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Broadway Bound 'Mermaid': Doug Wright: Writing for an Undersea World

This is the fifth installment in the “Broadway Bound” series looking at “The Little Mermaid.” Doug Wright has a Pulitzer, a Tony and a Drama Desk Award for 2004's "I Am My Own Wife," a play about an aging German transvestite named Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.

Last year, he was a Tony nominee for the book of the musical "Grey Gardens," about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' aunt and cousin who lived in squalor in the Hamptons.

Both projects involved rather dark subjects and were documentary in nature, so it might come as a surprise to learn that Wright's next project, the one that's been occupying him for years, involves a little mermaid.

Wright has written the book for "The Little Mermaid," now in previews at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre before its official opening Dec. 6.

Wright sat down recently to talk about bringing the classic Disney feature film to Broadway.

Do you remember the first time you saw "The Little Mermaid"?

I didn't see it in the theater. But all my friends had told me it had such an exuberant Broadway-style score, and as a person of the theater, that made me want to see it. I remember sort of skulking into the children's animated films aisle and renting it. I was captivated and utterly charmed by it and it lodged itself in my heart and has been a favorite of mine ever since.

Did you have any misgivings or hesitation about working with Disney to bring "The Little Mermaid" to Broadway?

Truthfully, I actively lobbied for the job. Tom Schumacher [the head of Disney's Broadway branch, Disney Theatricals] had me into his office and said he'd seen my other work and wanted to talk about future possible collaborations. And I was brazen enough to say 'What's up with "The Little Mermaid" - because it's always been my favorite of the Disney animated musicals, and if it ever made the leap to the stage I'd love to be part of it.' So he gave me the job.

You've written two rather documentary shows - "I Am My Own Wife" and "Grey Gardens" - two shows about characters who could not be less like Ariel, the little mermaid. Is there any theme that possibly unites them, other than the man who wrote the book?

I think they're all, pardon the pun, fish-out-of-water stories, about people who for some reason are uncomfortable in their own skin and have to go on remarkable journeys in order to reinvent themselves. There's consistency there, in a funny way. The stories have something in common.

"Grey Gardens" had a cult-like following, those who had seen and loved the original documentary film. You've got an even bigger cult with "The Little Mermaid," people who know what they want to see when they come in.

As different as those two projects seem, in each instance I was taking material that is deeply beloved by a really ardent and very vocal fan base and I was reinventing it for a new medium. So it was the same responsibility, to make it work on stage as a craftsman but also to honor the memory that people have of the original.

You didn't want to be the guy who turned Ariel into chum for the critics.

No. I absolutely wanted to honor the movie.

You've made Prince Eric less of a dud than he was in the film.

Ariel yearns for a bigger, better world where she can realize her own potential, and along the way she picks up the happy dividend of Prince Eric. We wanted to make sure that Eric had his own songs and his own dilemmas in the world and that there were very specific reasons why he and Ariel were attracted to each other. We ultimately decided that Eric's a very physical guy, he loves sailing the high seas and he needed a girl who could not only keep up with him but also match him in every regard. In Ariel he finds his equal, which is important in 2007.

Some could look at Ariel as just a girl who gets her guy.

Her ambition needs to be greater. It's really to break free from the confines of her family and forge the kind of life that she feels is truest to who she is.

Can you talk about the creative process at work here? Did you get notes and go off and write?

It's highly collaborative and certainly [director] Francesca [Zambello] is a major force in shaping the material and making it as rich as it can be. But Alan Menken is at the table. His new lyricist, Glenn Slater, is there. Tom Schumacher is there. And this might sound sentimental, but I even like to believe that the guiding spirit of [original lyricist] Howard Ashman is somehow in the room, too. So when we're making changes from the original film, we're always going back to the movie to find the seeds. Because we don't want to reinvent something that worked so gorgeously. It was a heavy give-and-take.

For "Grey Gardens" and "I Am My Own Wife," you had interviews to pore over to bring your characters to life. With "The Little Mermaid," you had a movie and the original Hans Christian Andersen story, which had been wildly adapted in the making of the film. Did you find that at all limiting?

As a writer, to be given a gallery of compelling characters and a strong and interesting narrative with all of the requisite plot complications at the top, that was gift. Those are usually the hardest things to achieve, and I got handed those on a platter! So it was very welcome and I relied on that a lot. The book to the musical owes an enormous debt to the original screenwriters [Roger Allers, Ron Clements and John Musker].

What is it like to write for a sea gull?

This is the first theater piece I've ever worked on that has tap-dancing sea gulls, confetti cannons and a giant bubble machine. And I gotta tell ya: I think every show benefits from the presence of a giant bubble machine and a few tap-dancing sea gulls. I'm certainly putting them in my future works.

Were there things that you felt you had to address with "The Little Mermaid"?

I felt that the things that most excited me about the movie that I wanted to reiterate in the stage version were issues of tolerance, because one thematic through-line of the film is the undersea world and the human world and how they're at war and each carries misperceptions about the other. Ariel becomes a passionate conduit who brings the two together and allows them to find an equilibrium. Also, a parent-child story that asks basic questions: 'What's the most responsible way to parent? To keep your child safe and close to you at any cost or to endorse the sometimes threatening risks they take to realize their own identity?' And which is the more courageous act as a parent?

It's the second one. Right?

I certainly hope so.

Still, it is a show for children.

But what delights me is how sophisticated children are as viewers. When we tried out the show in Denver, we had the opportunity to bring about 20 kids together in a room who were between the ages of 8 and 12. And we asked them what the themes of the story were and which characters they connected to. They were astonishingly astute, and it was clear that they hungered for real content, too. They didn't just want firecrackers and a lot of noise. They wanted a substantive story that they could emotionally connect to. They're demanding audiences in their own right.

Did you ever feel that, because the music is so central to the success of the show, that you had to, in a way, get out of the way of the songs?

The music is a wonderful guide. It's like the songs are these gorgeous beautifully realized quilt pieces, and my job was to stitch them together as effortlessly as possible. But the music also does so much of my heavy lifting. The songs establish character, they let you know what a character's innermost desires are, they explicate the story in a really smart way, and they contribute to the joyous tone of the piece. So it's not so much staying out of their way as knowing just how deeply they're serving my task and exploiting them for all they're worth. [Laughs].

Is there a moment that you look at that you say, 'Man! We nailed that.

No one's seen this before and they're going to be blown away?'

I think Francesca and her remarkable designers have created an undersea world that is unlike anything audiences have seen on stage before. And she's done it without a drop of water. The set resembles a gorgeous piece of Venetian glass and I think audiences are going to come to the Lunt-Fontanne and see a really singular world represented onstage with unusual artistry. Every time the prince's boat sails up into the skyline and we find ourselves going thousands of fathoms below the sea and we're meeting the undersea creatures for the first time, I get a visceral thrill that's unlike any other. I'm tremendously excited.

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