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  • Swimming with big fish -

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    The award-winning composer of 'Avenue Q' and his wife dive into a musical-stage version of 'Finding Nemo' at Disney's Animal Kingdom.

    Elizabeth Maupin | Sentinel Theater Critic
    Posted November 26, 2006
    'Finding Nemo -- The Musical' (WALT DISNEY WORLD)
    Nov 6, 2006

    Bringing an undersea world to life (WALT DISNEY)
    Oct 6, 2006

    Nemo and his dad (WALT DISNEY)
    Oct 6, 2006

    MORE INFOWhen: The 30-minute show, which is in previews before officially opening in January, is performed several times daily.

    Where: Animal Kingdom, Walt Disney World, off Interstate 4 southwest of Orlando.

    Cost: Parking $10, one-day pass $67 plus tax general, $56 plus tax ages 3-9, free age 2 and younger.

    Call: 407-824-4321.


    Imagine you're a struggling young musical-theater writer, and you manage to get your show produced in a real off-Broadway theater. Then, before you know it, you're on Broadway, you've won a Tony Award, and someone is offering you just about everything you can imagine to write a new show.

    It sounds like a dream, or maybe a Disney fairy tale.

    In fact, Bobby Lopez and his wife and co-writer, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, are living in a Disney universe right now, where they have written a musical-theater version of Finding Nemo for Animal Kingdom.

    "Finding Nemo -- The Musical," which has been in public previews since Nov. 5, will be given a grand opening Jan. 24.

    "This has been a dream for us," Anderson-Lopez says. "The sky's the limit."

    She and her husband, the Tony-winning composer for Broadway's long-running puppet musical, Avenue Q, are just two of the theater luminaries Disney has hired for "Nemo." Also included are the artistic director of a Tony Award-winning regional theater, the Tony-nominated choreographer of Urinetown and the co-creator of the puppets and masks for The Lion King.

    All of them, and others like them, are working together to make a 30-minute musical out of a cartoon.

    "I can give artists resources to create on a scale they have never dreamed of," says Anne Hamburger, who is executive vice president of creative entertainment for Walt Disney Parks & Resorts. "Not only is that great for Disney, it's great for them."

    A test swim for audience

    At Theater in the Wild, the 1,500-seat hall that has been newly enclosed and updated for "Nemo," director Peter Brosius mounts the stage. Animal Kingdom visitors have filled in just about all of the long benches in the expansive theater on a Monday this month, the second day of open dress rehearsals.

    A row of makeshift tables lines the back of the theater, and members of the "Nemo" creative team are hunkering down there to work out the bugs.

    "In the theater business, this is called a preview," says Brosius, who is artistic director of the Tony-winning Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis. "You're among the first people on the planet to see the show."

    He turns the stage over to the fantastical puppets and the 18 actors who make up the cast -- performers dressed like giant heads of coral, the 22-foot-tall head and neck of Nigel the pelican, an actor on a bicycle contraption supporting the hefty puppet Mr. Ray like a giant umbrella above his head.

    The show's three main characters -- Marlin, the father fish; Nemo, his kidnapped son; and Dory, their addlebrained friend -- are all played by actors holding large fish puppets whose eyes and mouths are controlled by levers in the actors' hands. When Marlin and Dory soar up through the ocean waters, during a song called "Just Keep Swimming," the actors and their puppets actually fly across the stage like Peter Pan and Wendy.

    Throughout the 30-minute show, the new songs move the story along.

    "We know that fish are friends, not food," sings a little band of conflicted sharks. An orchestration that sounds remarkably like the Beach Boys powers the song "Go With the Flow."

    At the end, a profusion of bubbles falls from on high, and a little girl in the audience tries to catch them in her hand.

    Hamburger, the Disney exec who is supervising the project, also oversaw a stage show based on the movie Aladdin at Disney's California Adventure theme park in Anaheim.

    Her roots, however, are in New York theater. For 13 years she ran a highly praised experimental company called En Garde Arts, which became known for presenting theater in such nontraditional sites as a pier on the Hudson River and four blocks in the meatpacking district. One of the company's goals was to bring theater to those who had never seen it.

    Finding those audiences, Hamburger says, is what led her to Disney in the first place -- and what made her persuade other big theater names to join her there.

    "I really think the parks are an extraordinary vehicle for introducing theater to tens of millions of kids around the world. I thought, 'Wouldn't it be fantastic if I could bring the top theatrical artists around the world to the theme-park world?' "

    Hamburger also is interested in finding new young artists. So when the idea arose to make Finding Nemo into a musical, she and her cohorts thought of Avenue Q, "because it has a sense of humor and heart and revolves around puppets." Lopez and Anderson-Lopez put together a demo of the song "Big Blue World," and, Hamburger says, "it completely blew us away."

    The two young writers were still pretty green. Avenue Q, Lopez says, was his first professional experience. He was studying musical-theater writing in a highly regarded program called the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop when he met his future wife.

    "She got this crush on me," says Lopez, 31.

    "He was doing the first song from Avenue Q," says Anderson-Lopez, 34. "I was like, 'That's what I want, that's what I want.' "

    The lyrics, by the way, went "If you were gay, that'd be OK."

    Lopez proposed in a yellow cab after Avenue Q got a rave from The New York Times.

    "So we both do this for a living," Lopez says. "We talk about writing songs all the time."

    Lopez also met his Avenue Q partner Jeff Marx in the BMI workshop, and together they wrote a show, loosely based on Hamlet, called Kermit, Prince of Denmark. Since Avenue Q took off, the two have been working on a movie musical for Universal and a stage musical with the creators of South Park. Anderson-Lopez had her first hit, an a cappella musical called Along the Way, at the 2003 New York Fringe. She and Lopez also write for the Nick Jr. series The Wonder Pets!, and she's writing the music and lyrics for a full-length musical, Storyville.

    They've also produced a daughter, Katie, who will be 2 in March.

    Hooking new theatergoers

    For Lopez and Anderson-Lopez, Finding Nemo was a natural -- one of their favorite movies of all time. Still, writing the show would mean two years of their lives.

    "But Annie [Hamburger] told us that more people see 'Aladdin' than have ever seen Phantom, or something like that," she says. "We both fell in love with theater really early. The idea of people coming in at 4, 5 or 6 and saying, 'I want to do that' . . ."

    ". . . Or becoming lifelong theatergoers," Lopez adds.

    "So we want to take it as seriously," his wife goes on, "as we would a Broadway show."

    Loving the movie version, the two say, made the job of adapting it "a little daunting." But they have found the story of the father fish and his missing son means more to them since Katie came into their world.

    Katie comes along on their Disney trips; she knows all the "Nemo" songs, and she has been known to entertain onlookers in restaurants by singing "It's a Small World."

    "We ended up being able to pour the journey of new parenthood into writing these songs," Lopez says.

    It was Anderson-Lopez who knew how to boil down the whole Nemo story to 30 minutes and six songs. She had written a 10-minute a cappella Oedipus, and plot structure is her thing.

    "I know to find the central core," she says. "The world's dangerous and beautiful, so you find the six events that weigh in on that theme. Those six are the songs."

    But they're finding that working with Disney is not like turning out a show for the New York Fringe.

    Disney's financial resources are a little bit larger.

    "I write a cappella shows because we can't afford a pianist," Anderson-Lopez says with a laugh.

    At Disney, they've found the resources to do just about anything they can imagine. Director Brosius calls the show "a big old wonderful smorgasbord.

    "I've worked with lots of puppets, but this is an extraordinary amount of puppeteering," he says.

    Disney has two full-time puppet specialists on hand, along with physical trainers, tai chi experts and a whole coterie of support artists.

    "The extraordinary depth of investment has just been terrific," he says. "It's kind of amazing -- the depth of the rehearsal process. They work 24/7. I leave at midnight, and another crew comes in."

    And a deep pool of talent

    For the two writers, the contrast between real life and Disney is mind-boggling.

    "In Avenue Q, we have four puppeteers," Lopez says. "Everyone here is a puppeteer."

    "Here they're a quadruple threat," says his wife. "They sing, they dance, they act and they do puppets."

    "And they fly," Lopez adds. "Call it a quintuple threat."

    Some older shows at the Disney parks use only a few singing actors and have other performers lip-sync to a recording. (It's cheaper to hire nonspeaking actors, who are classified as characters and paid much less.)

    In "Nemo," though, all 18 of the actors speak or sing -- and there are two full-time casts and a third cast of subs.

    "It made more sense to have 18 actors who can do everything," says Anderson-Lopez. "Every person onstage is vital. The level of talent up there is incredible."

    Now the creative team is in polishing mode, making sure all the technical wizardry works the way it should before the show has its grand opening.

    And the writers are barely daring to think about what the next step might be -- whether "Finding Nemo -- The Musical" might take a flying leap onto Broadway.

    Hamburger says she would love for that to happen, but Disney's senior execs have yet to see the show.

    Still, the two young writers are hoping. At Animal Kingdom, there's a Disney-style fairy tale everywhere they look.

    "Every show you write, no matter what it is, you hope to go all the way," Lopez says. "It's always a dream."
    Growing older is manditory
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