(November 4, 2007)

A Long Trip Back to “Mermaid”

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

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

Last night, a little mermaid named Ariel was set to take her first steps on Broadway, as previews began for "The Little Mermaid" at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.

What is one giant leap for Mer-kind - in the person of newcomer Sierra Boggess - is just one small step in a process that began years ago for Alan Menken, the New Rochelle native who composed the Oscar-winning score for the 1989 film on which the show is based. Menken, who now lives in northern Westchester, has written 10 new songs for the Broadway adaptation.

"It's extremely rich now," Menken says. "With the film, we were working in a form where it was safe to say, 'Here's the boy. Here's the girl. Let them fall in love. OK, and let's move past that because we only have 70 minutes to tell the story.' But now, obviously, in this medium, we need to really give it dramatic and structural support."

Elements of the 70-minute film have been expanded for the stage and re-imagined by opera director Francesca Zambello and a creative team that includes Menken, book writer Doug Wright ("Grey Gardens"), choreographer Stephen Mear ("Mary Poppins") and lyricist Glenn Slater.

Slater's lyrics add to the work done for the film by longtime Menken collaborator Howard Ashman, who died in 1991.

Ashman and Menken were credited with sparking the renaissance of Disney animation with their musical retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen story of a mermaid who dreams of living on land. Their snappy songs and clever lyrics won them the best-song Oscar for "Under the Sea," and the score won Menken the first of eight Oscars.

A lot has happened in the 18 years since the release of "The Little Mermaid."

"When I first wrote this, Anna was just born and up to about 4 years old," Menken says. "And Nora was just born. So when I was writing this I had my two little girls, my Ariels, and I was watching classics that were on VHS for the first time and watching them and experiencing them with my girls.

"Howard was ill and we didn't know it," he says. "We were losing a lot of artists who were close to us. And we didn't know what this AIDS thing would be.

"I remember watching these animated features with my daughters in a very uncertain world - you're especially sensitized when your kids are young - and escaping into them. Flash forward, and I'm doing it on the Broadway stage and my Ariels are getting their sea legs and taking off. I think about them every day and I worry about them every day. I feel the parallels of the show in a very personal way."

The story is a Faustian bargain, not unlike the story of Menken and Ashman's first big success, "Little Shop of Horrors." A mermaid named Ariel dreams of being part of the human world and makes a deal with the seawitch Ursula, whereby she'll give up her voice if the man she loves doesn't kiss her by an agreed-upon time.

Did Menken fear that a little mermaid would get lost on a big Broadway stage, in a sea of sets and costumes?

"It's a matter of sensibility, not size, I think," he says. " 'Little Shop' was a trashy, tacky, Off-Broadway musical. That's what fueled it. That's what it was all about.

"Does 'Little Mermaid' belong on Broadway? Broadway is a very malleable concept, I think. You have 'Spring Awakening' on Broadway and you had 'Grey Gardens' on Broadway. Broadway is a pretty wide palette. We want to keep the intimacy, sure. But the little mermaid grew up when she became a big, animated classic. It's hard to go home again."

But Menken had no problem digging into the material and identifying moments to add, to enlarge the story and make it richer.

"One of the first things we did was to write the song for Prince Eric. And the moment that cried out for him to sing was when he's standing by the beach and in the movie he's playing the recorder looking longingly out at the sea.

"It became a song called 'Her Voice.' It's a really nuanced ballad, very adult. It gives a sense of his passion and the fact that he's haunted by Ariel. We never could have put that in an animated picture. The fact that we can do that is because we're on a Broadway stage."

If it's more adult at times, there are still the elements that audiences - including those who watched videotapes with their dads when they were 7 - will demand. Menken says the audience's familiarity with the material has its pluses and minuses.

"The plus is that people come in dying to hear 'Under the Sea' and 'Part of Your World,' and 'Les Poissons' and 'Poor Unfortunate Souls' and all the original songs. The minus is 'They changed that' or 'Where's this?'

"But judging from the Denver audience, that's not a big issue. They're enjoying the surprises."

Surprises like singing seagulls. In the film, Ariel's pal Scuttle didn't sing. Here, he has two songs.

"Is it dramatically significant to have Scuttle sing? No," Menken says. "But when Scuttle's talking about human stuff, it's a very good moment in the show to have this kind of vaudeville turn for him."

What key does a seagull sing in?

"The key of Q," Menken replies.

There are other new songs, too: a big Act 1 production number called "She's in Love," performed by Flounder and Ariel's sisters; and a number to start Act 2, sung by Scuttle and the other seagulls, called "Positoovity" - about thinking positive - "but of course he fractures all the language."

Another surprise is how the characters move when they're in the undersea realm. No water is used. Instead, the actors don Heelies, shoes with a wheel in the heel, to glide like they're swimming.

Menken, who has heard his songs sung by some of the finest voices, cannot seem to say enough about Sherie René Scott, who plays Ursula.

"She brings the house down, but she could bring the house down with 'Three Blind Mice'," he says.

He has said he writes songs for characters, not for actors, but "I came as close with Sherie as I've ever come to writing a song for a performer. She's that good."

Scott's big number is "I Want the Good Times Back," in which she bemoans how things used to be when she was on top and how she'll take her revenge on King Triton, Ariel's father (played by Norm Lewis).

"You'd think it would be a plot song, but Sherie turns it into this great performance tour de force and carries it to the back wall of the theater," Menken says. "I've heard people do justice to my songs before, but Sherie is quite an extraordinary performer."

Even with the new Broadway elements, Menken says, "it's still about this girl who wants to find her own way in the world and makes sacrifices that are potentially lethal and frightening to do that. In the end, her passion is rewarded."

Menken says that Disney Theatricals boss Thomas Schumacher insisted that the musical go into its Denver tryout in the best shape possible, keeping writing changes to a minimum.

"We've rewritten a huge amount, believe me," Menken says, "but it's much much less than it would have been."

Still, the composer is sure there'll be changes now that the show is starting a month of previews on Broadway before opening Dec. 6. "How do you put a show in front of a New York audience and not say 'Oh, what about that?' or 'Let's work on that?'

"I hope we're going to have rabidly enthusiastic audiences and I expect that, if they're anything like Denver, they'll be incredibly supportive and enthusiastic," he says. "But we still have things we'll learn in previews.

"Still, it's close. It's extremely close."