PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Little Mermaid Starfish Express

By Harry Haun
January 11, 2008

Wet was the operative word Jan. 10 when The Little Mermaid made her spectacularly big splash on the Main Stem.



But the waterworks were restricted to the stage of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre where, for the fifth time, a Disney film through some very expensive and industrious mouse-made magic turned into a Broadway musical.

Even the promised downpour was reduced to a drizzle that lightly peppered the first-nighters theatrical top-tier types and assorted stars, conspicuously as they made their way five blocks up Broadway to the elaborate afterparty at Roseland. And, at party's end, even the reluctant drizzle had fizzled. "Disney-dust," explained one of the revelers.

Uncle Walt's elves led by three brand-new recruits from the field of opera (director Francesca Zambello, set designer George Tsypin and costume designer Tatiana Noginova) worked overtime to push the boundaries of the stage into a new dimension.

The curtain rises on a 19th century whaling ship manned by a manly assortment of human hearties, and, after a boisterous opening number ("Fathoms Below"), the vessel sails away not into the sunset but upwards into the rafters and the sea level rises with it until the entire stage is engulfed in a watery wonderland, putting the audience (as the show's Oscar-winning song goes) "Under the Sea." You have magically arrived in Subterrania, where an aquacade of characters glides swimmingly across the stage on wheeled Heelys.

"Under the Sea" was the one Oscar lyricist Howard Ashman personally received. He died of AIDS, at age 40, nine days before he was cited a second time for "Beauty and the Beast." His writing partner, composer Alan Menken, went on to win eight Oscars and has expanded his original score with ten new songs, lyricked by Glenn Slater. Headed for Broadway are two more movies they've musicalized: Leap of Faith and Sister Act.

The Little Mermaid has grown exponentially with every media move from four pages of Hans Christian Andersen to 83 minutes of film animation in 1989 to a two and a half hour musical extravaganza. On Broadway, Doug Wright was tapped to tell the tail of Ariel, who cuts a deal with a sea witch to swap her fins for feet so she could live and love among humans.

Standing out among the first-class assortment of first-nighters who filed into the theatre were two actresses who voiced those combative characters in the feature-length cartoon almost two decades ago Jodi Benson, the angelic Ariel, and Pat Carroll, the awful Ursula.

Benson was not surprised by the Broadway reincarnation of her film: "I knew that we were talking about it for the last ten years. I am thrilled to finally be here and share this with my family." That would be McKinley, 9; Delaney, 6, and husband Ray Benson.

"I did a strange thing. When I married Ray, I took his last name professionally. Is that bizarre? It was Marvin Hamlisch who made me do that. It was the show here at this theatre Smile that made me change my name to my husband's name. We just got married right before the show opened. Marvin said, 'Change that name. I can't spell your real name.' This is where 'Mermaid' started for me, at this theatre. Howard wrote and directed Smile." Not only is she resolutely relocated to Los Angeles, "This is my first Broadway show I've seen since I was in Crazy for You." But she still leaves the door ajar for any offers.

When the two Ariels collided later in the evening in the Roseland press area, before the pleased paparazzi, both cried for happy. "All we wanted to do was hug each other," said this year's Ariel, Sierra Boggess, who makes her Broadway bow in the title role. "It was just so cool. She's so sweet. She said, 'My eyes are red from crying all night.' I can't imagine what it must have been like for her to watch this story done all these years later."

Benson found it be "a pretty overwhelming event. You just relive every moment, every nuance. I liked everything that they added to it, and I love the new music. It's fantastic."

Those were not the only tears Boggess shed that evening. She broke down when she came out for the curtain call to the tune of her big ballad in the show. It happens nightly, she said.

"I have this thing about when the music changes for the final bow for the final character. It was choreographed that when the music changes to 'Part of Your World' when I bow, it makes me cry every night. Ever since I was little, that has been a theme I've had."

In a gown by Calvin Klein, with necklace, bracelet and earrings by Verdura, she looked very much a princess off-stage and she was well-aware that a whole generation of young girls would hold her up as a heroine. "I do realize that. It's still really surreal. People were asking me, 'How does it feel that you were cast?' and 'This could be your Broadway debut,' and now that it's happening I still feel that I'm waiting for it because I just can't believe that it has actually happened. Maybe tomorrow, when I wake up . . ."

Not that she doesn't fully realize that she has paid her way. "It is definitely the hardest work that I've ever done in a show. I never get a break on stage. I'm doing stuff on Heelys which is a completely different way of moving. It's almost like a 150-minute workout, and also, the physical stuff that I do in the second act because I don't have a voice it's a lot of work, but it's so much fun at the same time. I'm working really hard."

Carroll is best remembered for her one-woman show, Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein. "It's still my favorite. You don't do that hard work without remembering the great joy. In 1999 I did Electra on Broadway with Zoe Wanamaker, and that was my last appearance in New York, but I continue working in films. I think, for an old gal, that I'm doing okay."

The broad-stroked villainous waves she made for Ariel is another happy memory. Ursula is the underwater version of Cruella De Vil, an octopus with eight undulating tentacles. "It's a wonderful film, and I think it will last. As my kid said, 'Mother, no matter what you've done in the theatre or elsewhere, your great-great-grandchildren will be able to see this.' I said, 'Yes, and they'll think their great-great-grandmother was a squid.'"

The role has been radically reconceptualized for the stage from a braying, Sherman tank matron into a curvaceous, cunning siren, played with obvious relish by Sherie Rene Scott. "It has been changed, but it would have to be for this theatre because you can do with a drawing hand what you can't do in live theatre," reasoned Carroll. "It's impossible. I'm anxious to see the technical aspects of making an ocean now, that's exciting."

Scott has always been one for working the costume, but even she had to admit that her elaborate octopus attire tops her fashion-show sequence from Aida. "Bob Crowley is a genius there's no doubt about that but I only think in terms of costume changes, and in this show, they're weighty, but I don't have to change costumes a lot. And that's great. This is maybe the biggest we've got to research this but I believe it may be the biggest costume ever on Broadway. Yet they made it so functional and so fun. Evil must be invigorating. I dunno, but it seems to be for me."

Certainly she takes a delicious leap off the highboard into Ursula's bubbling vat of villainy. "I like that she's honest. She's titled herself 'an evil sea witch' so she lays it right out there, and yet she still gets people. And I like that she loves herself. Usually you get evil people that are self-loathing, and she just loves all of her sexy grotesqueness."

Ursula's slimy attendants, a pair of ocean-bottom crawlers named Flotsam and Jetsam, are played by Altar Boyz's Tyler Maynard and Spelling Bee's Derrick Baskin. They slither around her feet in a green get-up lined with light bulbs that turn on in moments of stress. How is it to get into those costumes? "Tricky," attested Maynard. "They're tighter than they look." And very cumbersome to get around in backstage. But they don't rate a life-size board to rest on between scenes like Mrs. Potts. "They actually hang us by our feet and then lower us to the floor when we have to go on," Maynard solemnly insisted.

A third cast-member from the original film Samuel E. Wright was promised but never showed. Tituss Burgess scores big in Wright's role the calypso-driven crab, Sebastian and has inherited what is still the show's two best songs, "Under the Sea" and his musical matchmaking of Ariel and the slow-to-act Prince Eric, "Kiss the Girl."

Burgess, who stepped up to the plate from relatively modest roles in Good Vibrations and Jersey Boys, hits homers and is grateful for the opportunity. "It feels like a great gift, as if Howard Ashman and Alan Menken had said, 'Hey, buddy, you're the guy we want to do this.' Every night I feel humbled by it. I feel such an obligation to treat it with respect and take care of myself so I can present it in its most honest, living-and-breathing manner."

What's hardest thing for him to do? "Shutting up. I do a lot of speaking and singing in the show, and, when I get home, I still want to run my mouth. I have to tell myself, 'I've got to be quiet.' My speaking voice is a lower register so I have to make sure I won't hurt it. This exhilarates and exhausts me. I wish I had the words to describe the feeling I get."

A seasoned scene-stealer, Eddie Korbich is very much in his element as Scuttle the tap-dancing seagull. "I've got a real good song in act one ('Human Stuff') and then a dynamite tap-dance in act two ('Positoovity'), and I thank Alan Menken and Glenn Slater for those." The character also sits well with him. "He's like a goofy old uncle who says he knows everything and gets everything wrong, and he's lovable that's who I want to be."

In the thankless slot of Ariel's on-shore-and-human love interest, Prince Eric, Sean Palmer felt he had benefited considerably from the rate of exchange from screen to stage.

"What I like most about my character is they've developed the story," he said. "Eric was sort of a flail in the movie, a bit of a flat character. Now I've got two fantastic songs. One is 'Her Voice,' and the other is 'One Step Closer.' They added those just to give some depth to the character. I related him to the tao of Pooh. He's this person that everything happens to, and now he's somebody who's active in the story, somebody who makes choices. You get to see into the heart of him a little bit. And also, the parallels between him and Ariel they have brought those out a little more in the musical."

On opening night, he struck a very commanding presence but later he acknowledged that it was just an act. "I had a little bit of trepidation. It's my first time originating a role on Broadway. But after such a long process, it's such a wonderful relief to get it open."

Norm Lewis has the right regal grandeur for King Triton, father of seven darling daughters including our title heroine. "I wanted to bring the authenticity of the king on stage," he admitted. "In the movie, he was very powerful, but he had this elegance and this strength about him, and if I was able to get that across, I'm pretty satisfied."

Despite salt-and-pepper ringlets, he seems young for father roles, but he plays it with a scrubboard chest. "I work out, yes. If you're naked on stage, you gotta do something."

Heidi Blickenstaff, who's originating a role on Broadway for the first time (Carlotta, a comedic lady of the court), brought out her own cheering section her co-stars from [title of show] (Jeff Bowen, Susan Blackwell and Hunter Bell) and their director, Michael Berresse, who, in an imitation of life, plays a director these days in A Chorus Line.

"I'm leaving the show in two weeks, but I'll be back," Berresse said. "I'm just taking a little leave to go out to L.A. and do a film with Russell Crowe, Helen Mirren and Ben Affleck, called 'State of Play.' I'm back in till April, when I finish filming in Washington. I'm playing a sociopathic assassin. I used to be the boy next door. What happened?

"Then I'm doing No, No, Nanette at Encores! it'll be a little in and out [of A Chorus Line], but it's in my contract I'm doing the Bobby Van role [in Nanette], and Beth Leavel is doing the Helen Gallagher. Can't wait. I have to practice my scenery-chewing so I can keep up with her. Sandy Duncan, Rosie O'Donnell, Mara Davi are set, too, and Walter Bobbie's directing it."

In My Life's Christopher J. Hanke counted himself in the Blickenstaff camp as well. "Heidi's one of my best friends," he said. "Tonight was great fun. All those Disney shows, I grew up with. I love 'em." His next theatre stop is Cry-Baby. Rehearsals start Feb. 18."

A new two from New Orleans Patricia Clarkson and Bryan Batt on a strike break from film and television respectively, attended. On Jan. 14 she and Michael Cerveris will do a reading at The Public of a two-hander that might bring her back at last to the stage. It's called Wolfman, from the playwright of The Swan, Elizabeth Elsdorf. Batt, biding his time until "Mad Men" starts up again, will host the "Broadway Bears" event next month.

Others numbered among the opening-night crowd: Roger Rees, soprano Lauren Flanigan, Mo Rocca, Goodspeed kingpin Michael Price, Cry-Baby choreographer Rob Ashford, La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley, Jersey Boys authors Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman, director-choreographers Jerry Mitchell and Kathleen Marshall, Thoroughly Modern Millie scripter Dick Scanlan, A Catered Affair composer John Bucchino, Havana composer Frank Wildhorn, Mario Cantone and Jerry Dixon, Brooke Smith, South Pacific-bound Kelli O'Hara and Matthew Morrison, Katie Finneran, Peyton List of "Cashmere Mafia," Kathie Lee and Frank Gifford, Spring Awakening Tony winner John Gallagher Jr., Time magazine film critic Richard Corliss, Phoebe Snow and lyricists William Finn, Susan Birkenhead and David Zippel.

Director Zambello admitted her opera history helped her to her Broadway beachhead. "I'm used to telling big stories, and this is A Big Story," she said. Realizing her vision, she added, " has not been easy. It's about having all the materials [having an out-of-town tryout]. Disney is a wonderful producer and affords the opportunity for us to develop the less conventional ideas for all these things. And also I'm blessed with a cast who is collaborative and giving and really cares about the material. We've shared so much together, and I think all that combusts into something very special."

Already she's off to other projects. "I'm going to do an opera at La Scala with Placido Domingo. And then I'll be going to Little House on the Prairie." The latter, her second musical for Broadway, somehow sounds refreshingly parched.

Composer Stephen Schwartz, whose Wicked shares a common demographic with the Chicklet of the Sea, owes a couple of Oscars to Disney films, so one can't help wondering when his Disney-animated film will turn into a Broadway musical.

"I think we're starting up Hunchback of Notre Dame, hopefully, next year. Rumor has reached my ear that it's happening." For the present, he's making an opposite carryover than Zambello: "I'm doing an opera, and we're doing a reading of it under the auspices of an organization called American Opera Projects next weekend. It's based on the film, 'Seance on a Wet Afternoon,' with Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough. [Stanley lost a much-deserved Oscar to Julie Andrews' Mary Poppins.] Very dark, so it's opera."

Schwartz confessed he was relieved and pleased that he really liked The Little Mermaid. "Yeah, I really liked this. Y'know, I have so many friends who are involved with it, and you always feel when you go to the opening, 'Oh, what if I don't like it? And I'll have to think of something to say.' I was so happy to be able genuinely to say I liked it. I hope they get the reviews they deserve, but you know what? It doesn't matter at all. It's going to run ten years. It's critic-proof in a good way because it's delivering."

Critics were critics, but, as crowd-pleasers go, The Little Mermaid has legs.