The little Mermaidopening May 26, is the highly anticipated live-action adaptation of the hand-drawn musical of the same name, which ushered in the second golden age of Disney animation in 1989.
A loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, the project was hatched by veteran Disney animators John Musker and Ron Clements, who in 1985 convinced then studio president Jeffrey Katzenberg to invest in a 20-page treatment. Two years later, Howard Ashman, who had written a song for 1988 Oliver & Companywas brought on board to help develop the project.
“Howard approached it in such a beautiful way, like a Broadway musical,” says Jodi Benson, who was 27 and at the time worked with Ashman and Marvin Hamlisch, who performed in the short-lived Broadway show Smile. “The Disney executives came to the show and I met them backstage,” Benson recalled. “When our show ended very quickly, Howard invited a handful of us girls to audition The little Mermaid. It was something to do on the way to the unemployment office. Many months went by and then I got the call that I had been given the role of Ariel.
Ashman hired his Small horror shop collaborator Alan Menken to compose melodies for the film and transform an English butler’s crab character named Clarence into a Caribbean crustacean named Sebastian. (That part went to Samuel E. Wright, another Broadway veteran, who co-starred with Benson in 1989’s Cy Coleman’s last musical, Welcome to the club.)
Katzenberg almost cut Ariel’s signature song, “Part of Your World,” because “he was just bored” during the sequence, Benson recalls, but Ashman and Ariel’s animator, Glen Keane, “both said, ‘No — you can do that. do not .’ Katzenberg agreed and the song became a standard.
So did the movie, that one THR predicted in his review would “bolster the studio’s comeback”. It did, grossing $225 million worldwide ($550 million today) and launching a string of animated classics, including 1991’s Beauty and the Beast and that of 1992 Aladdin.
This story first appeared in the May 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.