The squeak of ice-filled coolers. The rustle of blankets on grass. The glow of the stage lights from the top of the hillside.
It’s that time of year again — the Zilker Summer Musical has returned.
If you’re planning to make the pilgrimage to this year’s 61st annual production, “The Little Mermaid,” here are six things you need to know.
1. The musical is different than the movie.
Sure, you know “Under the Sea” and “Part of Your World.” But the musical is filled with other songs, too.
“There are songs in the musical that people don’t really know,” said Jalal Goggins, who plays Sebastian. “Come with that feeling of nostalgia from the original movie, but be prepared for something new, because we’re going to include an element that people aren’t really expecting.”
Travis Gaudin, who plays Prince Eric, said some of the themes of the musical are different, too.
“It’s really relevant now, the theme of the story and empowering women. The musical actually gives a lot of credit to Ariel and her own choice and her own drive to be her own person,” Gaudin said. “In the original it’s, ‘I’m gonna go get the guy.’ This is a little different than that, and I think that’s something people are needing to hear right now and needing to think about.”
Sarah Zeringue, who grew up watching Zilker musicals as a native Austinite, plays Ariel this year. She agreed that it’s not the same as the Disney classic.
“It’s got a more feminist bent to it, which I love,” she said.
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2. The costume team had to make 106 costumes for the show.
“I specialize in doing either historical stuff or crazy, fantastical stuff,” said costume designer Jennifer Rose Davis. “Many of the costumes (for this show) were weird technology things, like a blowfish that blows up and tentacles and moving, articulated legs. There were some really intense, mental challenges. … We had to make 19 seagulls that all matched, including little wings and little beaks.”
She said the team incorporated everything from packing peanuts to pool noodles to plastic balls in the costumes.
“We’ve got all these magical costumes and this incredibly complex and intricate set and the beautiful lighting,” she said. “I think it’s really going to be one of the best things we’ve seen on this hillside or anywhere in the city.”
3. The upcoming live-action movie is raising the profile of the summer musical.
Zilker's production of "The Little Mermaid" is particularly timely, as the movie has been in the news in recent months. Earlier this year, Disney announced plans for a live-action "Little Mermaid" movie, and earlier this month announced that Ariel would be portrayed by Halle Bailey, an African American actress.
“It’s funny because I was thinking about it when I heard Disney wanted to do a live-action take,” Goggins said. “I thought that’s going to be perfect because we’ll kind of give everyone an appetizer and a little taste. I definitely feel like people are going to come and think, ‘Wow, we can expect this scope on the big screen.'”
Coty Ross, who plays Ursula, said that like the live-action movie, the Zilker Summer Musical cast is diverse.
“We have a multiracial cast and I’m in a multiracial relationship," Ross said, "so the fact that we took liberties with that and the fact that the new production coming out is doing that as well means a lot to me. I think it says a lot about where we are in the world, and it really warms my heart to see them pushing that.”
4. The Zilker Summer Musical helps bring needed attention to Austin’s theater scene.
Goggins said Austin’s theater scene rarely gets as much attention as Austin’s live music scene.
“I think when they hear about the theater it’s like this specific group of people gets really excited but not everyone knows too much about it,” Goggins said. “I feel like (the Zilker musical) is really cool because people have a chance to see it, they can see it at no cost to them, they can bring their kids. Here people are really allowed to get that summer experience of Austin where they can grab a hot dog and be able to watch Broadway-level theater. I feel like it’s really crucial to the art scene in Austin.”
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Director Scott Shipman echoed that sentiment.
“It’s so unlike any other venue that you will get to play as a performer in this town just because of the massiveness of the hillside full of people,” said director Scott Shipman. “Until you experience it, you can’t fully comprehend what that feels like, and it’s that wonderful two-way street of being able to offer the show you’ve worked hard on and have them give you back their appreciation for your hard work. That give and take is heightened here in such a magnified way. It’s super special to me.”
5. For many performers, being part of this musical is a dream come true.
“It was like everything I’d ever worked for came true,” Gaudin said of receiving the Prince Eric role. “It really felt so validating in my craft.”
Goggins said being cast as Sebastian was “almost indescribable.”
“It was a very surreal moment,” he said, “and I felt like it was a dream, honestly.”
As for Ross, she only had eyes for Ursula.
“The most fun thing about playing Ursula is getting to literally just sink into evil. I get to relish evil. I’m a pretty happy, cheery person myself, so just to play the other side of the coin and be as evil as I possibly can, it’s pretty much the greatest part. The evil laughter is probably my favorite,” Ross said. “(When I got the part) I actually cried.”
6. Because it's free, the musical is accessible to everyone.
The cast tells a story about receiving a touching letter during a previous season from a woman who was homeless and was able to bring her children to the show because it was free.
“At the time, she was living out of her car and she wrote about how this was the first time she got to feel normal,” said Brandon Lozano, who plays King Triton. “It’s something that’s really, really awesome to me. Accessibility to theater is such a huge problem in some places. Here, it’s so accessible and so wonderful and everyone is so passionate. It's really something you can’t miss.”
Ross said spectators will be surprised by what they experience.
“We’re all separated by our phones and we’re all separated by our televisions, so to be able to come together as a community and sit and enjoy theater and feel that kind of special moment you get when you see live theater, there’s nothing like that,” she said. “It’s really, really a privilege.”