Thirty years ago this month, Disney returned to its musical fairy tale roots (with a contemporary edge) and scaled heights far beyond some expectations. But we knew.
Walt Disney Pictures Presents
THE LITTLE MERMAID
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Walt Disney Records CD-018 (Compact Disc)
CD Reissues: #60946-7 (1997); #61618-7 (Special Edition, 2006); D-0020656692 (Legacy Collection, 2014) –
Vinyl Reissues: D001988501 (Picture Disc, 2014); D-003102001 (Vinyl Vault, 2019)
Released in 1989. Produced by Howard Ashman, Alan Menken, Robert Kraft. Arrangements: Robbie Merkin, Alan Menken. Orchestrations: Thomas Pasatieri. Conductor: J.A.C. Redford. Running Time: 43 minutes.
Voices: Jodi Benson (Ariel); Pat Carroll (Ursula); Samuel E, Wright (Sebastian); René Auberjonois (Chef Louis).
Songs: “Fathoms Below,” “Daughters of Triton,” “Part of Your World,” “Under the Sea,” “Poor, Unfortunate Souls,” “Les Poissons,” “Kiss the Girl” by Howard Ashman, Alan Menken.
Much has been written about the “second golden age” of Disney animation and how it was ushered in by the largely unexpected success of The Little Mermaid, the first Disney animated musical fairy tale feature since 1959’s Sleeping Beauty. (Oliver and Company played no small part in that renaissance as well, but that’s another Spin to come.)
Instrumentals: “Main Titles,” “Fanfare,” “Fireworks,” “Jig,” “The Storm,” “Destruction Of The Grotto,” “Flotsam And Jetsam,” “Tour Of The Kingdom,” “Bedtime,” “Wedding Announcement,” “Eric To The Rescue,” “Happy Ending” by Alan Menken.
The Little Mermaid was a game-changer in numerous ways. It was a wake-up call to the Walt Disney Studios to re-embrace the kind of stories that resounded with all ages and to produce the kind of music that went on playing forever. While it might have seemed unlikely at first that this revelation should come from the musical team behind the Off-Broadway musical hit Little Shop of Horrors, the combination of Menken’s mastery of melody (both in song and background music) and Ashman’s astonishing grasp of Disney musical storytelling was lightning in a bottle.
It is a serious mistake to think of Ashman’s role as lyricist alone. He was the lynchpin of Little Mermaid’s musical core, as well as that of Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin (and arguably to many that came after his untimely passing). Offered a creative role with Disney, he surprised some by turning down much higher profile live-action features to concentrate on animation, which he believed was the best—and perhaps the last—cinematic horizon for musical storytelling.
Shortly after he and Menken joined the staff, he prepared a talk about the importance of music and animation. To many, what he said might seem obvious, yet it is a lesson that must be relearned just as any history continues to repeat itself. The DVD release of the superb documentary feature Waking Sleeping Beauty included this bonus feature about Ashman called “The Poet.”
The Disney soundtrack album itself was also changed by The Little Mermaid. Starting in 1956, when Disneyland Records began releasing soundtrack albums of live-action and animated titles on vinyl, the track format alternated between songs and instrumentals. The tracks were not necessarily in the chronological order of the way they played out in the finished film. Most soundtracks and Broadway cast albums followed this format, more or less, throughout the mid-20th century.The Little Mermaid album follows, with some variance, what might be described as a pop musical soundtrack format. Perhaps the most famous example is Yellow Submarine, which contains all The Beatles songs on side one and George Martin’s underscore on side two.
In the late 1970s, pop soundtracks like Grease and Xanadu separated tracks on opposing sides of each disc. One side could contain all the hits by the headline stars, another side with background songs by studio artists, or one side for each artist. Suddenly a LP could be more like 45 RPM singles, with an “A” side or “plug” side and a “B” side.
The Little Mermaid album was designed so that every major song played on side one. There were a few brief instrumentals including, such as the Main Title, but all the other incidental music was pushed to side two, which in effect started the movie all over again and finished with the finale. In effect, this format presents the film soundtrack twice from two viewpoints.
On the plus side, some impatient kids may love the idea of playing just the songs without all those “boring” instrumentals slowing down the fun. Hopefully children do indeed include side two at least occasionally, otherwise they would miss out on the musical richness of wondrous background music. To those who are familiar with the early Disneyland albums, imagine taking the Pinocchio “DQ” album, for instance, with all the vocals on side one and all the underscore side two. Not only would it have changed the musical experience, but it makes one wonder if side two might have been left in the dust more often than not. But that’s just conjecture—who knows how everyone has listened and will listen in the future? The Mermaid soundtrack album was a smashing success, and its format has become the standard of every Disney animated musical feature soundtrack album to date, as well as live-action musicals such as Mary Poppins Returns (and you can always rearrange CD and download tracks in any order you please).
Disneyland Records changed its name to Walt Disney Records not too long before The Little Mermaid album was released. Vinyl was considered dead (To quote Chef Louis, “Hee-hee-hee, haw-haw-haw!”) making Mermaid the first Disney animated soundtrack available only on cassette and compact disc for many years (your author purchased his first CD player specifically for this album). According to Walt Disney Records Producer Randy Thornton, a 1989 vinyl record was planned with the same cover design as the CD, but it was abandoned (no vinyl version was available in the U.S. until the 2014 picture disc). This year, the Disney Music Emporium has made it available exclusively, plus Walt Disney Records Netherlands produced an identical vinyl version, but with a different cover design.
Adding in the picture disc (above), that makes three vinyl versions of The Little Mermaid available during its anniversary year (as well as downloads and CDs).