In all honesty Disney’s next excursions on The Great White Way proved to be disappointments. The films chosen, Tarzan and The Little Mermaid, seemed ripe for the stage. Both were popular amongst audiences, were well known stories before their Disney incarnations and featured popular soundtracks. The musicals floundered on stage though each lasting little over two years on Broadway. Both productions featured the difficult task of interpreting non-human characters for the stage in settings not easy to re-create. Both stories were altered from their well-known Disney form, much to audience dislike due to visual constraints. In comparison with past shows it seems as though these interpretations’ downfall were due to a lack of cultural inspiration. Though set in the jungles of Africa (likely Madagascar) Tarzan didn’t draw any influence from the region like its predecessor The Lion King. As for The Little Mermaid, visual inspiration appears to come from Disney itself, bright colors and glitter are practically thrown at the audience in a garish fashion. That being said the shows did display some decent examples of intricate and innovative costumery.
Disney did take note of designer Bob Crowley, who served as both scenic and costume designer for Mary Poppins and chose him to direct and design their next film to musical adaptation, Tarzan. The 1999 film was instantly lauded for its soundtrack by Phil Collins. Collins signed on for the musical, and the task of making apes and a vine-swinging jungle man come alive on stage began.
Tarzan tells the story of a boy raised by apes who must come to terms with his identity upon the arrival of humans on his island. The film featured Tarzan swinging from vine to vine in a loin cloth. Actors had to move about stage on wires in comfort and without flashing the audience. Crowley decided that the characters didn’t need to hide the fact that they were attached to wires, rather the audience could still marvel at the acrobatics they would perform. “Characters obviously attach themselves to the vines. They clip on and off,” (Hillman, par.4). Tarzan received a fitted loincloth that also served as a harness for his acrobatic stunts. The apes received a more stylized treatment. Men’s chests and faces remained exposed and wore pants jackets and headdresses made from black braided material that gave the appearance of fur when they moved. The costumes helped connect the apes to the humans in the show, showing Tarzan’s belonging in both worlds.
The humans in Tarzan also received different looks from their animated counterparts. Tarzan’s love interest, Jane, loses her signature yellow safari dress in exchange for a striped frock. She also gains a shorter pink dress that pops against the green background of the set. The costumes changed but not so much that it would have been un-recognizable to the audience seeing it. Sadly, Tarzan bombed on the stage. Critics quickly dismissed the show and audiences didn’t take a liking to it, many claiming that the movie visuals simply couldn’t be captured on stage. Tarzan closed after a year on the Broadway stage, but still continues to play on European stages.
The Little Mermaid
By the time Tarzan opened in 2006, CEO Michael Eisner had been forced out of the company. Disney had seemingly lost an essential component to the success of stage adaptations of their films. Eisner’s longtime assistant Bob Iger stepped in to front the company. Iger didn’t have Eisner’s background in theatre and took the company in a different direction. Former head of animation, Peter Schneider explains Disney’s new direction “Why doesn’t Pixar make a Broadway-style show?…. ‘Because they’re boys with toys. That’s Pixar’s culture.’ … when I was at Disney, the culture was Broadway theatrical — or theater people,”(Robinson, par. 18). Iger proved to have an interest in theatre, however, and greenlighted an adaptation of The Little Mermaid.
The Little Mermaid was the catalyst film for Disney’s second golden age and won an Oscar for the song “Under The Sea” in 1989. It was the perfect choice to follow Tarzan’s less than favorable exit, and generate public interest once more. The Little Mermaid tells the story of a young mermaid princess who longs for a life with her true love on land. Opera director Francesca Zambello served as director for the production. Zambello brought on many of her opera connections as designers. Russian costume designer Tatiana Noginova took on the challenge of making costumes for the underwater world. “We have fantastical creatures, animals, and humans, and we’re trying to make a unified language for them,” (Lassell, From the Deep Blue…, 139). Arguably Noginova had one of the toughest challenges yet, unlike Anne Hould-Ward she had to translate a beloved Disney princess onto stage from an underwater form. It simply wasn’t possible to replicate Ariel’s famous green tail or Ursula’s tentacles exactly on stage. Zambello began the production then with the thought” “The film is inspiration, but for a theatre piece you have to create something that is completely its own world,” (Lassell, From the Deep Blue…, 66).
Noginova drew upon her Russian folklore for designs of the mermaids “In Russia…we have a lot of fairy tales about mermaids….there are basically two kinds….ocean mermaids [who] have fish tails…..[and] the river variety [who] have legs and can walk…as well as live under water, “(Lassell, From the Deep Blue…, 139). Ariel and her mermaid kin took after the ‘river mermaids’ and received flowing skirts and a fabric covered wire tails. Ariel and her true love Prince Eric are the only characters in the show to retain their film counterpart’s looks on stage. Noginova’s costumes were not well received, one critic states “The whole enterprise is soaked in that sparkly garishness that only a very young child — or possibly a tackiness-worshiping drag queen — might find pretty,” (Brantley, par 8). The musical was more successful than Tarzan but not a hit like previous Disney shows. The Little Mermaid closed in 2009 leaving only two Disney shows, Mary Poppins and The Lion King remaining on Broadway.
The Disney brand will always continue to attract audiences in both stage and screen form. Even if a production like Tarzan fails, the public is sure to have read about it or seen pictures. It is clear from the examples given that stage productions of their famous animated features are designed on a case by case basis. Julie Taymor’s break from the mold with The Lion King allowed Tatiana Noginova’s interpretation to occur. The success for a show does rely heavily on the designer. If the audience believes the stage version to be too unlike the movie, they don’t like it. Disney allows designers to take chances with their characters, because a failure for Disney is small in comparison with other theatre companies. Either way Disney remains on the forefront of film to stage adaptations.
Brantley, Ben. “Fish Out of Water In The Deep Blue Sea.” New York Times 11 Jan. 2008, Theater sec. Print.
Hillman, Bill. “Preview Notes.” Web log post. ERBzine. Web. <http://www.erbzine.com/mag16/1675.html>.
Lassell, Michael. The Little Mermaid: A Broadway Musical From the Deep Blue Sea to The Great White Way. New York: Disney Editions, 2009. Print