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The Music of The Little Mermaid

Updated: Apr 13

Picture it. Disney. The early 1980s.

New leadership has taken over the company. Michael Eisner is the new CEO and Frank Wells is the company’s president. Jeffrey Katzenberg has been brought on to head up the motion picture division of the company, which at the time, ranked last at the box office of all the major studios. Roy E. Disney returned to the company as Vice Chairman and Chairman of the Animation Department.

The animation department suffered throughout the 1980s with a string of fairly unremarkable movies including the Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, and Oliver and Company. During the changes that were sweeping the Disney company under its new leadership, the animation department was evicted from the animation building in Burbank, in the studios Walt built for them, and where the towering Disney Animated Classics were made like Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, and were placed in trailers in a parking lot in Glendale. There were thoughts in the company that animation was shutting down and would become a thing of the past.

In 1985 Jeffrey Katzenberg was leading these sort of gong show sessions where everyone had to come with 5 new ideas for an animated feature. Initially, The Little Mermaid was proposed by co-director Ron Clements as he had encountered the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale in a bookstore that year. He described the book as itself being cinematic in the way it was written and the visuals it described. It was also a tragic story in which the little mermaid dies, so it would definitely need to be re-worked for Disney’s family friendly audience.

At first, The Little Mermaid was “gonged” at the gong show session because at the time a sequel for Splash was already in the works and another mermaid movie seemed to be a bit overkill for the studio. Eventually, Katzenberg ended up changing his mind and it was given the green light to be put into production. Ron Clements, now joined by John Musker who would co-write and direct the movie, piece together a story.

In the summer of 1986, they traveled to New York to meet with acclaimed lyricist Howard Ashman, who had already called in his composer friend Alan Menken. Ashman and Menken are a magical combination of lyricist and composer. At the time, they were enjoying great success from both their stage production and upcoming feature film, Little Shop of Horrors.

These two are a hot commodity in 1986. But they had no experience making an animated musical – they were from Broadway. However, Howard Ashman knew from his Broadway experience how important music could be in telling a story, moving a story along, and developing characters.

The directors head to New York to hear the first demo for the movie. They’ve only done one so far, though they’ve sort of sketched out ideas for where in the outline of this movie songs would be used to advance the plot. The first song that Ashman and Menken have come up with, that they played on the piano in Howard Ashman’s downtown Manhattan apartment, was “Part of Your World”.

They approached writing this like a Broadway musical. The characters couldn’t come up with the words they needed so they had to burst into song. Sebastian could only convince Arial to stay in the ocean by singing a song. The key point of this is that the songs can’t be gratuitous, if you were to cut out one, the rest of the movie wouldn’t make sense.

It was their broadway background that helped them find their voice for “Part of Your World”. Jodi Benson, who ended up voicing Ariel, had worked previously with Howard Ashman on his musical, Smile. Ashman knew she would be a good fit to voice Ariel.

In the months following their demo of “Part of Your World”, Howard and Alan moved to Los Angeles. They were writing this music the old fashioned way. They were in residence at Disney in a room down the hall from the animators and other people working on the production. Back in Walt’s era, directors rooms at Disney were known as “music rooms” because they each had pianos. In all those features and shorts that were made in Walt’s era, music was an integral part of the movies and specifically the process of making them. Now here were these two Broadway successes, bringing back the old way of doing things to the 1980s. That’s how they knew how to do it. Broadway did it old school.

Suddenly these two guys are in a room experimenting, and singing, and they have this fresh energy, and their music is echoing down the halls, and it’s music that the animators can hear as they work. Orchestrators could pop in and hear what they were working on and it created this buzz and this energy in Animation that hadn’t been there. People were hearing this music come from Alan and Howard’s office and saying, “I want to work on that!”

Also in the old days, the music came first. They’d write the songs and then the animators would animate to it. This is exactly what was happening again. Menken and Ashman were basically constructing this movie around the key songs they were writing, in close collaboration with the directors. Over the next 18 months they created seven key songs for the movie.

When Howard Ashman was initially approached by the directors, he knew that the story was by Hans Christian Anderson, who was from Denmark. He immediately asked how closely and accurately did this need to depict actual Denmark. They told him it wasn’t really necessary at all, which is just what Howard Ashman wanted to hear. He wanted to play loose with the locale and the fantasy of the story because that would enable him to experiment with all different styles of music to tell the story.

The movie opens with a traditional English sea shanty inspired song in “Fathom’s Below.” This song was deliberately written in 3/4 time so it would waltz and sway, to match the movements of the ship in the water that prince Eric is sailing on. Immediately from “Fathom’s Below”, we go below water for the opening credits. It’s already very clear to the viewer exactly what this story is going to be about.

When Howard Ashman initially told the directors of his vision for Sebastian as a Rastafarian, they weren’t so sure how that would work. But it was Ashman’s vision of a Jamaican-inspired Sebastian that would allow them to draw in more Caribbean influences to other parts of the music, and the natural seaside feeling those musical sounds naturally evoke.

Howard Ashman, who wrote the lyrics for “Under the Sea,” also had a very distinct idea of how the melody and the music should sound for this major number. He repeatedly told Alan Menken that he wanted a song that didn’t stop. He wanted it to continuously circle back on itself.

When Disney was looking for someone to voice Sebastian, they wanted someone with the energy of Sammy Davis Jr. The Broadway actor Samuel Wright was chosen for his range and his characteristic combination of warmth and gruffness that made him perfect for the role of Sebastian.

Sebastian’s first major musical number in the movie is that now legendary, “Under the Sea.” Sebastian uses this bright musical number in a last ditch attempt to extol the benefits of living under the sea and keep Ariel from the perceived dangers of the surface and the human world she so longs to be a part of. This energetic piece weaves a tapestry of musical influences and instruments including Caribbean beats and sounds, marimbas, steel drums, jazz bass and saxophone, and a chorus line of colorful vocals. All these sounds are backed by more traditional instruments such as a vibrant string section, woodwinds, and brass, and of course the vocals of Samuel Wright as Sebastian.

The show-stopping, “Part of Your World,” our lead character Ariel’s main number, comes straight from Broadway. Howard Ashman once commented “in almost every musical ever written, there’s a place usually early in the show where the leading lady sits down on something and sings about what she wants most in life.” Here Ariel retreats to her cavern to expresses her yearning to be a part of the human race.

The song almost didn’t make it into the movie even though Ashman and Menken thought it was absolutely critical to the storytelling. During one of the initial screenings before the official release, Jeffrey Katzenberg was watching the movie and during the song a kid dropped their popcorn and made a ruckus trying to pick up the popcorn. A distracted Katzenberg focused on the kid making noise and decided he didn’t like the song and thought it was boring. It was out. Ashman and Menken finally convinced him to keep it in at least for previews. Of course it was a success. Now, we couldn’t imagine the movie with out “Part of your World.”

Originally, the character Ursula was a scorpion fish with spikes and spines. The look of Ursula went through many different variations during the movie’s development. Finally, they settled on an octopus. Well, technically she is a squid as she only has six tentacles. And the reason for only six? It’s cheaper to animate six versus eight.

When stage and screen veteran actress Pat Carroll received the call to audition for a Disney film, she replied it was an answer to prayer. She had wanted to be in a Disney movie all her life. She was a shoe-in for the Ursula character. Once again, Howard Ashman’s vision served as a perfect template upon which the actors could base their characters. Pat Carroll asked Ashman if he would perform Ursula for her. Without skipping a beat he put on a cloak, and performed the entire song “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” In fact, the demo recordings that Ashman and Menken put together were so rich and so complete, most of the actors modeled their performances from them.

Ursula the character is extremely theatrical. She was partially influenced by a cross dresser named Divine who appeared in John Waters movies. John Waters created several cult films in the 1980s but is probably most notable for his work, Hairspray.

Ursula’s show-stopping “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is a raunchy, cabaret-style performance loaded with puns, rhymes, and humor. It also plays an important role in the movie as this is where our heroin makes the deal to give up her voice and life as he knows it to become a human and find love.

Samuel Wright, or Sebastian, is back with another poignant song in the movie. As part of Ariel’s deal with Ursula, she must get the prince to kiss her and break the spell. We find Ariel and Eric out rowing in a boat for the evening and Eric, well, he just hasn’t made a move yet. It’s up to Sebastian, and Ariel’s other animal friends to set the scene for the kiss to break Ursula’s spell. Again, music plays in important role. It propels the story forward out of necessity. Sebastian wouldn’t have had the opportunity to sit down and reason with Eric, so the music has to do the trick. This upbeat song features doo-wop harmonies by a chorus of fish, pelicans, flamingos, frogs, ducks, turtles and more.

Alan Menken was not only charged with creating the rich melodies that accompany the lyrics of Howard Ashman’s song for the film, but he also was entrusted to score the rest of the movie. Writing music that accompanied other action in between the true songs of the movie was something new for him. He knew how to take words and make a beautiful melody, but he hadn’t yet written this sort of background music that is necessary, but also mustn’t steal the show from the important action and dialogue on the screen. His music was especially critical in The Little Mermaid, because in this movie musical, our lead actress spends a significant amount of time without a voice! So it was up to Alan Menken to create a moving score that could speak and sing for Ariel, expressing those emotions that the character could not while she had given up her voice.

The movie released and the numbers were insane. During previews the numbers even among adults were through the rough. It was widely adored by most audiences and critics. At the box office Little Mermaid earned $84.4 million in its initial domestic run, 64% more than the previous year’s Oliver & Company. And after a 1997 re-release it has now earned $233 million in total international box office revenue.

Roger Ebert declared, “The Little Mermaid is a jolly and inventive animated fantasy—a movie that’s so creative and so much fun it deserves comparison with the best Disney work of the past.”

This was an awakening for Walt Disney Animation. The animators were back. Animation as an artform, indeed was notdead. The Little Mermaid turned everything around for Disney. The movie revived interest in animation at a time when animated features were in a lull. It set in motion a renaissance in Disney animation that followed with the steady cadence of successes Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, and more.

It was the first Disney animated film to earn an academy award nomination since 1977’s The Rescuers. The film won two Oscars, both for its music. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s work took home the Oscars for Best Score, and also for Best Song with “Under the Sea.”

So everything is just wonderful right? The movie is a success, Disney animation is back. Sadly, the man without whom this movie would not have been possible, Howard Ashman’s world during all this wonderful success was coming unraveled. He had been losing weight. He was having issues with his skin, and was suffering from a general weakness. At one celebration he told his friend Alan Menken that they needed to talk.

Howard Ashman confided in his friend and creative partner, that he was dying of AIDS. He had been diagnosed HIV positive in 1988, halfway through making The Little Mermaid. This, being the late 1980s, had to be a secret. A diagnosis of AIDS was, back then, a death sentence not only for a person’s life, but more immeidately, their career. A year later, after finishing the songs for Beauty and the Beast, and having penned “Friend Like Me” for Aladdin, at the age of 40, Howard Ashman was gone.

In 2001, he was named a Disney Legend.

Here is the full segment on EarzUp Podcast of The Music of The Little Mermaid:


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