ONCE UPON A TIME…

Hans Christian Andersen is No Stranger to Forest Park

This week, her fins a-flapping, Disney’s The Little Mermaid is making her second appearance in Forest Park. Even without sonar, her course has been easy to chart. The much-beloved Disney animated feature was released in 1989. Eighteen years later, Disney Theatrical Productions adapted that now-classic film to the live stage, where she enjoyed a happy Broadway romp for nearly 700 performances, closing in 2009. Ariel brightened the lives of Munygoers two summers later in 2011. Now she has returned.

But in the interest of full disclosure we might point out that the little mermaid – no, not Disney’s mermaid, but rather an earlier incarnation, closer to the one imagined by her creator, Hans Christian Andersen – made her Muny debut in 1981, a full eight years before Ariel swam into our lives on the big screen.

How did that happen? To put the story in context, let’s go back to the beginning.

Ariel, our determined young heroine, is actually quite an old gal. Hans Christian Andersen, the world-renowned Danish author, published his original fairy tale in 1837, which would make her 180. The details of her involvement with the Sea Witch and the prince underwent alterations from Disney – though not so many changes as occurred in Frozen, the recent Disney hit that was based on another Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Snow Queen (published in 1844).

It’s certainly forgivable to rewrite Andersen. Hans Christian Andersen even rewrote Hans Christian Andersen. He softened his original ending for The Little Mermaid. In Andersen’s revision, what initially was a rather depressing finish to the story became considerably less unhappy.

Andersen’s own life was not all that happy, either. He never married and often suffered the pangs of unrequited love. When Andersen died at age 70 in 1875, at least he had the satisfaction of knowing that his fairy tales had made him internationally revered. (The Danish government actually paid him an annual stipend as a “national treasure.”) Shortly before his death in Copenhagen, Andersen discussed the music for his impending funeral with a local composer. “Most of the people who will walk after me will be children,” Andersen advised, “so the beat should keep time with little steps.”

Perhaps Frank Loesser read that directive, because the tunes he wrote for Hans Christian Andersen, the 1952 movie starring Danny Kaye, are sprightly. Songs like “The Ugly Duckling,” “Thumbelina,” “No Two People” and “Wonderful Copenhagen” were embraced by young audiences.

That movie was a labor of love for its producer, the iconic Sam Goldwyn. Beginning in the 1930s, Goldwyn spent more than a decade trying to develop the story. But he could never get around the fact that Andersen was not a particularly likeable man. After several years of dead-end writing, the script dropped its claim to being a biography and instead justified itself as a fiction. The movie opens with the following logo: “Once upon a time there lived a great storyteller named Hans Christian Andersen. This is not the story of his life, but a fairy tale about the great spinner of fairy tales.” This new approach gave Goldwyn a lot of license.

Perhaps it was the 1948 release of the British dance film The Red Shoes that spurred Goldwyn to finally get his movie made. The Red Shoes was inspired by yet another Andersen fairy tale of the same title. (Next month you will hear numerous references to The Red Shoes on the Muny stage. Many of the characters in A Chorus Line tell how they were influenced to become dancers because of The Red Shoes.)

Goldwyn hired Danny Kaye for the title role in Hans Christian Andersen. Then he hired Frank Loesser (straight from his Broadway success with Guys and Dolls, which three years later Goldwyn also would film) to compose the songs. Goldwyn wanted Hans Christian Andersen to conclude with a great ballet, as had The Red Shoes. Furthermore, he wanted his ballet to be danced by Moira Shearer, the star of The Red Shoes. Alas, Shearer’s pregnancy eliminated her availability. She was replaced by Renee Jeanmaire, prima ballerina with the Ballet de Paris.

And what was the subject of this movie ballet? It was a dramatization of The Little Mermaid. The ballet score was composed and orchestrated by Jerome Moross and Walter Scharf, with some themes borrowed from Franz Lizst. Moross himself would soon become renowned for his film scores for such movies as The Big Country and The Cardinal. Scharf would receive an Academy Award nomination for his scoring of Hans Christian Andersen and, nearly two decades later, for his arrangements for another children’s classic, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Released in 1952, Hans Christian Andersen was one of the year’s top-grossing films and was nominated for six Oscars, including Frank Loesser’s song “Thumbelina.” Fourteen years later it debuted on television as a family special hosted by another great Dane, Victor Borge.

Frank Loesser always hoped that the movie would be adapted to the stage. Eventually it was – and where do you think that stage version had its American premiere?

In Forest Park, of course. Which begins to bring us full circle.

By the time Hans Christian Andersen and its “Little Mermaid” ballet reached the stage, Loesser had died. His widow, actress Jo Sullivan, authorized a production in England, with a new script by, among others, Tommy Steele and Beverley Cross, who had collaborated on the hit musical, Half a Sixpence. Their version played at the London Palladium in 1974, but Sullivan did not like it. For one thing, the British production added songs that were not written by Loesser.

The notion of a more faithful stage adaptation stalled until Jo Sullivan initiated a production at the Muny. She was born and raised in Mounds, Ill., near the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. As a teen-ager she lived in St. Louis and frequented the Muny. In 1951, at age 19 she portrayed Dorothy in the Muny’s third staging of The Wizard of Oz. Three decades later, in August 1981, Sullivan made a nostalgic return to St. Louis when the Muny staged the American premiere of Hans Christian Andersen, with Larry Kert in the title role.

So it was that the little mermaid – in ballet form – first appeared at the Muny 36 years ago. That show fared well with audiences and reviewers alike, but it did not continue on.

The Muny tried again a decade later, now with Michael Feinstein as Andersen. This time the reviews were not kind – which calls to mind an exchange between Hans Christian Andersen and Charles Dickens. They were two of the most celebrated authors of the nineteenth century, and they shared a mutual admiration society.

Dickens invited Andersen to be his house guest for two weeks. (Andersen extended the visit to five weeks, which apparently strained the patience of the entire Dickens clan.) Nevertheless, one day at Gad’s Hill Place, Dickens’ summer retreat south of London, he found Andersen lying on the lawn, in tears of despair, having just read a negative review of his most recent book. “Never allow yourself to be upset by the papers,” Dickens told his guest. “Reviews are forgotten in a week, and your book stands and lives.”

A few minutes later, as they walked along a dirt road, Dickens stopped to make several marks in the dirt with the toe of his shoe. “That is criticism,” he suggested. Then he wiped out those marks with his heel. “Thus it is gone.”

So too is the musical version of Hans Christian Andersen mostly gone. But we can be secure in the knowledge that Ariel and Disney’s Little Mermaid will continue to keep Andersen’s name alive for generations to come.

Dennis Brown (Biography)

Dennis Brown was a theater critic for The Riverfront Times newspaper from 2001-2014. His articles and interviews have appeared in The New York Times,Los Angeles Times, Hollywood Reporter and, most recently, the Village Voice, among many others.

His book, Actors Talk: Profiles and Stories from the Acting Trade, was praised by Playbill magazine as “one of the finest interview collections ever published.” A companion volume, Shoptalk: Conversations about Theater and Film with Twelve Writers, One Producer—and Tennessee Williams’ Mother, also was well-received.

His stage adaptation of William Inge’s novel, My Son is a Splendid Driver, starring Mary Beth Hurt, William Atherton, Conchata Ferrell and Lane Smith, was performed to great acclaim at the prestigious William Inge Festival in Independence, Ks. He is also the author of the stage adaptation of the biography The Fabulous Lunts, about theater legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, which was performed in New York City in both 2009 and 2010.

He assisted Gregory Peck in developing his one-man show A Conversation with Gregory Peck. During the mid-1990s, he toured with Peck to 55 engagements throughout the United States and Canada.

He wrote the award-winning television-movie The Perfect Tribute, which starred Jason Robards as Abraham Lincoln. While on staff at CBS Entertainment, Brown was Angela Lansbury’s publicist for the final seasons of Murder, She Wrote.

Since returning to his hometown of St. Louis, in 2001, he has been an adjunct professor at Webster University, teaching classes in film.