Let me start off today's column by saying that I sort-of, kind-of got into this whole writing-about-the-Walt-Disney-Company-for-the-Web thing thanks to David Mumford.
To explain: I have always been a hardcore Disney geek. But it wasn't until I saw David at an early N.F.F.C. convention -- sharing the stage with his frequent partner-in-crime, Bruce Gordon, at one of their infamous "Bruce & Dave" shows -- that I saw how the pros did it. That when you skillfully mixed Disney theme park history with a healthy dollop of backstage gossip and humor ... Well, you often got a very entertaining & informative show.
And ever since then ... I have been sort-of, kind-of following in David & Bruce's footsteps. Trying to share seldom-told stories and/or offer up insights about the Walt Disney Company that (I hope) JHM readers find entertaining & informative.
Anyway ... Given the great debt that I owe the late Mr. Mumford, I'm actually very pleased that the story that I'm about to share with you folks comes from another member of the Mumford clan: David's brother, John. Who -- this past Thursday night -- attended the very first public performance of Disney Theatrical's newest production, "The Little Mermaid."
Photo by John Mumford
When he and I spoke on the phone this past Friday night, John revealed that this show's pre-Broadway engagement at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts didn't exactly begin smoothly. As he walked up to the Ellie Caulkins Opera House this past Thursday night 40 minutes prior to curtain, Mumford noticed that all of the fire alarms at the theater were going off. More to the point, that none of the "Mermaid" ticket holders were being allowed to go upstairs until the Opera House staff could figure out why exactly the fire alarms had gone off.
Once it was determined that the theater's fire detection system had been set off by accident, the alarms were quickly silenced and the audience was then allowed to use the Opera House's elevators. Which is how John was finally able to reach his seat in the balcony.
However, as a direct result of this technical glitch, the first public performance of Disney's new stage version of "The Little Mermaid" didn't get underway on time. At around 8:10 p.m., Thomas Schumacher (i.e. President of Disney Theatrical) stepped out in front of the curtain and -- after welcoming everyone to that night's performance -- then warned all those in the auditorium that they should expect some technical difficulties that evening. That (to put it bluntly) "The Little Mermaid" had yet to make it through an entire performance without some set piece or a prop malfunctioning. Schumacher then asked in advance for the audience's patience & understanding. He then disappeared behind the curtaind and "Mermaid" 's first public performance officially got underway.
As it turns out, Thomas didn't actually have to ask for the audience's indulgence. For last Thursday night -- for the first time, evidently -- all of the "Little Mermaid" 's elaborate set pieces (Take -- for example -- the full-sized version of Prince Eric's royal galleon. Which really wowed the audience as it was lowered out of the flies with a full crew on board) worked flawlessly.
As for the show itself, John found the stage version of "The Little Mermaid" to already be a pretty entertaining evening of theater. Sure, there are some areas in the show that obviously already need a little fixing (EX: "Under the Sea." While this musical number was obviously one of the high points of the 1989 animated film, Mumford thought that the stage version of this song fell somewhat flat). But isn't that why Disney Theatrical took this show out-of-town in the first place? So that they'd then have the chance to restage various numbers once they heard the audience's initial reaction to the original staging?
As for the 11 new songs that Academy Award winner Alan Menken & Glenn Slater wrote for "The Little Mermaid" ... Well, according to John, there's at least one hit in the pile. Last Thursday night, the audience reportedly went nuts when they heard "She's in Love." Which is this doo-wop number that Flounder and Ariel's six sisters perform in the first act.
Mumford also liked "Positoovity." Which is another brand-new Menken / Slater song that's used to open the second act. In this broadly comic sequence, Scuttle and his seagull buddies teach the recently detailed Ariel how to use her new human legs. The show's creative team use this number as an excuse to show off Eddie Korbich's tap-dancing ability.
Beyond that, John stressed that "The Little Mermaid" may be the first Disney Theatrical production with real Daddy appeal. Given that all of the mer-women in the chorus have to wear bikini tops and really have to shake their heinies in order to get those artificial mermaid tails to move.
Speaking of moving ... Mumford was also surprised at how quickly this new show zipped along. Even with a 10 minute delay due to those malfunctioning fire alarms as well as a 15 minute intermission, the stage version of Disney's "The Little Mermaid" was over by 10:30 p.m.
Mind you, John had lots of other tidbits to share about this new Disney Theatrical production ... But given that it's not quite kosher to go into great detail about a show that's still in the middle of its out-of-town try-out (Why For? Because stories like that don't really give a new theatrical production's creative team the time & space that they need to make all of the necessary changes to their show), I think that I'll sit on that info for a wee bit longer.
Beyond that ... Well, as you might expect at a Disney Theatrical production, even though the show itself may not be ready for Broadway, the "Little Mermaid" souvenirs were. Mumford reported that the Mouse was selling t-shirts, key chains, pins, bracelets and baseball caps that were emblazoned with the "TLM" logo. They were even selling window card version of the show's poster for its pre-Broadway engagement. Which featured this musical's advertising tagline: "The hardest part of falling in love is taking the first step."
Well, based on what John has told me about the stage version of "The Little Mermaid," this new Disney Theatrical production really had no trouble getting up on its feet this past Thursday night. And while this new musical may have wobbled in spots ... Well, that's why the show's creative team took "TLM" to Denver. So that they could then identify this production's weaknesses and then work to correct.
And with its first public performance now under its belt, Disney's "The Little Mermaid" has taken its first step toward Broadway. Will this show be greeted with enthusiasm when it finally officially open in NYC on December 6th? A lot of that depends on what happens at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House between now and September 9th. As well as what happens to this show once "Mermaid" begins in-town previews at the Lunt-Fontanne on November 3rd.
Anyway ... That's a quick look Disney Theatrical's latest production. Special thanks to John Mumford for sharing his observations of the first public performance of the new stage version of "The Little Mermaid."
As opposed to Tarzan, the answer is yes...this will be a big hit. There's a soft spot that exists in people for The Little Memaid, that I still feel Tarzan didn't have and was therefore an odd choice for a Broadway show.
I think Mermaid is as ingrained in people's minds as a Disney classic as the original classics themselves. Tarzan just wasn't in that class, and obviously...it's gone.
I went to Tarzan more out of curiosity. I'm excited to see Mermaid, just the way I was excited to see Mary Poppins and Lion King And Beauty and the Beast. Can't wait.
The article reflects most of what I've seen on other message boards - the general reaction is positive, but "Under The Sea" has been drawing complaints for being not quite right. Since that's easily the most popular song from the original movie, I'm sure that the creative team will find some way to tweak it.
Here's hoping the musical works well and settles into a long run. Due to being broke and not being anywhere near New York, I've missed the other Disney musicals so far. Maybe I'll be able to catch this one...or if not, maybe they'll will finally bring the Hunchback musical to America. I can dream, right? :¬)
As a theatre lover, and as it's my daily job too, let me say thanks for all these Disney Theatrical articles. I know they don't garner as many comments and stuff as other subjects do... but there are those of us who love this info. Keep it coming.
I have been happy with the few reports that have leaked out re: this show. I too have heard a small grumble re: Under The Sea, but feel very confident that it will be fixed before it opens for real on Broadway. And I count myself one of the men eager to see dancing mermaids!!!!
Thanks too for keeping some info back and protecting a show still in previews.
Thanks for the good info and good work!
My husband and I went to see The Little Mermaid - the musical here in Denver on Sat July 28th, the third night of the run. We went with another couple, and a friend with her 10-year old daughter. As a preface, my husband and I are HUGE Little Mermaid fans, members of N.F.F.C. who venture to the parks at least once or twice a year to meet up with other Arieloholics, lead by Anita Schaengold.
My husband, who is definitely not a wild type, has a 6-inch high tattoo of Ariel on his upper arm. We love the movie, the Voyage of the Little Mermaid show at Disney/MGM Studios and most things Disney. Ariel is my husband’s favorite Disney character and Grumpy is my favorite. We are also seasoned theater-goers who've seen our share of Broadway productions and plays. My husband and I were shaking with excitement like little kids when the curtain lifted on Saturday.
*** SPOILER ALERTS ***
I loved the singing in The Little Mermaid - the musical. Almost every actor has a wonderful and powerful voice. The singing and songs were at final-presentation strength. The actress who plays Ariel is SPOT-ON fabulous in her characterization. She captured Ariel better than I could have imagined. We were up in the Loge section (second balcony), but could still clearly see her subtle and precise fine facial and hand movement details (exactly from the movie) that made me feel like she really understood the Ariel character (and knew that her audience would have people extremely familiar with the movie view of her character). She also was just about the only one who understood to occasionally "sway" or "undulate" her tail to make her seem more mermaid-like. The Kiss the Girl number was primo for the special effects and the big Positoovity number for Scuttle and his friends was fun, fun, fun. Ursula had a few variations on her costume that were neat. The blend of familiar and new songs was great.
That said, from there, I agree with many of John Mumford's other assessments - there are unresolved challenges with costuming, set designs, lighting, acting and consistently fulfilling the illusion of being underwater (having the characters using the wheelies to be fish-like and glide onstage was cool, but not everyone was equally comfortable or prepared to work that detail, so some walked when they should have been rolling). We fully accepted that this is a tryout and that things will be added, removed and modified. That’s why we’re going back to see it two more times before it leaves.
One thing to note is that you have to shift gears from imagining a funky, avant-garde set production like The Lion King and imagine a Broadway musical along more traditional lines. The night we went we didn’t get a pre-show disclaimer that there could be technical difficulties, and there was no one around at the end that we could provide our feedback to (or try to find out what happened on the things that went wrong). Like any other story moved from one format to another, characters were added and dropped and the plot modified to be more theatrical. Our ten-year friend was very disappointed that the dog Max was eliminated from the show.
And we saw some easily-fixable technical difficulties. Sets being removed after the curtain lifted, the Flounder costume seemed minimal if not thrown-together, absence of set pieces in some scenes leading to confusion about story progress. At the show we went to, something went wrong at the very end with the final conflict between Ursula and King Triton and the show finished up with what seemed like a big plot gap. King Triton’s trident (which seemed feeble and flimsy as it was) got broken and the show ended with Triton holding what looked like a two-pronged glittery BBQ fork. The Under the Sea number needs some work to bring it up to the theatricality/creativity of the puppetry of the Voyage of the Little Mermaid attraction, as right now it reminds me more of something I would see at bad Las Vegas showgirl show (yes, I kept picturing the dancers topless and it would have been the same number) and it didn’t play up enough on Howard Ashman’s very clever lyrics (except for one gag). King Triton needs to learn how to use his wheelies to 'swim' across the stage and not walk off all the time. The actor playing King Triton was arrogant when he should have been fatherly, and in general just not “big” enough. Those of us who went couldn’t agree on what should be done to make Triton a physically bigger character (like costuming or hair or stilts). Ursula should camp it up a bit more – she just ever-so-slightly missed the clever (again, straight from Howard Ashman) inflections, enunciations and sarcasm of Pat Carroll’s Ursula from the movie.
But all said, we loved it. As soon as I got home, I bought tickets for another show, in August. Yes, we are addicted to all things Little Mermaid, but this show is so inviting and welcoming and happy-ending that I couldn’t wait until Sept 8th to see it again. And we certainly don't have to pay Broadway prices to see it here!
Thanks so much for your comments- I'm a huge Ariel fan also, and cannot wait to see this production. I'm flying to NYC in Jan to see it from the UK (I have tickets for the 5th)...
Please do let us know how your subsequent viewing of the show fares- I'm sure there'll be mass improvement, from what I've already heard is a very promising musical :)
You're so lucky to be able to see the Denver show again- and so right about the Broadway prices... I don't blame you- see it as often as you can!
I can't help but think they made a mistake not getting Sir Tim Rice to write the lyrics for the new songs as he did with "Aladdin" (forthe film) and "Beauty and the Beast" (for Broadway). Maybe he wasn't available or maybe Menken just wants to work with his new partner, but I think it was a missed opportunity. None of Menken's collaborators have been able to match the work he did with Ashman except for Rice.
I'm a friend of Eddie Korbich, so glad he's good notices as Scuttle. He and his lover Andy have a daughter who's not yet six... guess how many times she's seen this show already??????