The anger over the racial identity of a mermaid, partnered with similar vitriol over racial diversity in Middle-earth in the new “The Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power” TV series, reminds us of the powerful racial politics behind representation in fantasy narratives . Surely, policing how, when and if characters of color can be included in new adaptations of fictional narratives amounts to little more than what children’s literature expert Ebony Elizabeth Thomas calls an “imagination gap” — that is, a failure to imagine all the rich possibilities for telling the story.
But we also might note the complicated racial politics within the stories themselves and the genre of the musical more broadly.
The origins of the musical have been traced back to various precedents, including John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera” (1728) and, in the United States, “The Black Crook” (1866). By the 20th century, the musical took cues from opera in its attempt to blend drama, dance and singing into a coherent narrative.
Many composers, lyricists and performers — especially Black and Jewish artists — were crucial to the genre’s development during this time. The musical “Show Boat” (1927), for example, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, was hailed as a landmark production that told a serious story using various artistic elements including singing, dancing, acting and set design. When the Black stevedore Joe looks out and sings “Ol’ Man River,” he is expressing his exhaustion with his work as well as the centuries of oppression felt by Black people along the Mississippi River.
As a musical, “Show Boat” represented a rare kind of early American popular entertainment that featured Black and White performers onstage together, albeit not necessarily on equal footing. Still, the musical as a genre has provided unique opportunities for actors, singers and songwriters of color to control representation through performance. The most famous performer of “Ol’ Man River,” Paul Robeson, renegotiated the lyrics with Hammerstein over the stereotyped representation of Black people.
Throughout the history of American popular culture, the musical has been set in utopian spaces and the stories often concluded with a united society: Couples get together, as in “Oklahoma!”; families are reunited, as in “Gypsy”; and communities are reaffirmed, as in “The Music Man.” Musicals such as “South Pacific,” “Finian’s Rainbow” and “West Side Story” used song to boldly explore race relations, although with some damaging stereotypes and all-too-convenient solutions that have aged poorly. Still, the social ambitions within musicals often distinguished them from non-musical dramas and were liberal for their times.
“The Little Mermaid,” Disney’s original 1989 animated feature, is another important example in this long tradition. The film represented a milestone for the Walt Disney Company, as it reintroduced the musical to Disney animation. Its “The Great Mouse Detective” in 1986 and “Oliver & Company” in 1988 each featured musical numbers, but unlike musical productions, those songs were not tightly integrated into the storytelling to develop characters and drive the plot forward. “The Little Mermaid,” by contrast, with songs by theater talents Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, used music like tent poles to hold up the story. The songs were not mere interludes or ornaments; they were crucial components to the plot structure. For instance, “Part of Your World” explains Ariel’s desire to join the human world, while “Poor Unfortunate Souls” demonstrates the villain Ursula’s menacing intentions in striking a dangerous deal with Ariel.
The songs of “The Little Mermaid” also worked to diversify the musical repertoire of the Disney animated feature, even if only in a limited fashion. The character of Sebastian, for instance, was originally written as a stuffy English crab named Clarence. Howard Ashman, however, suggested Clarence be reimagined as a crab from the Caribbean, which would allow him and Menken to write songs in the Afro-Caribbean style of Calypso music. Eventually named Sebastian, the character was loosely based on Geoffrey Holder, a Trinidadian American actor whose career spanned stage and screen, and Black actor and singer Samuel E. Wright was cast to bring life to the animated cartoon role.
Wright’s performances of “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” introduced a new sound and style of music in “The Little Mermaid” that helped Disney win accolades. “Under the Sea” won the Academy Award for best original song — the first time a Disney film had won the award in 25 years, since “Chim Chim Cher-ee” from “Mary Poppins” got the prize.
This was a measured step forward, especially when compared with early Disney animated features in which Black performers — the Hall Johnson Choir in “Dumbo,” James Baskett in “Song of the South” — appeared in harmfully caricatured roles that prompted criticism, particularly from Black audiences and civil rights groups like the NAACP.
After “The Little Mermaid,” Disney continued to find success with its animated film musicals, often with Ashman and Menken employing Black musical traditions. The Genie in Disney’s 1992 hit “Aladdin” was inspired by Fats Waller and Cab Calloway, whose legendary big band sound informed the jazzy number “Friend Like Me.” In the 1997 Disney film “Hercules,” the chorus of Muses — played by Cheryl Freeman, LaChanze, Roz Ryan, Vanéese Y. Thomas and Lillias White — performed Gospel-inspired musical numbers. Although the original “The Lion King” soundtrack is often credited to Elton John and Tim Rice, South African composer and musician Lebo M was a crucial collaborator, writing and performing the iconic Zulu chant that opened the film. His additional musical contributions to the stage version of the show helped to make it one of the most successful stage musicals of all time.
While these efforts further diversified the Disney songbook, expanded opportunities for performers of color and broadened representation in animated stories, the film characters who performed these songs were often relegated to supporting roles — that is, until 2009, with “The Princess and the Frog, “ the first animated Disney feature with a Black princess. But while Anika Noni Rose, the voice actress behind Tiana, was the star of the film, the music — inspired by blues, jazz, even gospel — was composed by White musician Randy Newman.
“The Princess and the Frog” was not without its critics, who drew attention to how Princess Tiana, unlike other Disney princesses, had to work hard for her dream, even becoming a frog to achieve it. Furthermore, disproportionate representation of White talent behind the scenes left some critics and audiences alike hoping Disney would do better in the future.
With this new live-action production of “The Little Mermaid,” Disney is again taking a step forward. The new film also reflects the tradition of the musical genre, by gesturing towards the hope and promise of social unity while taking cautious advances to make it a reality. Casting Bailey as Ariel is not a violation of some sacred text. Instead, the move creates space for communities who have too often been excluded in a genre all about inclusion.