‘The Little Mermaid Live!’ isn’t 100% live. Here’s how they pulled off that opening

‘Little Mermaid Live!’ opener
An image from rehearsals for “The Little Mermaid Live!” on ABC.
(Eric McCandless / ABC)

“The Little Mermaid Live!” doesn’t have the most accurate title. Airing Tuesday night at 8 p.m. on ABC, the television event isn’t structured like the live musical events shown on the other broadcast networks in recent years. Instead, the unique presentation combines the dialogue scenes from the 1989 animated movie with newly staged musical numbers — a formula that’s worked well for Disney for years at the Hollywood Bowl.

The musical performances are broadcast live from the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. Well, most of them.

The event’s introduction by Jodi Benson, the actress who voiced Ariel in the original film, was taped before the broadcast. “I can’t believe it’s been over three decades since I sang ‘Part of Your World’ for an exciting new Disney musical called ‘The Little Mermaid,’” she says to the throngs of attendees gathered around the stage, as well as the viewers at home.

After the opening frames of the film, the feed goes live to the “dive-in theater” — a Disney sound stage outfitted with vivid LED screens and a proscenium topped by a King Triton bust — for the program’s first live number: “Fathoms Below,” sung by Prince Eric (Graham Phillips) and his diversely cast seaboard crew. The impressive spectacle includes intricate dance numbers, aerial routines, fog effects and flocks of puppet seagulls. There’s even an appearance from Eric’s shaggy dog, Max.


The film then resumes for some minutes, before returning to the sound stage for another song. This time, though, the underwater concert — “Daughters of Triton,” sung by a narrator-like character (Amber Riley) instead of in unison by Ariel’s siblings — was pretaped.

That’s because adapting both of the film’s early songs for the (semi-) live format required large set pieces that would have taken too long to set up and pull down — especially since there’s no commercial break between them. During Tuesday morning’s dress rehearsal, it took nearly eight minutes to dismantle the parts of Eric’s ship and put up the pieces of Ariel’s treasure trove: the giant harp, oversized candlestick and other thingamabobs that decorate the kelp-covered set and hang from the ceiling. That onstage transformation also requires trucking Ariel’s iconic rock to the turntable at the top of the thrust stage, so that Auli’i Cravalho can re-create that splashy pose during the reprise of “Part of Your World.”

Though that ambitious transition is done offscreen, it is indeed done live — while those at home are watching the animated scenes. The rest of the program’s musical numbers, sung by Queen Latifah, Shaggy and John Stamos, are broadcast live.

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