It took the stage version of Disney's "The Little
Mermaid" quite a while to finally find its sea legs.
When the original Broadway production opened at the
Lunt-Fontanne Theater back in January of 2008, the critics were not kind. Ben
Brantley of the New York Times was particularly vicious, calling
"Mermaid" an " ... unfocused spectacle" which saddled its
cast with " ... ungainly guess-what-I-am costumes" and then forced
them to perform in front of " ... a distracting set."
So when the Broadway version of "The Little
Mermaid" closed on August 30, 2009 after a relatively short run of just 50
previews & 685 performances, the general consensus seemed to be that it was
this show's creative decisions (EX: That most of "Mermaid" 's sets
would be made out of translucent plastic. Or -- in order to simulate swimming
-- the bulk of the cast would skate around the stage on Heelys) that had sunk
the show. Given that the audience still walked out humming the tunes that Alan
Menken & Howard Ashman had originally written for Disney's 1989 animated
feature ... Well, pundits placed the blame for "Mermaid" 's misfire
on first-time-Broadway-director Francesca Zambello. Who had taken what should
have been a hugely successful screen-to-stage transfer and then muddied the
water with a lot of operatic artifice.
The original Broadway company of Disney's "The LittleMermaid." Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.All rights reserved
Enter Glenn Casale. Who -- thanks to a production of Disney's
"Beauty and the Beast" that he staged up in Boston back in 2004 which
then put a dark, romantic spin on this family musical -- had become Disney
Theatrical's go-to guy when it came to reinventing / reimagining their shows.
And given that the original Broadway version of "Mermaid" had tanked so
spectacularly (which meant that Disney Theatrical then couldn't really send a
clone of this show out on the road for a promised national tour), Glenn was
given free rein to reinvent this show for its Dutch production. Which opened in
May of 2012 at Martini Plaza
And Glen did in fact radically reimagine the stage version
of "The Little Mermaid." Casale not only ditched the bulk of
Zambello's design conceits, he also made significant changes to this show's
book and score. Doing things like tossing out Ursula's original introductory
song, "I Want the Good Times Back," to make room for a new number,
"Daddy's Little Angel." Which did a far better job of setting up the
Sea Witch's back story / giving Ursula a far better reason to want to go after
King Triton (SPOILER ALERT: In the stage musical version of "Mermaid,"
Triton & Ursula are brother & sister. And as the children of Poseidon,
God of the Sea ... Well, Triton was the one who was ultimately chosen to rule
the waves. Which left Ursula with some pretty significant Daddy issues).
Glenn also ditched all of the Heelys that the Broadway cast
of "Mermaid" had worn. This time around, if any undersea creatures
needed to swim, they were flown around & above the stage via wirework.
These seemingly simple choices -- though they make look small -- resulted in a far more satisfying, much more
popular stage version of "Mermaid." So much so that the original cast
recording for the Dutch version of this musical (which was produced by Stage
Entertainment) actually wound up as the No. 3 best selling recording on that
country's Album Top 100 chart back in 2012.
Ariel sports an unusual hairdo in the Dutch company of Disney's "The Little Mermaid."
Which -- you'd think -- would then be the end of Casale's
involvement with the reinvention of the stage version of Disney's "The
Little Mermaid." But that's where you'd be wrong. For in July of that same
year, Glenn was hired by California Musical Theatre to direct yet another
production of this show. And this time around, "Mermaid" was to be
presented in the round.
Casale made further refinements to "Mermaid" as he
worked with the cast at Sacramento's
Wells Fargo Pavilion. And the Music Circus production of this show was so well
received that -- less than a year later -- Glenn found himself at the Paper Mill
Playhouse in Millburn, NJ.
Where he then directed a production of "The Little Mermaid" which
went off on a mini-tour, spending May 29th - June 30th in New
Jersey, July 9th - 21st at the Pittsburgh Civic Light
Opera and July 22rd - 28th at the Kansas City Starlight.
And the best part of this story is that all of the big
changes & small tweaks that Glenn Casale has made to "The Little
Mermaid" have now been incorporated in the official version of this show
that Disney Theatrical licenses for regional & professional productions. So
from here in on, if you see a stage version of Disney's "The Little
Mermaid," it's not the Francesca Zambello version. You're seeing the
"Mermaid" that Glenn cobbled together after mounting multiple
productions of this show. And this version of "Mermaid" actually plays
down the idea that Ariel is some Disney Princess and instead makes this
character a young girl who is different from the rest of her family. And to
further complicate this situation / make this musical more relatable to modern
audiences, the show then saddles Ariel with a single father who really doesn't
understand her wants & desires.
The cast of the Papermill Playhouse production of Disney's "The Little Mermaid"gathers onstage to see Ariel & Prince Eric off as they sail into the sunset.
That seemingly simple readjustment of this musical's central
story point -- making "The Little Mermaid" less about Ariel longing
to be with Prince Eric and more about King Triton and his headstrong daughter.
More importantly, how he learns to understand Ariel and finally support her
dreams -- has made a world of difference when it comes to the way audiences now
react to the stage version of "Mermaid." "Fathers now come up to
me after the show and tell me how moved they were," Casale admitted during a
Sadly, all of the changes that Glenn made to "The Little
Mermaid" have not made the stage version of this Academy Award-winning
Disney film any easier to produce. Take -- for example -- what Bill Hanney, the
owner of the North Shore Music Theater in Beverly,
MA had to go through once he decided to do
this show part of that theater's Summer 2014 season.
"'Mermaid' was a big production for us. And given that
we do all of our shows here at North Shore
in the round, we don't have the luxury that most proscenium theaters do. We
can't use huge sets or props to set the stage, create Ariel's world. Otherwise
half of our audience wouldn't be able to see this show," Hanney explained.
"Which is why -- for our version of 'The Little Mermaid' -- we decided to
go all out on the costumes. Show the audience all of the fanciful &
colorful sea creatures that are Ariel's friends. Kurt Algar designed some
amazing outfits for this show. Which especially look great when we're flying
Ariel & Scuttle right above the heads of our audience. And then when you
factor in Howard C. Jones's clever sets ... Well, I guess that I like best
about our version of 'The Little Mermaid' is that the story is front and
The North Shore Music Theater's in-the-round production of Disney's "The Little Mermaid"uses elaborate costumes & lighting effects to make up for the spare scenery.
And clearly the critics up in Massachusetts
approve of what Hanney and his team have done with "The Little
Mermaid." The Boston Globe called this North Shore Music Theater
production " ... an engaging adaptation of the beloved film" while
Wicked Local said that this show was " ... a visual and vocal feast."
Mind you, if you miss out on the North Shore Music Theater's production of
"The Little Mermaid" (which presents its last performance on July
27th), not to worry. Thanks to Glenn Casale's hard work, there are versions of
this once-troubled Disney Theatrical production popping up all over the country
this year. In fact, yet another Glenn Casale-directed version was presented at Atlanta's
Fox Theatre earlier this month. And the Tuacahn
Center for the Arts' 2011
production of this show proved to be so popular with Utah
residents that -- just three short years later -- this theater brought "Mermaid"
back and is presenting performances now through October 18th.
Of course, the version of this show that's currently being
presented at the Tuacahn Amphitheatre is the one that Casale course-corrected.
As was the version of "Mermaid" which recently closed in Moscow
at the Rossiya Theatre. Not to mention the Japanese production which is still
running at the Shiki Theatre Natsu in Tokyo.
The Japanese production of "The Little Mermaid" borrowed many of the design conceits & costume ideas from the Dutch production of this Disney musical.
So on behalf of all the Ariel fans out there, I'd like to
thank Glenn Casale for helping "The Little Mermaid" to finally find
her feet after this show stumbled on Broadway.
This story originally appeared on the Huffington Post's Entertainment page on July 23, 2014
Wow. Great article. Unfortunately for myself, I'm all burnt out from The Little Mermaid. Having done the Disney cruise, "Under The Sea" was played in constant rotation. I'm also burnt out from The Lion King and Aladdin. Perhaps Disney have succeeded in its wildest imagination in promoting its classics. Its time to Let It Go.
Well, I saw the regional premiere of the show in my area, and it was still an awful mess. It turned a beautiful, universally appealing animated musical into a garish, cheesy children's show. The big reveal (your spoiler) is so cheesy, it made my skin crawl. I sat beside people who had never seen the movie, and as bored as they were during the show, I wanted to plead with them to try watching the movie just to give them an idea of what had been.
Ultimately, The Little Mermaid needs a new libretto and a major reworking of the majority of the new lyrics in order to make it worthwhile.