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Staging Nemo

The theatre can be a fickle thing. A story travels from a mind, book or film to the stage and its success partially depends on how it was adapted. Even less forgiving is adapting a beloved work to a theme park venue. Not only must they convert the story to a stage format, they must also condense its length in preparation for multiple showings a day. It is quite a daunting task. With that in mind, Disney has an impressive track record ranging from pleasant to excellent in park stage productions. With the recent addition of “FINDING NEMO: THE MUSICAL,” I now add exceptional to that range.


Now don’t get me wrong, after Nemo is finally found and the curtain closes; only 30 minutes have transpired. That’s just slightly longer than an episode of PUNKY BREWSTER – including commercials. But in that short time, park visitors experience an artistic and technical production on par with today’s Broadway musicals – without the $125 a seat ticket price.

It’s difficult to talk about Nemo on stage without emphasizing the wonderful source material. The film continued PIXAR’s trend of cutting edge technology trumped by powerful story-telling. Critics and audiences applauded the masterful emotional core of the film even more than the startling imagery.

With the success comes the promise of immersion. Since its early days, the folks at Disney have embraced synergy. (Next time you pass the “Liberty Tree” in the Magic Kingdom, think of “JOHNNY TREMAIN”). With very few exceptions, Disney cross promotes their properties to excess. (Can an “Expedition Everest” film be far off?) Bringing Nemo into the “Living Seas” was a no-brainer. Long before the hydrolators, early plans for the pavilion included a short ride into the aquarium guided by lovable animated sea creatures.


But bringing a story about fish to dry land was another issue, testing the creativity and talents of many. Disney was up to the task.

The first challenge was to create an environment where audience members and sea creatures could share a space. Providing scuba gear to thousands of guests was out of the question. Converting the space through technical effects and puppetry successfully bridges the gap.

The next challenge was compressing the film story into a more manageable thirty-plus minutes without watering it down; no pun intended. Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s make it a musical. Again, they succeeded wonderfully on both counts. The music created is such a natural fit that it doesn’t take long to forget that the songs didn’t appear in the film.

For the musical journey they turned to Robert Lopez and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez, fresh off the success of AVENUE Q. Originally, the couple was pegged to write a short musical piece to travel around with the “Lucky the Dinosaur” walking animatronic, but when that ‘show’ went extinct; they were asked to consider “Nemo.” Their work is simple, yet powerful. Just try to get one or two of the songs out of your head for the rest of the day.


Tony award winning director Peter Brosius was brought in to find and create the show. His understanding on family style theatre was an immediate success. Similar to the Broadway version of THE LION KING, he used puppets to relay the story but kept the puppeteer an integral part of the telling. The incredible puppets are used to travel through the story while the performer provides the soul and emotion. Near the finale, when the characters are fighting their final obstacle, the main performers hand off their puppets to keep the focus on the emotional toll of the story.

The other thing that Brosius explored with his take on the story was size and scale. Sometimes the stage is scaled down, providing a small window into the life of a small family of clown fish, and then the stage can be opened up to super widescreen as a huge group of sea turtles dominate the stage. Sometimes, it even dominates the stage vertically with the swimming antics of a baby turtle, or the appearance of a ginormous pelican with a penchant for dentistry.

At its heart, FINDING NEMO is the story of a man’s journey to find his son. His biggest conflict is internal as he must learn to let go. Along the way he has lots of friends offering advice such as “Go with the flow” and “Just keep swimming”. The man in this case is a clownfish.

..and everyone loves a clownfish.

photos ©2007 Pat Whitson