From the director Rob Marshall and screenwriter David MagesDisney’s live-action reimagining Little MermaidD Adventure with a curious young mermaid, as she explores the world beyond the sea and interacts with humans for the first time. While on land, Ariel (Halle Bailey), who traded his siren song for the feet given to him by the sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), get to know Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) and the two form a relationship that may be strong enough to unite the sea and land empires.

During this conference to promote the new film, Marshall and the composer Alan Menken (who wrote the songs for the animated film with Howard Ashman) talked about how writing the music was like building a very delicate organism, when they knew they had found their Ariel, gave Bailey the space to find a rendition of “Part of Your World”, why the rehearsal period that’s important, and figuring out where to put the new music.


Question: Rob, you’ve done a few movies with Disney now. What made you want to collaborate with them again, especially in a live-action remake like this?

ROB MARSHALL: Because there’s nothing like working with them. I feel supported, in a big way. They let you do your job. They trust you. From Bob Iger to Alan Bergman to Sean Bailey, everyone is here to support artists. That’s how I feel, all along. It’s a massive film with a massive budget, but I never felt that way. I never felt that from them. They really respect artists. That’s why I made this film with them. We feel like home there. They want us to reinvent and reimagine. They’re not looking for a frame-by-frame remake. It’s not something they’re looking for. And who else is going to make this big musical? People don’t take that risk anymore. Musicals are very complicated. It’s a balancing act. You can really get off track. When someone starts singing, it’s really organic and feels relatable, or that moment, “Ooh, they’re singing and it’s weird.” You shouldn’t see the work. That’s the goal of everything we do.

ALAN MENKEN: We’re building very delicate organisms. When you write a musical for the stage, you’re writing something that will have actors coming and going, and different designers coming in, and different theatres, and associate directors. You have to build something strong enough to be able to move it and still hold its shape. A lot of it is in structure. And Rob, coming out of musical theater, understands that structure all too well.

Halle Bailey as Ariel in The Little Mermaid
Image via Disney

Alan, what was it like to give Halle Bailey the space to find her version of “Part of Your World”?

MENKEN: I’m not someone who intimidates, but I think the role of the composer can intimidate the actors. I try to filter everything through the music, as much as I can, because they have to have someone they really like in the room, who does the notes for them and who gives them the notes of the phrases. When I pass a note, I want to skip it too. I don’t want them to be attacked with, “Alan thought this, and this person thinks so.” They should have made it themselves. After they make it themselves, if I have something to say, I will say it. But she’s absolutely adorable and super talented. You can’t take your eyes off him. The emotion was right on his face and his voice. She is an amazing Ariel. And you see it on the levels. We had our recording session, and then I watched the movie when it was first put together. When we got to “Your Part of the World” I just burst into tears. Part of it just remembers the innocence of what we put in there, to begin with.

MARSHALL: The first actor we saw for this role was Halle. The first thing he did was come in and sing for us, and he sang the song. He closed his eyes and started singing the song, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I just think he really connected to what he was singing about. It was so emotional and so beautiful. I thought, “Oh my gosh, we’ve been doing this for five minutes. Have we found our Ariel?” And we have. But then, we saw hundreds of other actors after that. We see every ethnicity. We see everyone. But Halle kept coming back, and she claimed the role as her own. That’s what happened.

Rob, do you always do the training process? Why is it something important to you?

MARSHALL: This is something I’ve always done. I come from the theater. We all come from the theater. There is a process to go through. Musical is a hybrid. Musical film is a combination of theater and film. You can’t just walk in and start singing. You have to learn the songs and the choreography. It’s all part of it. I’ve always felt that my job, as a director, is to protect the actors and make them feel safe in a place where they can screw up and be bad, then be better, and not feel judged. That, to me, is the most important part of it. It feels small and intimate because you are creating. Movies are very intimate. Of course, it’s massive in some ways, but it’s a small story. It’s about father and daughter. This is a father learning to let go. These two kindred spirits learn to change the world and are not afraid of someone who is different from them. It’s a beautiful story. I never want any actor to feel the pressure of film and the pressure of filming and the technical part of it. Especially with this film, we don’t want the technical aspects of the film to lead it.

Halle Bailey as Ariel and Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric in The Little Mermaid
Image via Disney

Alan, how did you find out about the new music and where did it go?

MENKEN: This is a group process. robber [Marhsall](producer) John [DeLuca], (writer) David Magee, (producer) Lin-Manuel Miranda, and I got together and discussed how the story is being adapted and what the structure is, and where the potential points are. As simple as that. Those decisions are made based on character and moment, but also based on the order of scores and what is needed at any given moment. We pick the moment when Prince Eric is told, “Don’t go back in there, you can’t,” and he’s just thinking about this girl. It was a love song for him and the sea, and its uncharted waters and the life before him. That ends up being a very important theme throughout the film. Then, we had his first time on land, which was great fun. I gave Lin a very seductive tone. It’s a three against two feeling. He was so passionate and everything was so new and so beautiful. He realized he couldn’t speak, and he was heartbroken. And then, “The Scuttlebutt,” was the surprise gift. I gave him this Caribbean song, and Lin rapped it to perfection. He uses music, but has this rhythmic beat. It was pure Lin-Manuel Miranda.

MARSHALL: It’s surprising how, when you think about animated films, you realize that Ariel has one song. There’s been a series of reprises, but that’s one song. The great thing about working with Alan is that he is very open to looking at things. He knew this was a different genre. We’re making a live-action film, so we have to find a way to do that. We said, “Can we find another place for Ariel?” The challenging thing was that he, of course, lost his voice. But in film, you can create something where you hear internal thoughts through music and songs. That was key for us, in finding this work for him. It also helps us a lot because it’s a montage of all her time on land, until she meets her prince for the first time. It helps us in many ways. It’s been great to have that collaboration.

Alan, you have a flair with ballads, especially for the female characters. What is your approach to these characters and their emotions? How did that inspire you to create these iconic songs?

MENKEN: I stumbled on “female characters”. Of course, you write for the character. You write for now. You write for the concept of how you tell the story. What is the tone of the story? What’s the right moment? You organize DNA. I have a musical color palette, and you paint it. And then, you start building those colors. For example, “A Part of Your World”, you can say that it is Ariel’s color, but also that figure is just flowing water. That feeling of motion, and everything grows out of it. Some also come from experience and do it often, for years. You release it and pour it into the shape you have made. You make molds and shapes. Where does the song start? Where does the song end? How do the characters develop, dramatically, throughout the song? Shall we open it for dialogue? Everything that happens, the world we find ourselves in, the palette we decide to work with, fits that mold. It feels right, or not good enough. You should be free to create and react until you say, “Oh, I’m in love with this.” You must fall in love with him. And you have to be willing to throw away things you love, if other people don’t see it that way. That’s the way. I’ve thrown out a lot of beautiful ballads. We have songs Hercules, titled “Star Fall”. It was, “Nobody seems to think much of me here, my shooting star.” It’s a song of longing. That’s beautiful. It has great orchestration. But the song was too sweet, so I had to throw it away and make another song, namely “Go the Distance”. Throwing it away can be a blessing. And maybe the song will return one day, in some form. You just surrender yourself to the moment and character, create the structure you want, pour yourself into it, and be willing to say, “No, that’s pour the wrong one.”

Melissa McCarthy as Ursula in The Little Mermaid
Image via Disney

How does it feel to see this music that you worked on, not only remain a staple of culture, but now get a second life in this new form?

MENKEN: Amazing. It was incredible. I have been blessed to have had that experience many times. What makes it special is figuring out which team to be a part of giving it a fresh life and perspective. When I knew it was going to be Rob and John, it was a wish list, it was. All the elements that go into making it a truly original confection. Rob is a flame keeper like I thought I should be. Being selfless is the most selfish thing you can do because the way you get the results you want is to be completely flexible and selfless, knowing that you have created something. If that’s not good enough, you try something else. As simple as that.

MARSHALL: Collaboration is a key element to any score in film or on stage. It’s all about collaboration. That’s how it works.

Little Mermaid now in theaters.

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