It was November 17, 1989 when “The Little Mermaid” splashed into theaters. Its arrival loosed a Disney animation tsunami through the 1990s, resulting in a series of beloved films that are now experiencing a lucrative second life with live-action remakes like “Beauty and the Beast” and this month’s “Aladdin.”
“Mermaid” started it all, a lush underwater fantasia that harkened back to Walt Disney’s animated glory days, but — crucially — armed with a catchy, romantic Broadway score by two musicians with the Midas touch: lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken. They gave us instant classics like “Under the Sea” and “Part of Your World,” and the music won two Oscars.
The film, and Ashman and Menken’s score, will have a special 30th birthday party this weekend at the Hollywood Bowl, in a lavish projection-production with a live orchestra and songs performed by a cast that includes Lea Michele as Ariel, Harvey Fierstein as Ursula and Cheech Marin as Chef Louis.
It’s the brainchild of director Richard Kraft, who has brought similar spectacles to the Bowl in recent years, from the biannual “The Nightmare Before Christmas” with Danny Elfman to “La La Land” to “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” This is the second time he’s brought “Mermaid” to the venue, after a 2016 production that alternated the original voice of Ariel, Jodi Benson, with Sara Bareilles in the lead role, while also featuring Rebel Wilson as Ursula and John Stamos as Louis.
Besides the cast, the big difference this year is that, in the interim, Kraft started working with the Burbank studio Mousetrappe, who developed a way to map custom animated projections onto the Bowl’s shell.
“I love Disney theme parks so much,” says Kraft. “I love how they do projection shows on their castles, and they take an iconic piece of Disneyland and use it as a canvas to put images on, and storytelling via projections. The Hollywood Bowl is this incredibly iconic structure — it’s the castle of Hollywood — and [we’re] using it as a surface to enhance the movie and make it a more immersive experience.”
The conceit for this year’s “Mermaid” is a night at a drive-in theater, cashing in on the similarities. “It’s a communal experience, outdoors, under the stars, watching a movie,” Kraft says. “There’s also a historic, retro quality of being at the Bowl that’s the same as being at a drive-in. But because this is ‘The Little Mermaid,’ Ursula is going to transform all of it into the Hollywood (Fish)Bowl Dive-In Movie Theater” — meaning that, before and throughout the movie, there will be aquatic-themed versions of movie trailers, concession ads and the like.
Kraft, who by day is a film music agent representing the likes of Elfman and Menken, started producing and directing these shows as a midlife lark, largely inspired by a lifelong obsession with all things Disney. Taking a page out of the company’s theme park M.O., it’s not enough anymore for him to simply screen a movie and have a live orchestra playing the score, a type of event that’s become hugely popular at the Bowl and in symphony halls around the world.
“It’s not just, you’re sitting in a chair and when it’s ready they fire up a movie,” he says. “It’s setting a stage, and immersing the audience into an evening that’s about something of which celebrates the movie ‘The Little Mermaid.’ [Which is] 30 years old, and I suspect most of the audience has already seen it. So why are we doing this at the Hollywood Bowl? And that’s what’s exciting: it isn’t just a live-to-film with an orchestra. It isn’t just a movie night. It isn’t just a concert. It isn’t just a stage production. It’s this hybrid, where the closest I can call it is an ‘experience.’”
With each project, Kraft and Mousetrappe have become more ambitious with the animation on the Bowl’s shell. Rather than repeating characters already on screen, Kraft calls it “living scenery” that can reveal unseen aspects of the story. For example, Ursula’s big number, “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” will be attended by German expressionism — “because the song that Alan Menken and Howard Ashman wrote was very Kurt Weill,” Kraft says. “It’s like, oh, well, Ursula is a singer in a German cabaret, and the visual influences pull from imagery suggested by German masters as well as Salvador Dali. I think Ursula would collect Dali.”
For Chef Louis’ song, “Les Poissons,” Marin will be surrounded by animation inspired by Kraft’s realization that, basically, the character is “an aquatic serial killer. So the visual was referencing like a Tex Avery cartoon — big, bold colors — of what would be inside the mind of a homicidal French chef who loves destroying crustaceans. So it is insane. Because if you think about it, filleting fish is not that far removed from ‘Silence of the Lambs.’”
Disney has to okay all such flights of fancy, but Kraft says that, because he’s such an uber-fan and now has several of these productions under his belt, he knows what not to do.
His only fear is that “I murder something because I’m giving it such a big, loving hug,” he says — “that I’m a clumsy galoot who kills it. And, so far, I don’t think I’ve smothered any of my favorite things with too much love. But maybe one day I shall…”
Menken, who is scoring Disney’s upcoming Rob Marshall-directed remake of “The Little Mermaid” — and is about to start writing new songs with Lin-Manuel Miranda — will appear at the piano for an encore. He’ll be flying in that day from a press junket in Japan to promote the new “Aladdin,” directed by Guy Ritchie, which he scored and also penned new songs for with “La La Land” lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
“It was a real reminder,” Kraft says, “that everything Alan touches ends up having so many children and grandchildren. We’re talking about ‘Little Mermaid’ and ‘Aladdin,’ and it’s like I have to remember: are we talking about the original movie, or are we talking about the Broadway show, or are we talking about the touring show, are we talking about the concert, or are we talking about the live-action remake?”
As for live-to-picture events, Kraft wants to keep making them even crazier.
“I think we’re in a new era where [you think about] what does it mean to go see a movie, and what does it mean to have a concert experience of a film?” he says. “The boundaries of it just keep exploding. A few years ago it was just enough to go see a movie and hear the orchestra playing it live. But I think many people, of which I’m just one of them, are now going: No, this is its own art form, and how far can we take it?”