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‘The Little Mermaid Live’ Team Talks More Musical Numbers, Aerial Work and Understudies

The live television musical is a genre that has seen great evolution over the years. Some productions have employed inside/outside settings, while others have incorporated 360-degree oners, and many have created immersive experiences where the audience is part of the production. For ABC’s first foray into this special area of artistry, it is upping the ante further: “The Wonderful World of Disney: The Little Mermaid Live” mixes live-action song-and-dance numbers featuring puppetry, aerial work and live animals with the animation of the 30-year-old classic film.

“Everybody wanted to do something a little different,” executive producer Raj Kapoor tells Variety. “We had this whole creative team that comes from a vast range of experiences, and everyone wanted to put their own spin on it because we see this as blending the theatrical version with the feature film version with a live awards show meeting elements of the Super Bowl.”

The process to develop Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” into a live television event began more than two years ago, Kapoor explains. But a mere four months ago the creative team he references, which includes the other producers, director Hamish Hamilton and production designer Misty Buckley, started “dissecting the movie — examining how we were going to get in and out of the feature film to our live performances,” he continues.

Unlike past live television musicals, “The Little Mermaid” will play scenes from the original animated film on a screen in Stage 2 on the Burbank, Calif. Walt Disney Studios lot. This will keep the action of the story going as the crew resets the stage for next musical number, during which live-action performers will take the stage.

“Everything that you love about the movie is still intact. We literally just burst off the screen to do these musical numbers,” says John Stamos, who first played Chef Louis in the 2016 production of “The Little Mermaid” at the Hollywood Bowl and now reprises him for ABC.

For Stamos, being a part of ABC’s version is a chance to go “deeper into what I came up with” for the Hollywood Bowl version. “I started thinking this guy was insane, really, so I just wanted to play into that, and they were like, ‘Great, go with it.’ He’s a serial killer for fish and crabs, but he’s just manic. And with the Hollywood Bowl you sort of just stood there and did the thing, but with this, I’m chopping fish and I’m chasing crabs, and I get rid of one crab and there’s another one, and then I think I’ve got all of the crabs cooked and one comes out of the sky. It’s really incredible,” he says.

Enhancing the physicality of Chef Louis while he sings his infamous “Les Poissons” is just the tip of the iceberg for how ABC’s version of “The Little Mermaid” is expanding upon the iconic music of the story, though. While Kapoor admits that composer “Alan Menken’s original score is a masterpiece,” he shares they had the ability to re-score the project so that “even the movie that’s being played has an entirely new in-hand score, so the audio dynamics completely match what will be recorded live.” The production brought in a 45-piece orchestra for this new score — which will be featured on the show’s soundtrack, dropping the same night as the television event.

But that is not all that has been tweaked. Auli’i Cravalho, who plays the titular Ariel, shares that her version of the character is “a little bit more sassy” than in the animated film. “I think she’s got a little bit more spunk to her,” she says. “Admittedly that is myself, that’s also what I brought to Moana: She’s strong and she wants to do something different from her parents and from those around her.”

Graham Phillips, who plays Prince Eric, says there will be new insight given into his character, as well. “He’s lost both of his parents, and he’s decided to go off on a ship, and [when] he goes off on this adventure, he finds this girl who, literally, when he falls overboard brings him back to life. There’s something really interesting about that need to get back into a place where he feels alive again,” he says. “Sometimes it feels like there’s a girl he has a crush on, but it’s a lot more than that: If it wasn’t for her, he wouldn’t be alive and he wouldn’t have his vitality back after God knows how long of him being in the dumps.”

The spoken dialogue of the film will play as animated, but “The Little Mermaid Live” will lean heavier on the music to reach its audience emotionally. For this, too, Kapoor says the production made notable changes, including altering some of the lyrics “because things that people reacted to 30 years ago are a little different now, and we wanted to maybe have Ariel be a little more present and feel like she had a little more of a voice, even when she doesn’t.” But they also wanted to be able to celebrate some of the featured characters in a new and unique way.

While the 1989 film had four iconic character songs, ABC’s version is tripling that, in part by pulling from some of the material that was developed for the Broadway version of the story. This allows for the “Daughters of Triton” number that originally last for less than a minute in the movie to become more of a centerpiece for the characters of Ariel’s sisters, introduced by a brand-new emcee character, played by Amber Riley.

“I kind of channeled Whitney Houston,” Riley says of her character.

Additionally, Prince Eric, who never sang in the animated film, is now a part of four out of the 12 numbers.

“I started out doing opera and Broadway and whatnot, so it feels like a homecoming for me,” says Phillips. “I’ve always felt more comfortable on stage, doing something live, than I do on camera for some reason. In a strange way it feels less contrived because there’s a degree of commitment that requires you to really be fully present that you don’t always get when you’re doing 15 takes. You’ve only got one shot at this.”

In order to adequately prepare for the one-take on show night, the performers have been working for approximately a month, taking part in costume fittings and choreography rehearsals with choreographers RJ Durell and Nick Florez, which led to camera blocking and tech rehearsals. Those performers who will be taking flight in the show, such as Cravalho, also went to Las Vegas to have aerial rehearsal with Fly by Foy.

“I’m in a harness — in a tail, in a wig, in full hair and makeup and singing. It’s been challenging, but I’ve loved the challenge,” she says. “I do crunches before getting into the harness to tighten my core and not to get injured.”

The first full dress rehearsal for the cast did not take place until the day before the live show, on Monday, Nov. 4. In fact, some of the performers, such as Stamos and Shaggy (who plays Sebastian) had not even met until the dress rehearsal.

“No pun but I’m like a fish out of water, really. But that was also part of the excitement of why I wanted to do it. I’ve never done anything like this theatrical production — and I think if they had offered me this 10 years ago, I would have probably said no. But where I am in my career, in my mind, what I’ve already accomplished and done, it feels like the right time,” Shaggy says.

Although the role of Sebastian the crab went to a human, “The Little Mermaid Live” is not shying away from different representations of different animals. Many of the fish and other underwater creatures are done as puppets, for example, but Prince Eric’s beloved dog Max is a real dog — the only live animal in the show. Bagel, an English Sheepdog, plays Max the dog, and came with her trainer to all of the rehearsals that her human costars had to.

“Our show is so layered with people flying and puppeteers, and we also have a dog, but we also have kids. I think the youngest people in our cast are eight years old, but we also have people in our cast who are 72 years old. We have a live audience of about 500 who will get to take part in an interactive way, with performers coming into the audience and bubbles for the kids,” says Kapoor. “We wanted to celebrate all different ethnicities, all different body types, all different ages and have people feel like they could be part of our show. We kind of have everything under the sun because we wanted it to be a family celebration.”

Prior to going true live, the production is running through the show three full times. Kapoor notes that they “definitely have understudies and we are taping all three of our full run-throughs.” After performer Brennin Hunt broke his foot ahead of Fox’s live version of “Rent” in January, the team behind “The Little Mermaid Live” wanted to make sure they had a contingency plan. Fox ended up airing the previous night’s performance, which had been shot live-to-tape, and then went true live for the final act.

“We would never want to have to do what Fox did, but that is one of our backups as well,” Kapoor admits.

Yet, injuries aside, Stamos is one performer who believes the fun of a live show is seeing something go wrong. “Unless you’re screwing up or something funny happens, you may not really know it’s live. I remember they did ‘ER’ live years ago and the east coast one went so perfect they told [George] Clooney, ‘In the next one, kick a camera, mess it up a little bit.’ So that’s what I’m going to do,” he says.

“The Little Mermaid Live” airs Nov. 5 at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

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