Thread By Thread: Costumes on Screen

Tarzan & The Little Mermaid from Screen to Stage

The Broadway recreation of the famous The Little Mermaid poster, which was based on the famous statue of The Little Mermaid in Hans Christian Anderson’s hometown of Copenhagen.

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.


Tarzan in the animated movie moved about like a combination of a skateboarder and a Modern dancer.

Tarzan swinging on a vine on stage, certainly picking up on the Modern dance elements. His loincloth was specially designed to include a harness which would sustain his weight and movement while flying.

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 and Jane’s cute meet in the animated film.

From Jane’s outfit we can set the animated films’ time period to be around 1880s.

Tarzan and Jane’s cute meet in the stage adaptation.

Jane’s wardrobe had more variety and has a more practical take on the late Victorian era clothing than her animated version.

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 alpha male gorilla and Tarzan’s adopted father Kurtak in the animated film.

Kurtak on stage, still definitely powerful.The apes in action, there are some definite allusions to the similarities between humans and apes. Implying that the connection between the two emotionally is not too far off, thus Tarzan’s ability to belong to 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.

Tarzan woos an underdressed Jane in the stage musical.

The Little Mermaid

Flounder and Ariel on stage. The elaborate wire tails worn by the mermaids in the cast, originally had motors in them to make them move as if the characters were using them just as a fish would in water.

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.

Ariel and her sidekick Flounder being admonished by her father, King Triton for her fascination with the humans.

Ariel and King Triton on stage. The costumes manage to allude to their animated counterparts without attempting to be exact recreations.

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).

The nefarious Sea Witch Ursula and her eel sidekicks Flotsam and Jetsam in the animated film.

Ursula and Flotsam and Jetsam on stage. Ursula’s tentacles have a more accordion like look on stage and Flotsam and Jetsam have elaborate makeup and green glowing costumes.

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.

Ariel’s reveal in her new human clothes. The dress itself is actually reminiscent of Snow White and Cinderella’s dress designs.The stage interpretation of Ariel’s pink dress. Her legs are left to be seen to represent her newest acquisitions that she is so proud of.

The stage interpretation of Ariel’s pink dress. Her legs are left to be seen to represent her newest acquisitions that she is so proud of.

Ariel and Eric’s wedding day attire is certainly drawn after the look of that other iconic 80s fairytale wedding, that of Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

The stage version of Ariel’s wedding gown is less 80s looking than her film counterpart and actually manages to allude to her ocean origins in the blue accent beading.

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. <;.

Lassell, Michael. The Little Mermaid: A Broadway Musical From the Deep Blue Sea to The Great White Way. New York: Disney Editions, 2009. Print

This entry was published on November 12, 2011 at 10:51 am. It’s filed under Entertainment, Nov. 2011 and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

One thought on “Tarzan & The Little Mermaid from Screen to Stage

  1. Daniel Caraballo on said:

    I love this article first off, I alway love The Little Mermaid since I was a baby and I always yearn for the day it becomes a musical, I was a little dissapointed by the Broadway costumes it wasn’t until I brought the book and understood the concepts but still I love the mermaids on stage, but I did felt the costumes for the other underwater character seemed lifeless. And I have seen other productions after Broadway such as Tuacahn, Music Theatre of Wichita, The Muny, and the productions in Israel and Manila and what I notice is that, yes they put their own stamp into those productions but I see there was some inspirations taken from the Broadway production as well, so yes Noginova’s designs were mixed at it’s best but it seems it lead a inspirational asspect as well. I really want to see what Bob Crowley has in mind for Mermaid I want to see if there’s any inspiration left.

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