(September 24, 2007)

Meet the Mermaid: Sierra Boggess

This is the second installment in the “Broadway Bound” series looking at “The Little Mermaid.”

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

When she saw the movie “The Little Mermaid” in 1989, 7-year-old Sierra Boggess was like nearly every other girl her age: She wanted to be Princess Ariel.


Now, at 25, the Denver native is Princess Ariel  -- or will be --  eight shows a week at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway. Previews begin Nov. 3 for a Dec. 6 opening.


Most girls outgrow that want-to-be-Princess-Ariel phase. Boggess (pronounced BOG-iss) took it to a whole new level.


When she got older, Boggess wanted to be like Jodi Benson, the woman who sang the role of Ariel in the movie. She went to the same college Benson did: Millikin University in Decatur, Ill. (Boggess’ mom earned her zoology degree at Millikin and her grandmother a teaching degree there.)


Two mermaids from the same landlocked school 800 miles from the sea?


“Decatur, the soybean capital of the world. Who knew?” Boggess says with a laugh.


“I remember being obsessed with Jodi’s voice because I couldn’t find where the break was in her voice, where she went from her belting voice to her legit,” she says. “When I met Jodi, when she came to Denver for a concert, I was like, ‘I’m going to Millikin because of you, because I knew you graduated from there and your voice is amazing.’”


Soon, outside the Lunt-Fontanne on West 46th Street, little girls will be lining up to get a glimpse of Boggess. Is she ready for that?


“I got a little taste of it in Denver” this summer during the seven-week pre-Broadway tryout at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Boggess’ hometown.


“We had people lined up at the stage door every night,” she says.“PR people in Denver say that never happens. It’s not the same as New York in that way.”


Then again, how often does a mermaid come to life on stage?


“The Little Mermaid” stars Boggess as Ariel, Norm Lewis (“Les Miserables”) as King Triton, Sherie Rene Scott (“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”) as the wicked sea witch Ursula, Sean Palmer (“The Apple Tree”) as Prince Eric, and Tituss Burgess (“Jersey Boys”) as Sebastian the crab.


Director Francesca Zambello creates an undersea kingdom where performers don’t swim as much as glide. To make their movements fluid, choreographer Stephen Mear (“Mary Poppins”) puts the cast in Heelies, sneakers with a wheel in the heel.


“We’re constantly in Heelies,”Boggess says.  “When we go to rehearsal, the first thing we do is to put them on. Stephen wore them for a month to figure out what we could do in them.”


There are a dozen new songs from composer Alan Menken, a New Rochelle native who now makes his home in northern Westchester.


“Alan Menken is so incredible,” Boggess says.  “The new songs he’s written flow seamlessly from the ones he wrote years ago to these new ones and people love the new ones as well. You don’t even know where the movie left off and he began again.


“It’s ‘The Little Mermaid.’ We don’t want that messed with, because we love it so much,’” she says protectively. \“And he does justice to his own movie.”


Based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of a mermaid who dreams of trading her tail for legs and joining the human world,  “The Little Mermaid” won Menken two Oscars --for best original score and for best original song (“Under the Sea”), an award shared with his longtime collaborator Howard Ashman, who died in 1991.


Boggess says the new songs, with lyrics by Glenn Slater, add dimension to key characters who didn’t sing in the original film. Ariel’s friend Scuttle, the sea gull who was voiced by Buddy Hackett in the movie, is played by Eddie Korbich (“The Drowsy Chaperone”).


“He has two new songs written for him and they’re so funny and they set his character up so well,” the actress says. “Scuttle is one of my favorite characters because he’s so positive and he’s not really all there.”


Boggess and her sisters -- Summer and Allegra (“our parents were hippies”) -- never much cared for Prince Eric, the object of Ariel’s affections.


“What they’ve done with Prince Eric for the show is made him much more human and so much more believable as a guy that Ariel would fall in love with,” she says.“Now, when we get to the second act, I’m like, ‘Yes! I get to fall in love with my prince now!”


Then there’s the song.


“He has one of the most beautiful new songs in the show,” Boggess says.“It’s called ‘Her Voice’ and he sings it in the first act after I’ve rescued him.


“The other day, I was watching him from the wings when he sang it and I turned to Eddie and I said ‘Eddie! That is my prince!’”


Some might look at Ariel as a girl who chases a boy. Boggess takes a longer view.


“She’s a universal character, but she’s such an independent woman and, even though the second act is about getting the prince, I think it’s more about getting to where she belongs and not being afraid to break out of the mold of her family. I’ve always had that spirit with me.


“The fact that she’s 16 years old, it’s kind of fun and wonderful that I can go back to that place in my life when I was 16 and really yearning to be someplace else and wondering what else was out there. So I get to walk my 16-year-old self through this,” she says.


Where was that 16-year-old yearning to be?


“Broadway was always what I wanted to do,” she says without hesitation.  “I never wanted to be a movie star. It was always singing and dancing on Broadway.”


She played Christine in “Phantom of the Opera” in Las Vegas, opposite Brent Barrett, and understudied the role of Cosette in the national tour of “Les Miserables,” alternating with Pleasantville’s Ali Ewoldt, who now plays Cosette on Broadway.


Soon enough, Boggess will be part of the Broadway world.


“The best compliment I get is when people say that I’m doing her justice,” she says. “I want to do her justice because I believe in her.”


Then Boggess stops and shouts,“Isn’t that so weird? She’s not real, but she is.”


Boggess knows that part of Broadway is facing the critics. Is she nervous that Ariel will be like chum in a sea of sharks?


“The best advice I’ve gotten is not to read reviews and I don’t think I could read them,” she says. “I love Ariel so much and I don’t want to see her put through that.”