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Broadway Bound 'Mermaid': Francesca Zambello: Part of Two Worlds

This is the sixth and final installment in the “Broadway Bound” series looking at “The Little Mermaid.”

Francesca Zambello is accustomed to having her feet in several worlds at once. A New Yorker by birth, Zambello has called Paris, Vienna, London and Moscow home. She comes from the world of opera, where she has directed dozens of productions and has been lauded by the French and Russian governments for her contribution to culture.

She's won three Olivier Awards (the British Tony Award) and two French Grand Prix des Critiques for her work at the Paris Opera. Her mantel holds honors from Japan, Germany, Russia and Australia.

And she taught Placido Domingo to sword-fight for the opera "Cyrano de Bergerac."

When she meets a group of reporters, she sits for an interview in English and five minutes later, she's giving one in Italian.

Who better, then, to bridge the several worlds presented in Disney's "The Little Mermaid" - a production that marks Zambello's Broadway debut Jan. 10 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre?

Zambello talked about bringing the ultimate half-fish-out-of-water story to the stage.

Alan Menken has said that his job on 'The Little Mermaid' was easy: writing songs. He said yours was the tricky one -- taking something that's two-dimensional and making it three-dimensional.

That's exactly right. Both of our jobs are tricky and both of them are exciting and different. For us - my collaborators, designers and choreographer - it was 'How do we create this world underneath the sea?'

I really began by thinking about the central character, Ariel, and her journey, her flight, her desire to become something else, to journey to the world above. And I realized that that was a basic, human, archetypal, primal feeling, to be something else.

The grass is always greener.

Exactly. In a sense, I thought that we didn't need to start by creating the other world. We need to start by understanding her. We need to connect to her humanness and the fact that she's a fantastical creature but with very human emotions. Since it's all, in a sense, a delicate story, I didn't want the visuals to overwhelm the story, but to enhance and support it.

I began with my collaborator, set designer George Tsypin, by creating a world that uses a special plastic material to light in certain ways to create underwater. And when we light it in different ways, it looks like architecture above the earth. I wanted the parallel universes to be created by the same material. Underwater feels very sculptural and free-flowing and translucent and there's a real luminosity to it, whereas the world above feels architectural and structural, but made out of the same things.

And there are things you didn't want to see here. What was your credo at the outset, the marching orders you gave your design team?

No water. No wires.

Just mermaids and humans.

Actually, there are three kinds of beings here. There are human beings. There are mer people who are fantastical creatures. And there are animals: a fish; Ursula the sea witch, who's an octopus; there's Scuttle the sea gull and Sebastian the crab.

We had to figure out how to connect these three worlds and it's the emotional story that connects them. Each of them serves as a metaphor, as a storyteller, as an archetypal character. We had each of these non-real things being fantastical but never lose their humanness.

Sounds a lot deeper than the Disney film.

It's tricky. You have to enter the world. Theater is a participation between the audience and the stage. You don't have that in film.

It's another world. It's a theatricalization of the film, which itself was a big leap from the original short story. There've been a lot of ballets, operas and plays - a lot of 'Little Mermaid' incarnations - along the way.

The gold standard in transferring a Disney animated feature to the stage is Julie Taymor's work on 'The Lion King.' She also came from the world of opera. Do you make a similar leap with 'Little Mermaid'?

I think it's a similar leap, but it's a very different story. In 'The Lion King,' every character is an animal. We have people, animals and fantastical creatures. So for me, it was really about creating an environment that all of these things could co-exist in visually.

Opera is all about grand scale. Did this seem like a good fit?

'The Little Mermaid,' when people question it, they wonder if I'm going into children's theater. All of this sense of the fantastical and the real commingle easily in an Internet video game and in Shakespeare. And they do here, too. But some people are too short-sighted to see that.

You run the risk, if it's too grand, of Ariel getting lost on a big stage in a big set.

That's why I didn't want the scale of this to be epic. I really wanted to keep it like a jewel box. We're in a small Broadway theater, the Lunt-Fontanne, and this environment really hones in, focuses in on Ariel and her journey ... On a big opera stage, sometimes a character can get lost or be at sea.

Is the opera world as fluid, as changeable, as Broadway?

We don't have as much time in opera. On Broadway, we have previews. But as a director, you're always racing against the clock. You never have enough time. You never feel like it's ready.

The Ellie Caulkins theater, where you had your Denver tryout, is actually bigger than the Lunt-Fontanne?

Yes, it was. There was a bigger audience, but it's bigger backstage here. We actually brought that proscenium in a bit (in Denver). It looked beautiful there and 95,000 people saw it and stood up for it. The Lunt is going to be perfect, a real intimate space. It's going to be wonderfully served there.

As a New Yorker - even one who has lived abroad for many years - you understand Broadway. Has anything surprised you about this show's path to Broadway?

Not really. I think it's understanding that we're here to create a piece that speaks to a wide audience. That's why I wanted to do this, to make theater for a new audience, for young audiences, for families, because I want live theater to be alive in the next generation. The wonderful thing about this piece, and about working with Disney, is that they're willing to go the extra mile to hire a real diversity of artists and collaborators, from Broadway veterans to newcomers to foreign artists to create a unique vision on Broadway that is different from anything else.

What do you know now that you wish you had known at the outset of the project?

A theater piece is always evolving. It is never captured the way a film is or a painting. What I knew a year ago and what I learned along the way is fused into the piece and it's constantly evolving.

People will come into the Lunt-Fontanne knowing the story, knowing some of the songs and wondering 'OK, what's she going to do with this?'

It's funny. You'd think that, but you'd be surprised at the number of people who come to see it who either don't know the movie at all or some people who know all of the movies, because there's more than one 'Little Mermaid.' Some people just come like open books, but those who do know it come in and enter our world and accept it as a theatrical experience.

Hans Christian Andersen's story ends much differently than the Disney film. Some people might sniff and look at the Disney version of Ariel as a girl who gets her man.

We tried to give her more substance - not only in what she gets but in her journey there. It was important for me to put onstage a positive role model of a young girl who is independent and chooses her own destiny and follows it and acts upon it. And later she does heroic things.

Yes, she gets her man, but he also accepted her when she wasn't perfect, when she didn't have a voice. There are all sorts of morals in this piece and I think people will embrace it, people will jump all over it. It makes you respond and react.

Prince Eric gets a makeover of sorts on Broadway.

Working with Doug (Wright), the book writer and Alan Menken, we've beefed up his character and given him a through-line and a stronger journey. He doesn't want to be king, he wants to be connected to nature and Ariel represents nature and water. So they have much more of an interesting connection.

How close to your original vision for the show is what's on stage now at the Lunt-Fontanne?

We're very close, with the visual world and the movement world and the story. For me, it was important to develop the emotional core of the piece. I didn't want to lose that. I wanted to enhance it.

I wanted that father-daughter relationship. I wanted that brother-sister. I wanted the dysfunctional family and the healing of the family. I wanted all of that to come alive. It's mythological, this piece!

It's a fusion of Shakespeare and children's theater and Broadway. It's many forms drawn together, and that's what myth is. The Greeks!

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