The Little Mermaid

LM-filmFilm Soundtrack, 1989 (Disney) 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) After a decades-long dry spell, Disney film animation finally sprang to life again with The Little Mermaid, a musical adaptation of the children’s story by Hans Christian Andersen. Thanks in large part to its fantastic score by Little Shop of Horrors team Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, Mermaid single-handedly revived the animated musical. And in its main character, Ariel — a mermaid daughter of King Triton, desperate to join the human world — the film also birthed the first really spunky and smart Disney princess. As Disney has progressed to even more feminist stories and even stronger princesses, certain elements of The Little Mermaids’s plot have come under scrutiny, but the score has stood the test of time. Ashman and Menken created a charmingly magical work; Menken’s music ranges from funky calypso (“Under the Sea”) to sassy Broadway (“Poor Unfortunate Souls”), with Ashman bringing his usual touch of unpretentious intelligence to the lyrics. And the vocal cast of the film is still definitive. Best known to musical theater fans for her powerhouse vocals in Crazy For You and Smile, Jodi Benson here produces a purer, smoother, more intimate sound that allows “Part of Your World,” Ariel’s finely crafted “I Want” song, to deeply resonate with the listener. Pat Carroll, Samuel E. Wright, and René Auberjonois are wonderful in other roles, and the score is smartly but not overly lushly orchestrated by Thomas Pasatieri.  — Matt Koplik

LM-BroadwayOriginal Broadway Cast, 2008 (Disney) 1 out of 5 stars (1 / 5) Howard Ashman sadly died at the height of his career, and he never saw any of his work with Alan Menken make it to Broadway. The legacy he left behind may be relatively small, but it is substantial in quality and much beloved. When Disney brought Beauty and the Beast to the stage with financially successful results, it was only a matter of time before The Little Mermaid, the movie that started it all, would make the transition as well. Unfortunately, in this case, Disney should have left well enough alone. With Ashman gone, Glenn Slater was brought in to contribute lyrics for new songs to expand the score for a full-length stage musical, and while he managed to come up with a few good fish puns, none of his work here matches the heart and inventiveness of Ashman’s work. Menken wrote some lovely melodies for the additional songs, though some of them are recycled from incidental music heard in the movie. The cast — Sierra Boggess, Sean Palmer, Sherie Rene Scott, Tituss Burgess, Norm Lewis, et al. — is talented and, in a few cases, vocally superior to their film counterparts, but most tend to go for vocal tricks, making the majority of the score sound over-sung. While Danny Troob’s orchestrations add the necessary flashes of Broadway brass to the Menken-Ashman material without going overboard, they don’t bring as much flair to the Broadway additions. Even though this recording has more songs and offers vocal flair from some Broadway favorites, you’re better off sticking to the movie soundtrack. — M.K.

Film Soundtrack, 2023  (Walt Disney Records) 1 out of 5 stars (1 / 5) Another year, another Disney remake. To be fair, the soundtrack for this “live action” adaptation of the 1989 animated classic is less bad than some of the other cinematic cash grabs that The Mouse House has made — but that still doesn’t make it “good.” From the very first track, almost all sense of fun, magic, and whimsy has been sucked out of Alan Menken’s iconic score, here polluted with overblown orchestrations and self-conscious performances. Songs such as the Oscar-winning “Under the Sea” don’t inspire nearly the same level of joy as the versions heard on the original film soundtrack recording. and while Menken is once again on hand to provide new songs for the film, with lyrics by Lin Manuel Miranda, they can’t compare to those he wrote with Howard Ashman. (The less said about “The Scuttlebutt,” the better.) On the bright side, we have the most vocally well-equipped cast of any of the Disney remakes so far. Though “Wild Uncharted Waters” isn’t much of a song, Jonah Hauer-King holds his own as Prince Eric, and if Daveed Diggs is not as bubbly and charismatic a Sebastian as Samuel E. Wright was, he at least keeps his numbers afloat. The two best performances belong to Melissa McCarthy, properly camping it up as Ursula, and Halle Bailey, who as Ariel is given numerous opportunities to showcase her wide range and crystal-clear voice. Like Sierra Boggess in the Broadway recording, Bailey sometimes over-sings her material (particularly the first half of “Part of Your World”), but her work here in general is very strong. She and McCarthy keep this otherwise unnecessary recording from being totally skippable. — M.K.