It wouldn’t hurt us any if Michael Riedel is right in his prediction of fewer Disney Musicals in the future. It looks like “The Little Mermaid” might bomb. The commercial interest in these Disney Productions does not really seem to on the demise. We are only longing for a Broadway of substance with more offerings of plays. Anyway, Riedel has the low down on “The Little Mermaid.”
Mouse of Blues
August 31, 2007 — ON the heels of the fiasco that was “Tarzan” and the lumbering bore that is “Mary Poppins” comes Disney Theatrical’s latest stage cartoon, “The Little Mermaid” – which Variety has helpfully dubbed “a waterlogged misstep.”
The $15 million-plus musical, now trying out in Denver, doesn’t arrive in New York until November. So Disney’s got about a month to retool director Francesca Zambello’s baffling production.
But given Variety’s brutal review (which was written not by a local stringer but by the paper’s chief theater critic) and the show’s tepid industry word-of-mouth, theater people are starting to wonder: What’s gone wrong in the Magic Kingdom – and, if “Mermaid” flops, how much longer will Disney keep throwing its cartoons at Broadway stages?
First, though, the gossip on “Mermaid,” which is based on the beloved 1989 movie about a mermaid who swaps her tail for a pair of legs.
Zambello, an opera director who’s making her Broadway debut, is taking a drubbing for a production that, even some Disney insiders concede, is visually almost as unappealing as “Tarzan” was.
The visual motif on “Tarzan” was glow-in-the dark spinach fettuccini. On “Mermaid,” it’s moving modules of Plexiglas, designed by Zambello’s opera crony, George Tsypin.
Sometimes you can spot what appears to be a wave. But often you have no idea what you’re looking at, as with two gigantic diaphanous towers, which might be corkscrews or, possibly, nutcrackers.
Or maybe dental instruments.
Zambello has created one of those modern, hyperstylized productions you find in opera houses in Eastern Europe. What little girls from Scarsdale who carry “Little Mermaid” lunchboxes will make of it is anybody’s guess.
Disney insiders also are fretting about Tatiana Noginova’s costumes, which are notable for their absolute refusal to resemble anything you’d find under the sea (or on this planet, for that matter).
Eels look like lizards; a guppy looks like a kindergartner wearing a smock for his art class; seagulls look like nothing I’ve ever seen that flies.
Noginova is under intense pressure to redo many of the costumes. Says one source: “She’d better be sewing now, because there isn’t much time.”
There were also rumors yesterday that Disney was hunting for a real Broadway director to help ease Zambello out of her European Opera House aesthetic and make “The Little Mermaid” more family-friendly.
But a Disney spokesman says the rumors are not true.
Disney was on the offensive this week, flying about 40 group-sales ticket agents to Denver to see the show. Disney gave them dinner at the Opera House and put them up in the Grand Hyatt. But the agents grumbled that they were flown out in coach.
“I might have liked the show a little better if I’d been in first-class,” one says.
The agents weren’t overwhelmed by the show, and no one seems too eager to snap up many tickets. (They were badly burned on “Tarzan.”)
Advance ticket sales for “Little Mermaid” are said to be around $10 million, far short of the $20 million “Mary Poppins” had in the bank on its opening night.
“The Disney brand is not what it used to be on Broadway,” says a source involved in ticket sales.
That, sadly, is true.
Once upon a time in the Magic Kingdom, Disney Theatrical could do no wrong. “Beauty and the Beast,” though not a critical favorite, ran for 13 years and earned hundreds of millions of dollars. “Aida,” which Disney shut down in Atlanta and completely reworked for Broadway, was a guilty pleasure that ran for five years.
And “The Lion King” remains one of the most thrilling productions in Broadway history. The show – and Disney’s refurbishment of The New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street – played a huge role in the revitalization of Times Square.
Some theater people think the people running Disney’s theater division have gotten too artsy for their own good. They hired Bob Crowley, a respected set designer of serious plays (and “Aida”), to make his misbegotten directorial debut with “Tarzan.” They brought in Richard Eyre, the former head of London’s National Theater, to stage “Mary Poppins,” from which he managed to eliminate any trace of wonderment.
As for Zambello, it’s clear to people working on “The Little Mermaid” that she does not know her way around a Broadway musical.
Still, it must be pointed out that Disney’s artsy impulse also brought the great Julie Taymor to “The Lion King.”
“They’re hiring serious artists to direct basically cartoons,” says a veteran theater producer. “It worked with ‘The Lion King.’ It hasn’t worked since.”
Should “Little Mermaid” go the way of “Tarzan,” how much longer will Disney stay in the game?
The Broadway division was created by former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, who grew up on Park Avenue and has been in love with the theater since he was a kid.
He oversaw every detail of “Beauty and the Beast” and lists “The Lion King” as one of his proudest achievements during his tenure at Disney.
Robert Iger, Disney’s current chief, does not have that same passion for the theater, sources say. He was deeply unhappy with “Tarzan” and, I’m told, worries that Disney is cannibalizing itself on Broadway. Indeed, both “The Lion King” and “Poppins” are offering discounted tickets in the fall.
“I doubt we’re going to see a lot more Disney shows after ‘Mermaid,’” says a veteran theater producer. “I just don’t think this is really Bob Iger’s bag.”
As for “Mermaid,” hardheaded Disney insiders don’t expect an easy ride from the New York critics. But they cling to the hope that “The Little Mermaid” will be like “Beauty and the Beast” – a hugely popular title no critic can take down.
They may be in for a big disappointment.
When “Beauty and the Beast” opened in 1994, there were very few family shows on Broadway.
Today, the street’s full of shows that appeal to families – “Wicked,” “Hairspray,” “Legally Blonde,” “The Grinch,” “Mary Poppins,” “The Lion King.”
All will give “The Little Mermaid” stiff – and possibly ruinous – competition.