'Once On This Island' And The Power Of Storytelling
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'Once On This Island' And The Power Of Storytelling

The Broadway musical "Once on This Island", based on Rosa Guy's novella "My Love, My Love, or The Peasant Girl", which was in turn based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale "The Little Mermaid", is heartbreakingly beautiful, and in that way it fulfills what all storytelling strives towards.

'Once On This Island' And The Power Of Storytelling

Anyone who knows the fairy tale "The Little Mermaid" (1837) knows that the very successful 1989 Disney film is a rather loose adaptation. In the original story, the little mermaid (who is unnamed) does indeed desire to become a human being in order to marry the prince whom she has saved from drowning, but she has another reason as well: she wants to gain an immortal soul. Mermaids have no such thing, and when they die, they die for good; but if the little mermaid marries a human being, she will share his immortality. Andersen, of course, was very interested in Christian themes in his works; this, we may suspect, was a bit much for Disney (at least in 1989). This is Big Difference # 1. The other is even more notable: while Disney has her marrying the prince and living happily ever after with him (after a suitably dramatic conflict with the film's villain), Andersen's mermaid does no such thing. Rather, the prince indeed marries another, and the little mermaid will now be condemned to become sea foam in the manner of mermaids' deaths. Her sisters approach her with a solution: that she kill the prince, allowing her to become a mermaid again. She cannot love him too much, but instead, of dying, she is transformed into a spirit of the air with the promise that she can gain an immortal soul after all.

Thus, Disney jettisoned Andersen's fixation on redemptive suffering and produced a highly entertaining film that takes the original fairy tale simply as a starting point. That's all fine and dandy. What is very interesting, however, is that, at the same time as Disney's adaptation, we get a parallel treatment of "The Little Mermaid" in "My Love, My Love, or The Peasant Girl" (1985) and its adaptation into the Broadway musical "Once on This Island" (1990). (This is missing one of the songs ("Waiting for Life"); I've decided to feature the original cast recording rather than the revival one because it was via the original recording that I got to know and love the musical (and read the novella out of my interest). Also, the fundamentalist part of me prefers the original.) Disney's movie is great, but, if you want to delve deeper into the original fairy tale, here is a whole other world.

"My Love, My Love" takes the ingenious step of setting the story on an island in the French Antilles and recasting the lovers as a black peasant girl and a wealthy, mixed-race city dweller. The little mermaid's deal with the sea witch becomes an agreement with the demon of death, and, once rejected by her "prince" in favor of a wealthy woman of his own social group, she is trampled to death by his wedding guests. This hybrid of fairy tale and social commentary is fascinating, harsh, and heartbreaking. "Once on This Island", very faithful to the novella, adds in a bit more hope (the protagonist, akin to Andersen's mermaid's transformation into a spirit of the air, becomes a tree). It was very successfully revived on Broadway in 2017.

"Once on This Island", without denying the artistic worth of Disney's film, succeeds where Disney failed: it is a musical, lively, delightful adaptation of "The Little Mermaid" that at the same time touches the head with its story of violent injustice and touches the heart with its story of redemption. Real storytelling is like this: a perfect reflection of the human experience that, at the same time, saves what it reflects with a beauty that does not deny the presence of ugliness.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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