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THE LITTLE MERMAID – Alan Menken

October 24, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Walt Disney Corporation is, for better or worse, probably the world’s biggest and most influential media and entertainment company. Not only does it own its own catalogue of classic live action and animated films, including those made by Pixar, it of course also owns Lucasfilm and the rights to the Star Wars universe, Marvel and the Avengers universe, and has recently bought Twentieth Century Fox and it’s entire cache of intellectual property. As I write this five of the six highest grossing films of 2019 are Disney features, and we haven’t even seen Frozen II or Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker yet, which could lock out seven of 2019’s Top 10. It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always this way, and even easier to forget that the film that turned it all around was an animated feature based on a classic story by a children’s author from Denmark.

In 1988 the animation arm of the Walt Disney Corporation was not in a good place. None of its previous few films – The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver & Company – had been especially successful with either critics or audiences, which was unthinkable for the people responsible for groundbreaking classics like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Bambi, Cinderella, and the others. It took a major organizational restructure, the hiring of executives like Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, and a conceptual ‘return to their roots’ in terms of basing films on works from the established literary canon (rather than original ideas) to turn things around, and the first film resulting from this sea change was The Little Mermaid, based on the 1837 fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen.

The story is a fairly simple one; a mermaid princess named Ariel dreams of becoming human after falling in love with a human prince named Eric, and strikes a Faustian bargain with a sea-witch named Ursula where she is given human form in exchange for her voice. If the literally speechless Ariel can somehow convince Eric to love her back within three days, she will have her voice returned and remain human; however, if she fails, she will become Ursula’s property, and Ursula will have the means to take over the undersea kingdom of Ariel’s father, King Triton. It didn’t have a starry voice cast – the main performers were Jodi Benson, Christopher Daniel Barnes, and Pat Carroll – and it wasn’t especially groundbreaking from a visual point of view either. Instead, what made The Little Mermaid a success was the music. It was the first Disney film in 20 years – probably since The Jungle Book in 1967 – to be a full-fledged musical, and the men responsible for it were a 40-year-old New York composer named Alan Menken, and his 39-year-old songwriting partner Howard Ashman. Menken and Ashman had worked together on Broadway before, writing Little Shop of Horrors in 1982, and supervising its big-screen remake in 1986, but this was the first time either man had written original music specifically for a film. Furthermore, while Little Shop of Horrors was a musical based on 1960s Motown and doo-wop, The Little Mermaid was a classic fully-orchestral Broadway showstopper, albeit one with an underlying hint of calypso, and this is what captured audiences. The direct emotional connection between Ariel and the audience was conveyed through music and song, and it proved to be a delicious and irresistible combination.

The opening song is “Fathoms Below,” performed by a male voice chorus representing the crew of Prince Eric’s flagship as it sails across the ocean. It is an upbeat sea-shanty style piece that segues into the “Main Titles,” which is pretty and magical and introduces several of the score’s recurring character leitmotifs. The regal brass “Fanfare” leads into “Daughters of Triton,” a sprightly renaissance-style quadrille which consists mostly of actress Kimmy Robertson singing the names of Ariel’s different sisters – Aquata, Andrina, Arista, Attina, Adela, and Alana – as a mock-operatic aria.

“Part of Your World” is the archetypal Disney ‘I Want’ song, and is performed by Jodi Benson as Ariel, who is fascinated by human society and dreams of one day walking around on those… what do you call ‘em… feet? It’s a soaring power ballad full of longing and desire, and has gone on to be considered an all-time classic. Although it certainly progresses the story within the film perfectly, illustrating Ariel’s state of mind and putting into motion the entire plot, I do feel that the lyrics have dated somewhat, and I’m annoyed that Benson has one of those irritating, cloyingly cute Disney voices, omitting t’s from ‘plenty’ and ‘twenty’ and dropping g’s from the end of words like ‘dancing’ and ‘jumping’ like she’s from Brooklyn rather than a fantasy undersea kingdom. Every girl from every Glee club across the United States tried to emulate Benson for 20 years afterwards, resulting in a myriad of gratingly inferior sound-alikes, and for that I will never forgive her.

In fact, the first showstopper is the endlessly catchy “Under the Sea,” performed in-character by Samuel E. Wright as Sebastian, King Triton’s crustacean court music director. It’s a wonderful calypso/reggae piece intended to extol the virtues of aquatic life to Ariel, and contains wonderfully amusing lyrics and a steel drum hook that became synonymous with the film for years. The track won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1989, and the Grammy Award for Best Song Written for Visual Media in 1991.

“Poor Unfortunate Souls” is the villain’s song, and is performed by actress Pat Carroll in-character as Ursula the Sea Witch as a sort of burlesque seduction, tempting Ariel to engage in the bargain in which she trades her voice for human legs. Carroll’s deeply husky voice, Menken’s mischievous brass arrangement, and Ashman’s clever lyrics make it a memorable piece; the Latinate incantation at the end of the song, where Ursula actually casts the spell on Ariel, is also notable for its use of a Gothic church organ as part of the arrangement, and the whole thing is the basis of Ursula’s motif as it appears in the score proper.

Wright’s second song, “Kiss the Girl,” is a wistful calypso ballad sung by Sebastian as encouragement to Eric and Ariel to kiss before it’s too late, so that Ursula’s spell can be broken; it was also nominated for an Oscar alongside “Under the Sea,” and features more steel drums alongside a prominent bass guitar and unique vocal harmonies. “Les Poissons,” is the one song everyone forgets, and for good reason, as it’s a not-very-funny comedic burst of French farce performed with a terribly stereotypical accent by René Auberjonois while playing Chef Louis, who in one scene tries to cook Sebastian as part of a seafood dinner for Eric and Ariel. They did it better in “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast.

Originally, Menken was not supposed to write the score for The Little Mermaid – he was only responsible for the songs – but the demos he provided for Disney convinced them to take a chance on him in that capacity, so this score represents his first ever effort. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that the score is orchestrated comparatively thinly, with a smaller ensemble than one might expect, and with a little more electronic enhancement in play, especially when it comes to the basses. However, there is still a lot of enjoyment to be gleaned from Menken’s work here, in terms of the thematic content and the instrumental palette he employs. There are really only two themes worth noting, both of which are derived from songs. Ariel’s theme is based on the content of the “Part of Your World” song, while Ursula’s theme is based on the song “Poor Unfortunate Souls”. No-one else really has a specific thematic identity, but different characters do appear to be represented by different instrumental textures that weave in and out of the score: Ariel has flutes, Eric has an oboe, Ursula has trumpets, King Triton has a French horn, Scuttle the seagull has clarinets, and so on.

As a result, a lot of the score tends to be a little Mickey-Mousey, moving from style to style frequently, often within the same cue. Menken can be forgiven for his slightly unsophisticated approach considering that, as I mentioned, it was his first ever orchestral score, but on the other hand it does pale in comparison with many of the other scores released in 1989, and is also clearly inferior to many of his own later works, which are much richer and show a significantly deeper level of musical complexity. But that’s not to say there aren’t highlights, because there absolutely are.

There is a trio of pretty renaissance-style pieces that represent the courtly palace life of Prince Eric. “Fireworks” is lively and upbeat, with sparkling electronics and a subtle chorus, and it segues into the playful “Jig,” which passes a cheerful pseudo-medieval melody backwards and forwards between solo violin, solo pennywhistle, accordions, and keyboards. Later, “Tour of the Kingdom” features more and pomp and circumstance courtesy of a bank of regal brasses, frolicking strings, and prancing woodwinds.

“Flotsam and Jetsam” presents the score’s most prominent statement of Ursula’s theme, a sneaky and sinister piece for stark strings that is only lightened by some mischievous woodwind textures intended to represent the titular characters, Ursula’s pet electric eels. Meanwhile, “Bedtime” is the score’s most prominent statement of Ariel’s theme, a whimsical arrangement for elegant strings.

The three main action sequences are “The Storm,” “Destruction of the Grotto,” and “Eric to the Rescue,” all of which allowed Menken the opportunity to unleash some slightly more impressive orchestral forces. “The Storm” introduces one of the score’s other recurring motifs, a florid string run which seems to be derived from a motif heard in the opening “Fathoms Below” track, and which flashes up and down the scales accompanied by heavy cymbal clashes, brass fanfares, and an identifiable ‘rolling sound’ associated with crashing waves. “Destruction of the Grotto” begins with a surprisingly playful sequence for pizzicato strings, but it becomes much more serious following the introduction of Triton’s French horn and some authoritative church organ sounds. “Eric to the Rescue” is perhaps the pick of the bunch, as in this cue Menken takes the string based action motif from “The Storm” and transfers it to brass, and then combines it with more forceful and dramatic settings of Ursula’s Theme and Ariel’s Theme in counterpoint, as well as some striking readings of Eric’s recurring oboe textures.

“Wedding Announcement” offers the score’s most prominent performance of the motif for Scuttle the Seagull, which starts out carried by his usual clarinets, but then jumps between pizzicato strings and humorous brass fanfares, light and frothy and fizzy. The cello line at 0:51 may be an in-joke reference to the Jaws theme, as the cue’s middle section features more serious string runs, light action, and references to Ursula’s Theme. The finale of the cue is drenched in the sound of traditional wedding music, with organs and swooning strings; this style carries on into the conclusive “Happy Ending,” which is warm and appealing, romantic and tender, and features tolling bells accompanying a final choral version of Ariel’s Theme.

The original soundtrack release of The Little Mermaid was a touch under 45 minutes in length, and contained just 20 minutes of score, alongside all the original songs. For many years fans had been clamoring for a more complete and comprehensive release of the score, and this was finally realized in 2014 with the release of the Little Mermaid: Legacy Collection album. This expanded the score’s running time to over 100 minutes with the addition of several previously un-released score tracks and a dozen or so of the original work prints and synth demos that Menken and Ashman put together during pre-production on the film; it also re-sequences the songs and score into chronological order, making the album a true dramatic presentation of the film’s musical content.

The Little Mermaid won the Academy Award for Best Original Score in 1989, and initiated a short sequence of utter domination where Alan Menken won three scoring Oscars in four years (for this, Beauty and the Beast in 1991, and Aladdin in 1992), and which eventually resulted in AMPAS briefly splitting the category into Dramatic Score and Musical/Comedy Score awards, so that Menken wouldn’t win every year. But here’s a hot take; my personal opinion is that this score should not have won in he first place. Yes, in terms of its lasting legacy, the score was vastly important for re-establishing the strong musical vocabulary that had been missing from Disney’s films for a long time, and of course it brought Alan Menken into the film music fraternity, but in terms of its actual quality, for me it’s significantly inferior to at least three of the other nominated scores in 1989 (Born on the Fourth of July, Field of Dreams, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), and pales in comparison to some of the year’s other standout works which were not nominated, notably Batman, Glory, and Henry V. My feeling is that it was swept along by the quality of the songs and won by default because voters couldn’t separate the two.

Nevertheless, The Little Mermaid is still worth taking the time to explore. It’s one of the last occasions that lyricist Howard Ashman worked in film (he died of an AIDS-related illness in 1991), which makes it important from that point of view. It’s the score that brought Alan Menken to the Hollywood mainstream, and gave him the opportunity to develop and improve his skills on each successive film he worked on. Disney fans, of course, will love it for it’s historical importance. And, you know, it’s a perfectly pleasant and undemanding way to spend half an hour listening to soundtracks. Just don’t go into it buoyed by the hype, temper your expectations, and know that Menken’s writing became significantly better as he progressed.

Buy the Little Mermaid soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • 1989 ORIGINAL RELEASE
  • Fathoms Below (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Ship’s Chorus) (1:41)
  • Main Titles (1:26)
  • Fanfare (0:27)
  • Daughters of Triton (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Kimmy Robertson) (0:38)
  • Part of Your World (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Jodi Benson) (3:13)
  • Under the Sea (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Samuel E. Wright) (3:12)
  • Part of Your World – Reprise (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Jodi Benson) (2:15)
  • Poor Unfortunate Souls (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Pat Carroll) (4:49)
  • Les Poissons (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by René Auberjonois) (1:33)
  • Kiss the Girl (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Samuel E. Wright) (2:41)
  • Fireworks (0:38)
  • Jig (1:32)
  • The Storm (3:18)
  • Destruction of the Grotto (1:52)
  • Flotsam and Jetsam (1:22)
  • Tour of the Kingdom (1:24)
  • Bedtime (1:20)
  • Wedding Announcement (2:16)
  • Eric to the Rescue (3:40)
  • Happy Ending (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Disney Chorus) (3:11)
  • 2014 LEGACY COLLECTION
  • Fathoms Below (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Ship’s Chorus) (1:42)
  • Main Titles (1:26)
  • Fanfare (0:28)
  • Daughters of Triton (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Kimmy Robertson) (0:52)
  • Intro Ariel (3:12)
  • Intro Ursula (2:38)
  • Triton Reprimands (1:49)
  • Sebastian’s Dilemma (0:44)
  • Part of Your World (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Jodi Benson) (3:31)
  • Fireworks (2:11)
  • The Storm (3:18)
  • Part of Your World (Reprise)/ Ursula Plots (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Jodi Benson) (3:03)
  • Ariel in Love (0:23)
  • Under the Sea (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Samuel E. Wrigh) (3:23)
  • Sebastian and Triton (1:40)
  • Destroying the Grotto (1:55)
  • Flotsam and Jetsam (1:47)
  • Ursula’s Lair (2:17)
  • Poor Unfortunate Souls ((written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Pat Carroll) (4:49)
  • She’s Got Legs (1:22)
  • Sebastian Relents (0:28)
  • On Land (2:25)
  • Miss Manners (1:09)
  • Les Poissons (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by René Auberjonois) (2:11)
  • Crab On a Plate/Bedtime (2:20)
  • Tour of the Kingdom (1:26)
  • Kiss the Girl (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Samuel E. Wright) (2:40)
  • Ariel Left Behind (4:09)
  • Poor Unfortunate Souls (Reprise) ((written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Pat Carroll) (0:31)
  • The Truth (1:23)
  • Interrupting the Wedding/Ursula’s Defeat (6:44)
  • Happy Ending (3:22)
  • Fathoms Below (Work Tape) (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken) (2:15)
  • Daughters of Triton (Synth Demo) (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken) (0:56)
  • Part of Your World (Synth Demo) (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken) (3:15)
  • Fireworks/Jig (Score Piano Demo) (written and performed by Alan Menken) (2:10)
  • The Storm (Score Piano Demo) (written and performed by Alan Menken) (2:35)
  • Under the Sea (Synth Demo) (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken) (4:42)
  • Poor Unfortunate Souls (Basic Synth Demo) (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken) (5:06)
  • Poor Unfortunate Souls (Final Synth Mockup) (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken) (5:31)
  • Les Poissons (Work Tape Demo) (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken) (2:09)
  • Les Poissons (Synth Demo) (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken) (2:03)
  • Kiss the Girl (Synth Demo B) (written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, performed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken) (2:41)
  • Happy Ending (Score Piano Demo) (written and performed by Alan Menken (2:32)

Running Time: 43 minutes 18 seconds – Original
Running Time: 107 minutes 03 seconds – Legacy Collection

Walt Disney Records CD-018 (1989) – Original
Walt Disney Records D002065692 (1989/2014) – Legacy Collection

Music composed by Alan Menken. Conducted by J.A.C. Redford. Orchestrations by Harvey Cohen and Thomas Pasatieri. Recorded and mixed by John Richards. Edited by Kathleen Bennett and Craig Pettigrew. Album produced by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Robert Kraft.

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