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In defense of Ariel: In a post-'Brave,' post-'Frozen' world, why the time is right for Hollywood Bowl's 'Little Mermaid'

In defense of Ariel: In a post-'Brave,' post-'Frozen' world, why the time is right for Hollywood Bowl's 'Little Mermaid'
Pop star Sara Bareilles and composer Alan Menken in New York, ahead of the Hollywood Bowl staging of Disney's "The Little Mermaid." (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

When "The Little Mermaid" lands at the Hollywood Bowl for three nights beginning Friday, it's not just a chance to reimagine a contemporary Disney classic, one credited with reviving the animated musical. It's also an opportunity to learn how Ariel became the precursor to the modern heroine.

At first glance, Ariel is a mermaid who longs for her human prince. But dig deeper, say those who worked on the original 1989 film, as well as those participating in the live concerts, and the mermaid princess transforms into a defiant, passionate rebel.

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Just ask Sara Bareilles, the Grammy and Tony-nominated pop star who will perform Ariel's signature ballad "Part of Your World" at two of the three Bowl performances.

"She speaks to people in general, but especially to young women," Bareilles says. "There's a wonderful lyric — 'bright young women ... ready to stand' — and that's a call to action."

That's one of the primary reasons "The Little Mermaid" has come close to selling out the Hollywood Bowl for its Friday, Saturday and Monday shows. Second and third nights were added to meet demand for a staging that will incorporate aspects of cinema, theater and the live concert.

The original film will be shown, accompanied by an orchestra led by Michael Kosarin, and familiar faces from stage and screen will tackle the songs, including Rebel Wilson of "Pitch Perfect," Tituss Burgess, who starred as Sebastian in "The Little Mermaid" on Broadway and "Full House" veteran John Stamos.

They will be given the opportunity to put their own spin on the varied compositions by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman; "The Little Mermaid" incorporated a sea shanty, a show-tune-ready ballad, an upbeat calypso number, a villainous cabaret vamp and, in the case of "Les Poissons," a bit of French pop humor.

But this take on "The Little Mermaid" will differ from any other, and not just because it has star power in Bareilles, who appears Friday and Saturday. The singer who first gave voice to Ariel in the 1989 Disney film, Jodi Benson, performs Monday.

Included in the production are four songs written exclusively for the Broadway show, with music by Menken and lyrics from Glenn Slater, creating what one of the producers calls a "brand-new, weird mash-up art form." Since no animation exists for these scenes, fans will be shown a peak-behind-the-curtain glimpse of early concept art from the film.

"I discovered that three of the main characters in the movie don't have any songs," says veteran manger-agent Richard Kraft, who also serves as the show's creative director and, with Laura Engel, oversees Kraft-Engel Management.

"But there was a Broadway show where those characters did have songs, so we inserted into the evening some of the Broadway songs to give the other characters a chance to sing. We went back to the original movie, and found where in the movie [the song] would be, and we're building the movie around that premise."

Think of it, he says, as " 'The Little Mermaid' variety show."

There will be an intermission, and the plan is to have an eight-minute medley to ease fans back into the second act. As Chip McLean, senior vice president and general manager of Disney Concerts says, the goal is to respect "The Little Mermaid" but also "tweak it a little."

And yet Kraft, who represents Menken, admits he had one ever-so-slight hesitation when he first embarked on the project.

It had been, after all, a few years since he had seen "The Little Mermaid." Recent Disney female heroes have moved beyond the hopeless romantic concept of longing for a prince, be it the adventure-hungry Merida in "Brave," the comfortably independent Elsa of "Frozen" or the career-minded Judy Hopps of "Zootopia."

Even when a character is more of the love-at-first-sight type — say Anna of "Frozen" — she eventually learns that the heart is more than capable of deception.

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Would, then, by comparison, "The Little Mermaid" feel dated in what Kraft describes as "post-'Brave,' post-'Frozen'" world?

"Is this really just a story about a girl who wants a guy?" Kraft says he asked early on. "Is that all this boils down to — that she has a crush on a guy she saw for five minutes?"

Far from it, as Kraft says his early fears were proved wrong upon revisiting the film.

"She wants to be in another world," he says. "That's primal. The moment she makes the deal with the devil, I started sobbing. It was not about going to meet a cute guy. It's about everyone's liberation of leaving their childhood and moving into adulthood and going into new scary frontiers.

She wants to be in another world. That's primal. It was not about going to meet a cute guy. It's about everyone's liberation of leaving their childhood.


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"Ariel is so full of passion about her yearning that you want her to succeed so badly. This is not a passive girl wanting a guy."

Menken agrees. He goes even further in his assessment of Ariel, describing her as part innocent, part bad girl.

The film, of course, opens with Ariel missing a celebration thrown by her father, King Triton, and outright abandoning a musical performance with her sisters. She's opted instead to explore sunken ships on the ocean floor, dodging sharks and marveling at a human fork — or, in the words of a sea gull named Scuttle, a "dinglehopper."

Ariel largely maintains a mischievous smile even when being lectured by her father. When the scolding is over, she retreats to her collection of useless human artifacts with fish pal Flounder.

"This is like a girl wanting to flee to the inner city or something," says Menken. "It's the greatest fear for the people under the sea — the danger of what's on land — and she wants to do it because she has the hots for this guy.

"She's nobody's little angel. She's feisty. She is every bit the prototype for all of the animated heroes and heroines that have followed."

Bareilles says she's been idolizing Ariel since she was a preteen, when she and her friends saw the film to celebrate her birthday. The artist shares a lawyer with Kraft — Engel notes that no auditions were held for the cast — and Bareilles says it was an "immediate yes" when asked if she would be interested.

No real surprise, as Bareilles has been known to trot out of "Part of Your World" during her concerts, saying she uses the song for an audience singalong whenever there's a technical difficulty. "It's my little secret weapon," she says.

Ariel's big moment comes before she encounters Prince Eric, and Bareilles says that's why it stands out in the Disney canon. It's not simply about matters of the heart.

"It's about wanting to be a part of something bigger than where she already finds herself," she says. "That's a really relatable theme. 'Part of Your World,' is not a love song to a prince. It's a love song to an ideology and a bigger and broader community. It's about wanting to transcend something within yourself.

"That's giving lofty ideas to a cartoon, but that's in there. That's why people respond to this so deeply."

Menken remembers that he and Ashman nearly had the song stricken from the film, as there was a debate as to whether a slow number so early in the picture would cause restlessness among young audiences. The compromise was to place the casually sophisticated crab Sebastian as a silent observer in the scene for some comic relief and dramatic tension.

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"That's why you fall in love with the character," Menken says of the number. "The character says, 'I want this. This is my dream. This is what I want.' The next step, in relation to that song, is to set up an obstacle, so that song becomes the ever-increasing passionate theme."

There are lighter moments, such as the reggae and calypso stylings of "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl," led by Sebastian, who will be voiced at the Bowl by Burgess. Those familiar with the film but not the theatrical work — a production of which, coincidentally, opens June 3 at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts — will see the film pause to give Prince Eric, performed by Darren Criss of "Glee," a showcase number.

Kraft says he wants the artists to feel they have free rein to interpret the songs, but there are some limitations. "It's in timed sequence to the film," says Engel, who along with Kraft last year brought "The Nightmare Before Christmas" to the Hollywood Bowl.

"We want them to bring their own performance of it, but the music and the words are still in sync with the film," she says, "with the character on the screen."

Bareilles, for her part, describes Benson's work in the film as "indelible" and doesn't intend to stray from it too heavily. So stick around for the encore, teases Disney's McClean.

"There will be some moments after the film where the music will be revisited in a less-structured format," he says.

An air of unpredictability, after all, was part of "The Little Mermaid's" success. Menken, who will perform a medley of hits to open the Friday and Saturday shows, stresses that the film was no safe bet. It was unknown if audiences would re-embrace a classically styled Disney musical, especially one following closely on the heels of the studio's success with the more zany experiment that was  1988's "Who Framed Roger Rabbit."

"With 'The Little Mermaid,' we didn't know what we had," Menken says. "Everyone was blindsided by the reaction to it. Its arrival was like that of a long-awaited friend. These things happen in our business, and they happen when you're not calculating every step  of the way."

Disney's 'The Little Mermaid' in Concert

Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave.

When:  June 3-4, June 6

Price: $32.50 - $350. Limited tickets remain

Producers:  Andrew Hewitt & Bill Silva Presents, Laura Engel, Richard Kraft, Tim Fox and Alison Ahart Williams

Cast: Sara Bareilles (June 3 and June 4), Jodi Benson (June 6), Rebel Wilson, Tituss Burgess, Darren Criss, Norm Lewis, Joshua Colley and John Stamos

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