Winter 2020

Live TV

Mermaid's Highwire Act

Hamish Hamilton navigated uncharted waters for a broadcast of the reimagined Disney musical, blending live action with animation

By Jon Burlingame

Composer Alan Menken and director/executive producer Hamish Hamilton strategize. (Photo: Christopher Willard/ABC)

Live television stagings of popular musicals, a trend in recent years, took a risky new turn Nov. 5 with ABC's The Little Mermaid Live!

Director Hamish Hamilton—no stranger to the pressures of live TV as a veteran of the Oscars, the MTV Video Music Awards and several Super Bowl halftime shows—concedes that the reimagined Disney classic "was complicated. We had puppets and effects and props and projectors and music and mermaids and flying and performers in very unwieldy costumes."

But what was most unusual about Little Mermaid, which averaged a hefty 9 million viewers, is that more than half the telecast consisted of excerpts from the original 1989 animated film. That feature contained elaborate sequences that would have been nearly impossible to recreate for live action, let alone on a sound stage.

"Unlike the other, fully live musicals that had been staged before," says Hamilton, "we were staging effectively half of the content within the framework of the existing story as originally told. The biggest thing was, we actually cut out not just the music performances, we also cut out a number of other scenes from the film—but we then needed to make sure that all those story points still remained in our presentation. So it was definitely complex, and time was a huge and limiting factor. We had to go back to the directors of the original movie to allow us to make those cuts in their movie."

Those excised music performances were replaced by musical numbers that were staged live, resulting in a mixed-media presentation that Disney touted as a revolutionary hybrid new to television. Those numbers, Hamilton explains, were "significantly longer, with different arrangements than the songs that appear in the original movie."

The production's elaborate set. (Photo: ABC)

Included were seven songs from Alan Menken's original score (for which Howard Ashman wrote the lyrics) plus two more from Menken's revamped 2008 Broadway version, with lyrics by Glenn Slater. And while all the performers (Auli'i Cravalho, Queen Latifah, Shaggy, John Stamos and others) sang live, they had already recorded "safety" backup tracks in case of last-minute problems. All the music was also pre-recorded, along with all of the original movie score in order to match the new sound. Menken was present to supervise the L.A. recordings with a 70-piece orchestra.

The stars came in for rehearsals a couple of weeks before the sets at Disney's Burbank studios were ready. "Then they probably did a half a day without camera onsite, and then a couple of hours of camera blocking," Hamilton explains.

Two things went wrong, one during rehearsals and one the night of performance, Hamilton says. "We had enormous problems with getting Auli'i [as Ariel] to fly. Before she did the live show, she had not actually flown or landed 100% successfully. So it was quite nerve-wracking, but after dress rehearsal we made some significant technical changes that allowed the whole process to be smooth."

The introduction by Jodi Benson, the original Ariel, was supposed to be pre-recorded. But a last-minute computer snafu resulted in Benson doing her intro live on the East Coast (the West Coast version, recorded, was slightly different).

The live show was shot before an audience of 600 with 10 Sony Venice cameras, a first for live TV (the 6K cameras are generally used in films). "We were broadcasting in 720p, but the fact that we had a 6K sensor allowed us to get much more image into the camera and then out to 720p."

Adds the director: "The magic that we created had to fit seamlessly with the magic that the filmmakers created 30 years ago."

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