By Sydney Bucksbaum
November 01, 2019 at 11:30 AM EDT
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It’s almost time to dive under the sea with ABC’s The Little Mermaid Live!

The latest live TV musical event arrives Tuesday, just ahead of the Disney movie’s 30th anniversary — The Little Mermaid debuted Nov. 13, 1989 — so what better way to celebrate than with a new interpretation of the classic tale? Starring Disney royalty Auli’i Cravalho (Moana) as Ariel, Graham Phillips (The Good Wife) as Prince Eric, Queen Latifah as Ursula, John Stamos as Chef Louis, and Shaggy as Sebastian, The Little Mermaid Live! isn’t going to be a shot-for-shot retelling of the beloved animated feature. In fact, director and executive producer Hamish Hamilton tells EW that this live TV musical production “is very, very different to any of the musicals that have been done before because essentially it’s 50 percent the original feature and 50 percent live musical performance.”

While Fox and NBC have previously dominated the live TV musical events, ABC is dipping its fins into the water and making a splash with a unique structure for its first foray into the genre. “Obviously all the previous live musicals have all been fully live and the dialogue has been done live with the live cast. We are not doing that,” Hamilton says. “That is the fundamental difference. And obviously we’re underwater and they’re above. Being underwater is kind of difficult! We’re trying to bring something to life underwater and that’s tough. But it’s been marvelous.”

Because The Little Mermaid is such a beloved property, Hamilton — who has directed the Super Bowl halftime show annually since 2010 as well as major awards shows like the Oscars, Olympics opening and closing ceremonies, and more — reveals that everyone from the cast, to the crew, and beyond has been more passionate about bringing this production to life than any other project he’s worked on. And that’s saying something considering how extensive his resume is!

“Everybody on the team has a love for the movie so everybody has worked extra hard on this,” he says. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime project. It’s something that’s very special in the hearts of many and there’s a huge weight of responsibility that comes with that, as the person directing the live adaptation of it. We’re very conscious of that as we build this.”

Below, Hamilton breaks down everything you can expect from ABC’s The Little Mermaid Live!

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It sounds like this is going to be very different from what people have seen so far from live TV musicals on Fox and NBC. How did you go about staging The Little Mermaid Live! for TV?
Hamish Hamilton: In its most basic explanation, it’s actually quite simple. We will start the animated feature on a giant screen presented in a room. The television audience is almost at a concert where the star is the movie on a screen. Very quickly we’re going to go full frame into the movie so the audience on television are watching the animated feature as they have done a few times if they’re fans. The point we get to a song, we will transition from the animated feature back into our room where we will reveal our cast performing the songs. At the end of the song, huge applause, and we transition back into full frame animated feature. It’s about 55 percent of what we’re creating is the animated feature and then about 45 percent of what the TV audience will see are live performances.

That sounds like exactly how the Hollywood Bowl put on a production of The Little Mermaid with Sara Bareilles in the past.
I wasn’t going to give you that reference because people reading this, they may not be familiar with the Hollywood Bowl. But that’s absolutely, exactly the principle that we are following. One of the executive producers of our show, and actually one of the two people who birthed this particular interpretation is the producer of those Hollywood Bowl live spectacles. What we’re making is like that, but a more elaborate interpretation with our cast.

Having seen the Hollywood Bowl production myself, it’s a great way to marry the original iconic movie while still doing something new and exciting.
Honestly, hand on heart, I really hope so. We’re doing everything in our power to make the blend beautiful. The Hollywood Bowl clearly demonstrates that it can work and it does work, and we’re taking a stage further. We hope that when we present it, people like yourself — well, actually everybody, but particularly people like yourself who love the movie so much will love our take on it.

But the big question on everyone’s minds when it comes to televised live musical productions is after what happened with Rent: Live where a star got injured during the final rehearsal and they didn’t have understudies, do you have understudies for all the major roles?
We’ve got a plan in place.

Okay, phew. And speaking of that, what lessons have you learned from other live TV musical events that you remembered while bringing this one to life?
There’s a great joy and electricity in live that you can’t replicate in any other kind of form, really. It’s an electricity that infuses everybody on the show and 99 percent of people really rise to the occasion, they know that it’s all or nothing. It’s the big game. Everything is pinned on everybody’s performance — some people have a very large role to play, some people have what may be perceived as a lesser role to play but actually everybody on the production, and this is something that I’ve learned from the Super Bowl, everybody, the whole team, has a really, really important part to play. If one person makes a mistake, it can have huge and profound impact on the entire production. People do make mistakes but the great thing about these live teams is that everybody’s got everybody else’s back. We work together to overcome the problems. The beautiful thing about these shows is that it’s so great for people from all walks of life and backgrounds to come together to create something magical. It fills my heart with joy. We’re definitely being ambitious with this one, trying things, and that’s bold. We really are setting our sights high, basically because we’re inspired by the original movie which was brilliant. They tried new things and they took risks and we are honor bound to do the same.

How do you think your version of The Little Mermaid is going to surprise longtime fans?
What we are not doing is changing the structure or the story or the magic. What we’re doing is we are blending a live perspective and a live energy and a live interpretation to the original feature. I certainly don’t want to shock anybody when they’re watching this piece of art that is so special to them so we’re not taking any liberties. I’m hoping to delight people and to warm people’s hearts. It’s a new way to watch The Little Mermaid — it will never replace the original. We are hopefully adding a slightly new take. It’s a celebration, ultimately. It’s just filled with so much joy and magic and honestly, the world can do with a little bit of that right now.

Let’s talk about casting — did you always know who you wanted for the cast or were there some surprises for you?
The cast are all absolutely perfect. I couldn’t be more thrilled. These were the people we went after. They were all our absolute No. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 choices. For them to be so universally acclaimed by fans of the movie and the general public alike, that was great. That gives all the fans out there an illustration of our take on how we’re going to celebrate the feature. Each one of the artists cast so far have an affinity with the original character. You can imagine each of those people playing the roles and you’re excited by them. We’re not doing any shock-and-awe or radical surprises. Auli’i is just the perfect live Ariel.

ABC

How are you making sure to set your production apart from the upcoming live-action movie?
They’re completely different. What they have is a completely blank sheet of paper. What we have is a concept that is almost 50 percent of the original content and 50 percent live in the room, live on television. The parameters that both productions have got are vastly different that both properties will be incredibly different. Boy, am I excited to see what they come up with! And pretty soon they’re going to see what we’ve done.

What has been the biggest challenge for you so far in developing and staging this production?
The biggest challenge actually has been trying to make sense of it all because you’ve got half the original animated feature and half live. What we’ve had to do is make sure that the story of The Little Mermaid is told all the way through our musical performances. That sometimes has its challenges — how do we create performances that are spectacular and joyful and magical but also tell the story? And then also the story takes place underwater. How do you bring some of those characters to life? We’ve got some interesting, interesting solutions to that. I’m really excited. I’ve been very blessed to be involved with all kinds of amazing productions — Super Bowls, awards shows, live concerts — and Little Mermaid is right up there.

The Little Mermaid Live! airs Tuesday, Nov. 5. at 8 p.m. on ABC.

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