Back in 1989, few of us could have guessed just how intensely satisfying a crustacean-themed musical number in an animated film could be. When a red crab sang about the seaweed always being greener in somebody else's lake in "The Little Mermaid," audiences immediately fell for the rambunctious Sebastian character. Disney's animated films have long had a history of colourful sidekicks, be they in the form of crickets, a Tigger or a Tinker Bell fairy, but never before had they had such an infectious sea creature.
A quarter-century later, the success of "Little Mermaid" is still very much at the heart of the modern Disney studio. With music and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, the film was a smash hit, leading to such classics as "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin," helping revitalize not only the movie musical but the state of modern Broadway as well.
Moviefone Canada had the great pleasure of speaking with Samuel Wright, whose distinctive voice and ready laugh provided the heart of that famous crab's performance. Wright's history in musical theatre dates back to the early '70s, and he began by admitting he had no idea what he was getting into when first called upon to audition for this mysterious project.
What was the audition process for the role of Sebastian like? How much did you know about the project at the time?
Samuel Wright: That was one of the most interesting parts of the process, because I had no idea what I was auditioning for. I didn't even know the company I was auditioning for was Disney! I was auditioning for Howard and Alan so I just assumed it was going to be something that was going to be in a public theatre or something like that.
They told me that this particular character was somewhat like Sammy Davis, Jr., but Caribbean. Howard found interesting the accent I was using for the audition. He said to me, "Where did you learn that accent?" and I said, "Oh, in college, I'm sorry if it's not a Jamaican accent." He said "No, I don't want a Jamaican accent, I want a Trinidadian accent!"
Exactly, it's a Trini accent -- It's Calypso, not Reggae!
[Laughs] Yeah. The great thing that we discovered about Sebastian is that the reefs of the world to him are giant plateaus because he lives under the water. Occasionally he visits them, so he speaks all different languages and is very astute in the politics of the world.
So yes, it was a great audition, but I didn't know I was going to get the role. Then someone told me, "You've landed a little role in a film called The Little Mermaid!" and I said, "Oh, listen, I do Shakespeare, I don't know if I'm doing this."
My agent said to give it a whirl, you never know, I might like it. I fell in love with it, and the rest is history.
Were you already familiar with the work of Menken/Ashman, such as "Little Shop of Horrors"?
Yes, I knew exactly who they were, but I didn't know they had any connection with Disney whatsoever. Doing musical theatre in those days that wasn't staged on Broadway was something you didn't do.
What was the biggest challenge of this transition to animated film?
[Voicing] animation in front of a microphone was very difficult, especially for a song-and-dance man who's accustomed to approaching a song from a physical standpoint and using my body. In animation, you don't use your body, you use your voice. But what I did that Howard and Alan liked was the first time I sang the song, I went nuts. I went crazy. I was auditioning like I was starving. I was jumping from tables. I was doing barrel rolls, everything I could pull from my little magical musical inventory I did.
When it was over, they looked at me with a shocked attitude, like "This man is going to kill us, we just have to get him out of this audition room." After about the third year [of the process], the directors said, "Sam, do you remember the stuff you used to do and we told you can't do because this isn't musical theatre? Just start doing everything like you would do it if you were doing a play." Once I realized that this is what it meant to be an actor, and that's what I'm supposed to do, I had no problem with it at all.
How did you keep the performance fresh during such a long production?
I wasn't that difficult, strangely enough, to our surprise.
Sebastian is a product of me. Unlike a lot of voiceover experts that are much better than me, I don't sit down and try to find the voice. It wasn't difficult to sustain him because he is a part of myself.
[The songs] were infused with the energy the first time we sang it, and it remains that way to this day every time I sing it. I don't know why. If I knew, I would be an incredibly rich man! I do know that its humanity, it comes from the heart and soul, we fell in love with the production because all of us -- the animators, everybody involved in the process -- wanted to see Disney animation on top again. We dedicated ourselves to doing the best job we could in the years that we had to do it.
Long before Disney, you got your start in such productions as "Jesus Christ Superstar," working with legends such as Ben Vereen. How does this stage experience shape what you're doing with Sebastian?
Every job I've ever taken, and I've had some really good ones, I've been lucky enough to work with some of the best people in the business. Every experience has been an entirely, completely new experience. "Superstar" was my first experience on Broadway -- I was a young actor volunteering for everything on the books. I ended up doing every role in the show eventually, and it was a great training ground. Doing all of the 18 Broadway shows that I've done [all led] towards that production of "The Little Mermaid." All that juice together in that one performance must have gelled into something that people love all over the world today.
Did you have any sense that you were making something more than just an animated kids film, that you really were seeing the renaissance of the modern stage musical?
Yes, after about two years. I think we all realized that once we came together as a family.
You have to understand one thing, we weren't embraced. It wasn't the kind of thing where it was like,"Here's a billion dollars, go out and make a movie called 'The Little Mermaid.'" In those days [we'd] do some dialogue, draw some film [and] hope we're going to get more money to do more. It was a struggle.
By the time we got to the second or third year, the struggle was a part of all of us and we wanted to see it through. We were willing to do just about anything, go anywhere, to make this movie work. And thank God it did!
Was there a direction that you went in during the process that didn't work for the film, or for what Disney was looking for?
The only thing that wasn't working for the film was the Robin Williams approach. Because I'm a natural stage actor, I have a tendency to ad lib, to say things that weren't in the text. In animation, that becomes a problem because if you've already drawn it, then they can't match the words to the picture.
What they started doing was to reference our performances, then draw and put them in the film. This is why Sebastian looks like me, it's because it was drawn off of everything I did in front of the microphone.
And that's now common practice, but that developed with you?
To this day, is Sebastian the character that's closest to your own heart?
Sebastian is my heart. Everything about Sebastian is me. When I do interviews like this one, I have about 16 Disney computers running in my brain, saying "OK, say this, don't say that." Sebastian is uncensored. He's the most honest little thing I've ever known in my life, so he's my heart.
Well, he's the size of your heart, he's the colour of your heart, and he sings amazingly. Not so bad to have him be a vital part of you!
Thanks for talking to us.
What a wild ride.
You can get the Diamond version of "The Little Mermaid," out on Blu-Ray and DVD today.