because I haven’t admired some of the sequels. They’re OK, but I’m with Walt. I don’t think there should be sequels.

Yeah. A lot of the Disney films are coming out with sequels. There’s the new Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning prequel. I’m not saying they’re bad, but something like this, you just can’t.

Mary Costa: Good heavens, no. This is what I feel about Sleeping Beauty. It is good winning over evil, it is a powerful romantic story. It has comedy, but I tell you. It is so well presented that, when they go dancing off at the end of the picture, I think that’s what’s marvelous about our imagination. However we are inside, we can imagine what life could be like for them continuing. I don’t want to see all that stuff. I grew up on radio and I adored radio. They scared me to death with those things because I imagined them in my way. Oh I just loved that.

There’s just such a tendency now that, ‘OK, they liked it, so they’re going to like another one.’

Mary Costa: I don’t agree with that.

I don’t agree with it either, but that’s just the way that a lot of the studios minds are at. They’ll say this one made $300 million, so we can make $400 million from a second one, or something like that. I just don’t quite get that sometimes.

Mary Costa: Just don’t fool with Sleeping Beauty (Laughs).

I think Lassetter would step in. I couldn’t even imagine if someone had the gall to reimagine or remake or sequelize Sleeping Beauty. There’d be quite an uproar.

Mary Costa: I think there would be.

What do you think of Pixar and Lassetter’s work? I’m a huge fan of Pixar.

Mary Costa: I think Pixar is the ultimate. I think John Lassetter is the closest thing to Disney himself that has come along. I really do. I just think his mind… we need to do a picture on the mind of John Lassetter (Laughs). I would love that. I’d love to see a film about how he thinks about how these things come to him.

They’re all just these simple stories but there’s so much to them too. There’s so much depth and layering.

Mary Costa: Oh, I know.

Disney has a tradition of releasing a film and then they’ll lock it away in the vault for awhile and bring it back. It’s not out there all the time. The whole ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ thing.

Mary Costa: Oh yes. Absolutely.

With this new release, there are a whole new generation of children who can be exposed to Sleeping Beauty for the first time. Do you want this generation of youth to get acquainted with Sleeping Beauty?

Mary Costa: I was thinking about that this morning, the fact that it’s 50 years. It remains and it can go with this generation, which is very fast-paced and everything, it can go because it remains fresh and it is truly an art piece. Yet, it’s got a lot of heart, it has everything in it. I just think it remains fresh. I just can feel in my spirit, Walt smiling at this because this perfection, because this is the first time they’ve been able to use this scope of the picture. I don’t understand that.

At this point, the rep explained that the aspect ratio shifted with the technology and it was reduced to 2.35:1 from 2.55:1. This is the first time you’ll be able to see the entire picture, and it’s magnificent. She also said there was time for just one more question…

So, how would try to get some of these younger kids that have never seen with Sleeping Beauty before, or for the older fans, what would you say to persuade them to pick this new edition up and visit, or revisit this character?

Mary Costa: I think, maybe, that romance is coming back into play. This is probably the greatest romantic classic. I’ve thought about how quickly they learn things, with the Internet, absorbing constantly and they’re switching. Everything is so fast, but, maybe I’m wrong, but I seem to sense that something is coming in more romantic now, even in films. It’s creeping in and I don’t think there is a better time for Sleeping Beauty to come out than right now. It has things that can rouse you up, all those scenes with the dragon and the prince, but there is a romance in it. I mean, a couple came in last night and he was with his girlfriend and he came up to me and said he grew up on that and it was his first crush. He said, ‘I like it even better now.’ I think the romantic part of it, it is just the classics. Maybe one of the greatest of all time.

And now we have all this new technology to bring them in as well.

Mary Costa: You’re right. That is the way, that Blu-ray will bring them back in and they will see this and then I believe they’ll be really intrigued. That’s what it is, because of the way they are today, on the Internet and finding everything they need, that’s what’s going to bring them in, Blu-ray. You’re right.

Sadly, my batteries ran out just as that last response was given, so I didn’t catch the closing remarks but, thankfully, that’s all I missed. It’s like running out of gas right as you pull into a gas station. Weird. However, I think it’s safe to say we both had a wonderful time with our little chat. I know I did.

You can revisit this amazing film in this glorious new 50th Anniversary Edition of Sleeping Beauty when it comes back to DVD and premieres on Blu-ray, with all the amazing BD Live features, on October 7.