Magazine article The New Yorker

UNDER THE SEA; the Boards

Magazine article The New Yorker

UNDER THE SEA; the Boards

Article excerpt

The other evening, Francesca Zambello, the opera director, was waiting in a restaurant on Forty-sixth Street. Zambello, who is best known for psychologically probing interpretations of the operatic repertoire--her dark, interior "Don Giovanni" was just revived to great acclaim in London--will make her Broadway debut in December with "The Little Mermaid," an adaptation of the Disney movie. Joining her was Thomas Schumacher, the producer of Disney Theatricals. It was Schumacher who persuaded another experimental director, Julie Taymor, to create a stage version of "The Lion King," which just celebrated its tenth anniversary on Broadway and has grossed more than three billion dollars worldwide.

Zambello ordered the lobster roll, Schumacher the fish tacos. In a little over an hour, the curtain would go up on the show's third preview. "I had given up on the idea of 'Little Mermaid,' " Schumacher said. "Now I love this property. But I couldn't figure out how to do it." Some years ago, Schumacher had commissioned Matthew Bourne to adapt "The Little Mermaid," but the project foundered. (Bourne went on to co-choreograph "Mary Poppins" for Disney and Cameron Mackintosh.) "Francesca called, and she said, 'I have an approach,' " Schumacher continued. "And we had a very quiet dinner in my apartment here in New York, and it took me about an hour to say yes."

"We ate sushi, which was appropriate," Zambello said. "Devouring the product."

"People who work in opera have absolutely no problem with the absurd," Schumacher said. "If you come from a world that deals with myth, legend, and lore, you say, 'O.K., we'll do underwater.' Everyone else is like, 'How the hell would you do underwater?' "

"It's about creating a parallel universe," said Zambello, whose mermaids speed about a blue-lit stage on Heelys, iridescent tails trailing behind them. "The 'Ring' cycle is not any different from 'The Little Mermaid' in that way." She said that prior to working with Schumacher she had been more familiar with Hans Christian Andersen's literary mermaid than with Disney's version. (For the chance to live as a human, Andersen's mermaid submits to having her tongue cut out, and agrees to trade her tail for legs that make her feel as if she were walking on knives; she is turned into sea foam when the prince she loves marries someone else. In the Disney movie, the mermaid, Ariel, not only has a fine pair of pain-free gams but also lands the guy and gets her voice back. …

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