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"From the Deep Blue Sea to the Great White Way" charts Ariel's journey to Broadway

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"From the Deep Blue Sea to the Great White Way" charts Ariel's journey to Broadway

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It’s the Hans Christian Andersen story that Walt Disney almost put into production back in the 1940s (as part of a live action / animated co-production with Samuel Goldwyn).

Little Mermaid on Broadway concept painting
This is one of Kay Nielsen's Little Mermaid concept paintings for
that aborted Hans Christian Andersen feature from the 1940s

Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

It’s also the story that helped launch the second golden age of Disney animation. More importantly, it convinced Mouse House execs that there were millions to be made off of the sales of Disney Princess merchandise.

Little Mermaid animated movie voice cast
The vocal cast for the “Little Mermaid” animated feature smiles for the camera.
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

And now the Little Mermaid has made her way to Broadway. Journeying from the deep blue sea to the Great White Way.

Little Mermaid book cover
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

Which – appropriately enough – is the subtitle of Michael Lassell’s latest book, “The Little Mermaid: From the Deep Blue Sea to the Great White Way” (Disney Editions, May 2009). Which does a superb job of explaining how this Academy Award-winning animated feature was translated to the stage.

Of course, given that this is the fifth making-of book that Lassell has written about Disney Theatrical productions, the Mouse trusts Michael implicitly at this point. Which is why they granted him almost unlimited access when it came to the stage version of “The Little Mermaid.”

“I went to the very first rehearsal of this show back in 2005,” Lassell recalled. “My technique – when I’m working on a book like this – is that I’m a fly on the wall. I sit, I watch and – during breaks – I grab quick interviews.”

This is how Michael was able to be on hand when the photo below was taken. As the production team was trying to get a handle on Ariel’s tail. Deciding how much was too much, if you catch my drift.

Little Mermaid on Broadway mermaid tail test
Photo by Joan Marcus. Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

“That’s the real challenge with a show like this,” Lassell continued. “You have to deliver on audience expectations. They’re going to want to see certain things that they remember from the movie. While at the same time, you have to interpret & expand that material so that this story then works for the stage.”

That’s why Michael feels that Disney Theatrical is lucky to have Thomas Schumacher as its president. Having spent the early part of his career working at the Mark Taper Forum in LA, Schumacher isn’t afraid of experimental theater.  His background is more avant-garde than mainstream. Which is why Thomas has no problem with handing some of Disney’s best known tales off to visionary directors like Julie Taymor and Francesca Zambello to interpret for the stage.

Mind you, Schumacher’s equally fearless when it comes to these Disney Theatrical making-of books.

“Tom encourages me to write what I want,” Lassell said. “Over the past four books, he has asked me to remove almost nothing. Tom is a grown-up. He just wants a book that honestly chronicles how the show came together.”

Little Mermaid on Broadway Ursula rehearsal
(L to R) Stephen Mears teaches Derrick Baskin, Sherie Rene Scott
and Tyler Maynard some new steps.
Photo by Joan Marcus.
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

Which means sometimes capturing the sillier aspects of show business. Like how Sherie Rene Scott used to amuse herself between the matinee & evening performances of “The Little Mermaid.” Which was to go out on the balcony of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre (while still wearing her Ursula wig & make-up) and sing “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” to the tourists scurrying by below on 46th Street.

Given that Sherie had previously been interviewed by Michael for “Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida: The Making of the Broadway Musical ,” Scott trusted Lassell too. Which is why this Broadway vet was comfortable enough with the “Little Mermaid” author to reveal that Disney Theatrical Productions is open to the idea of the role of Ursula the Sea Witch someday being played by a man.

“Of course, that ties back to the original ‘Little Mermaid’ movie, where much of the inspiration for Ursula was drawn from Divine,” Michael explained.”And that was because Howard Ashman was a big fan of John Waters’ movies. Which – given that they were both Baltimore boys – wasn’t really a surprise.”

That’s what’s really great about “The Little Mermaid: From the Deep Blue Sea to the Great White Way.” Lassell gives you a front row seat as this show struggles to its feet. And thanks to  the hundreds of photographs that you’ll find in this 176-page hardcover, you can watch the cast move from working with bare-bones sets in the rehearsal hall …

Little Mermaid on Broadway Grotto test
Sierra Boggess in her practice grotto at the 42nd Street Studios
Photo by Joan Marcus. Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

… to the beautiful, finished, polished sets & costumes that you’ll find on Broadway today.

Little Mermaid on Broadway Ariel in Grotto
Sierra Boggess in the stage version of Ariel's grotto at
the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Photo by Joan Marcus
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

Mind you, it’s not all glitz & glamour at the Lunt-Fontanne. Michael reveals that there is so little room available in the wings of this 99-year-old theater that the sea horse  costumes (when they’re not in use, that is) have to be stored in the little bathroom next to the stage door entrance.

Little Mermaid on Broadway backstage
The stage left corridor at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, jammed full of
costumes & props used during performances of "The Little Mermaid"

Photo by Randy Meyer. Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

Now – you’d think – what with having to watch “The Little Mermaid” over & over again as he was doing the research for this new Disney Theatrical making-of book that Lassell would have grown bored with this particular Broadway show by now. But that isn’t really the case.

“What with attending the first rehearsal and all, I’ve probably seen ‘The Little Mermaid’ as a whole 20 times or more now. Individual pieces of this show, I’ve seen hundreds of times,” Michael concluded. “But in all that time, I’ve never been bored. It’s such an entertaining show.”

And “The Little Mermaid: From the Deep Blue Sea to the Great White Way” is an entertaining & informative book. If you’d like to learn how exactly this acclaimed animated feature successfully transitioned from screen to stage, then I urge you to pick up a copy of Michael Lassell’s latest Disney Theatrical making-of book.

Little Mermaid animated movie 20th reunion

And speaking of "The Little Mermaid" ... Don't forget that ASIFA-Hollywood will be hosting a "Little Mermaid" 20th anniversary reunion at Woodbury University tomorrow night. And among the Disney animation veterans who are expected to take part in this panel discussion are the film's writers / directors Ron Clements & John Musker, Andreas Deja, Mark Henn, Ruben Aquino, Duncan Majoribanks and Tina Price. This one-time-only event will be held in the Fletcher Jones Foundation Auditorium starting at 7 p.m. with Tom Sito serving as the panel's moderator.

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