It is surprising that the stage adaptation of The Little Mermaid took until January 10, 2008, to open on Broadway. The Little Mermaid, the movie, marked the beginning of a major comeback for the Walt Disney company as a purveyor of animated movie musicals when it appeared in the fall of 1989. The movie studio responsible for Bambi and Dumbo had gone a long time without producing anything in that league, and it wasn't until Jeffrey Katzenberg brought in two talented songwriters from off-Broadway, composer Alan Menken and ...
It is surprising that the stage adaptation of The Little Mermaid took until January 10, 2008, to open on Broadway. The Little Mermaid, the movie, marked the beginning of a major comeback for the Walt Disney company as a purveyor of animated movie musicals when it appeared in the fall of 1989. The movie studio responsible for Bambi and Dumbo had gone a long time without producing anything in that league, and it wasn't until Jeffrey Katzenberg brought in two talented songwriters from off-Broadway, composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, that Disney got back on track with its signature product. It was really Ashman more than Menken who made the duo's work distinctive, as he had with their long-running hit Little Shop of Horrors and did again with such songs as "Part of Your World" and "Under the Sea" in The Little Mermaid. Box-office success followed, along with Oscars for Menken's score and for "Under the Sea" as best song, plus a Grammy for the soundtrack album. Menken and Ashman immediately set to work on a follow-up, Beauty and the Beast, and were on to a third Disney film, Aladdin, when Ashman died of AIDS at the age of 39 on March 14, 1991. Disney began its commercially successful, but largely critically derided conquest of Broadway in 1994 with a stage adaptation of Beauty and the Beast (with some new lyrics by Tim Rice), and has followed with The Lion King, Aida, Tarzan, and Mary Poppins. The obvious problem with bringing The Little Mermaid to the stage was the same one encountered with Beauty and the Beast: the movie had only seven songs ("Under the Sea," "Kiss the Girl," "Part of Your World," "Poor Souls," "Les Poissons," "Fathoms Below," and "Daughters of Triton"), which, for Broadway, constitutes less than half of a score, and, of course, Ashman was not available to write more. There are a lot of lyricists out there, but not many who possess Ashman's combination of sharp wit and warm sentiment.Enter Glenn Slater, winner of the 2000 ASCAP Foundation Richard Rodgers Award for promising young musical theater composers, who collaborated with Menken on the 2004 film Home on the Range. Slater has teamed with Menken for ten additional songs that both elaborate on and update the characters and storyline of The Little Mermaid. Unlike, for example, Rice, whose work bore no resemblance to Ashman's in Beauty and the Beast, Slater's suitability for stepping into Ashman's shoes seems to be that he can be witty, if in a slangy way. Terms like "my bad" and "whatever" that drifted into the vernacular some time in the 1990s turn up, along with a lot of ocean-altered clichés -- "up to her gills," "on sandbar nine," "disappear into thin water," etc. This is not up to Ashman's standard, but Slater does an efficient enough job on the pastiche-like rhythm tunes, particularly the villain Ursula's "I want" song, "I Want the Good Times Back," and the girl group parody "She's in Love." He is less effective when writing a ballad like "Her Voice," sung by the prince who is the inevitable love object in the by-the-numbers plot.So, the score is a mixed bag. It is performed by an adequate cast led by Sierra Boggess as Ariel, the title character, with Sherie René Scott getting to ham it up as Ursula and Tituss Burgess taking the Jamaica-tinged "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl." The result is a more successful conversion to the stage than the Disney Theatricals division managed with Beauty and the Beast (that is, critically speaking; as a financial venture, Beauty and the Beast was very successful, indeed). To show music fans (as opposed to youthful tourists), it probably will be one more opportunity to mourn the loss of Ashman, who has proved to be irreplaceable. ~ William Ruhlmann, Rovi