Under The Sea
Teaching Mermaids to fly: Behind the scenes at Disney's bubbly underwater musical
When Theatre Under The Stars invited me to rehearsals for Disney’s The Little Mermaid, I pounced on the offer. In many ways, the musical being presented at the Hobby Center is more spectacular than the Broadway version. And the timing was perfect for my six-year-old daughter Sasha.
This month, she is singing and dancing in a summer camp called Broadway Babies. She loves musicals and adores Ariel the superstar mermaid princess. This was a wonderful way to further familiarize her with all the work and practice that go on behind-the-scenes. This was a marvelous opportunity to show her the purity and intensity of a run-through.
"For the illusion of swimming, we are flying. Flying is much more fluid. When Ariel sings ‘Part of Your World,’ the whole song is in the air.”
At the TUTS Rehearsal Studios, Sasha and I sat alongside renowned director Glenn Casale, flying sequence choreographer Paul Rubin, and Bobbie Grizzle who has been hair and wardrobe designer for TUTS for more than two decades.
“I love the run-throughs because it’s just the actor up there, it’s just raw talent,” Grizzle said. “Even though my job is to create costumes, I enjoy this no-costume rehearsal because the actors are in their street clothes and their faces are so expressive, their voices are so clear. I sit and laugh and cry during run-throughs. Sometimes I’m enjoying the show so much I have a hard time taking notes.”
Grizzle has taken her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren to the theater. She confidently predicted that Sasha will vividly remember this bare bones performance.
“I can only imagine how her little mind is clicking. It was like watching my daughter – she still talks about the shows I took her to. My grandkids know I’m part of that excitement on stage. It’s the best feeling knowing that you’re part of something that impressive and magical for children,” she said.
Flying Sequences under the sea
Disney's The Little Mermaid was staged in New York City from 2008-2009. Casale was tapped to revamp the show. He and his team revised the script, wrote new songs, created dazzling new costumes and sets, and added special effects including flying sequences.
“The biggest challenge was creating two worlds — the underwater world and the above water world. For the illusion of swimming, we are flying. Flying is much more fluid. When Ariel sings ‘Part of Your World,’ the whole song is in the air,” he said.
“We work on simulating a dolphin’s tail - undulating the body, rolling from the shoulders down to the toes to simulate swimming."
Prince Eric and King Triton also take flight in some scenes. “The goal is to enhance the feel of being underwater, not to overwhelm,” said Paul Rubin, who is also called “The Fly Guy.” He is best known for his scenes in Wicked and Peter Pan with Cathy Rigby.
“For Little Mermaid, we have a fully automated system that has two wires — they attach to the hips which allows the mermaids to swim in a horizontal position. We have control for up and down, left or right and we can rotate so they can change directions,” he explains.
Rubin coaches the actors on movements to mimic swimming in the ocean. “We work on simulating a dolphin’s tail - undulating the body, rolling from the shoulders down to the toes to simulate swimming."
Rubin indulged my curiosity about being a mermaid in mid-air. During rehearsals on stage at Sarofim Hall, he strapped me into Ariel's harness and hoisted me high above. Looking out at the empty theater, I pretended I was a mermaid and imagined I was performing for a full house!
Casale rewrote the script so the story resonates with everyone. “It’s more about Ariel discovering she wanted something different. It’s not just that she wants a prince. She wants her own life and her father doesn’t understand. I sometimes see in the audience, a father putting his arm around his daughter,” he said. “This allows discussion. Families have to learn to let their children go. People can be different and you can still be a family.”
Disney released the animated feature film The Little Mermaid in 1989. Based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale that was first published in 1837, it told the story of a young mermaid who yearns to explore the human world. The movie received rave reviews, won awards and became an international blockbuster with hit songs such as “Under The Sea,” “Part of Your World” and “Kiss the Girl.”
As we left, my daughter turned to me and said “Momma, I want to be an actor.”
Casale said he takes seriously the responsibility of providing parents with a show that they can experience with their children – a musical that can become a cherished family memory. “This may be a kid’s first experience with the theater and they need to be able to relate to someone up on stage. I grew up with a single mother and I went to the theater with my family. I remember seeing a play with Michael Crawford and we got to meet him. That’s when I got the bug.”
My daughter may have picked up the bug after meeting Ariel, played by the brilliant Jessica Grové, and being serenaded by Scuttle, played by the charismatic Matt Allen. She was completely captivated, barely blinking or moving in her seat through more than two hours of rehearsals.
As we left, she turned to me and said “Momma, I want to be an actor.” We’ve added it to her list of possible professions that includes veterinarian, soccer player and author. Oh, the enchantment of theater and the beauty of childhood.
Watch the Little Mermaid fly in a TUTS rehearsal: