BWW Interviews: Liz McCartney Gets Houston Ready for TUTS' THE LITTLE MERMAID
We are quickly approaching summertime in the city, and Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) is gearing up to provide Houstonians a cool opportunity to catch a fun, family show, Disney's THE LITTLE MERMAID. Like the beloved film, this production is sure to delight with familiar songs and all of our favorite characters. However, while tugging on the same strings of Disney nostalgia, this production is so much more and offers all of the same fun with more of a backstory for certain characters.
Taking time out of her busy schedule, Liz McCartney, who is currently playing Ursula, joked with BWW-Houston about how villains are always more fun to talk to! After a few minutes of talking to her, I am inclined to agree! I had so much fun interviewing Liz McCartney as she talked to me about THE LITTLE MERMAID and told me why Houston audiences don't want to miss this party under the sea!
BWW: How did you first get involved in theatre?
Liz McCartney: I read somewhere where most actors are the youngest in their families, and I am no exception to that rule. I have two older sisters and an older brother. My older brother wasn't really into theatre, but my two older sisters were. And, I don't think it was an outcry or a bid for attention, I think it was, "Hey, I can do that too," and "Watch, I can sing that note too." (Laughs) So, I think it was a competition more than a cry for attention.
BWW: When did you know you wanted to perform professionally?
Liz McCartney: Hmm, I think that I was in junior high school. They call it middle school now; my daughters have corrected me several times. I think that I was in the seventh grade, and I auditioned for this community theatre summer program. The director was so helpful that I thought, "Oh, I can do this as something for more than just fun and a hobby." I don't think that I ever thought that it was not a career, but I didn't know if it was a career option for me. That director said, "Yes, you could absolutely do this for the rest of your life."
I grew up in a little town with a big sports program, and theatre was just something that the nerds who couldn't get into sports did. But, then when I finally went to college I was like, "Oh my gosh, there are so many more people like me." It's not that I really liked college, but I loved that I was finally not alone on my island of musical theatre. (Laughs)
BWW: I totally get it. I grew up in a football town.
Liz McCartney: Yes, we had the football champions for season after season after season. We had a new high school built in the late seventies, and I believe my oldest sister was in the first graduating class. They petitioned all around town because the high school was built with two football fields and no theatre. We had to trek across the street to the middle school to use their antiquated equipment, and then when I went there many years later - I'm just kidding, my sister isn't that much older than I am. (Laughs) But, when I went there a few years later, we tried to get another petition going, and they built another football field.
Long story longer, my sister and I drove by our school and noticed an addition. We were surprised and said, "What is that? They put a theatre on the high school now!" We drove down there, and I got out of the car, just looking at these kids carrying things out of the scene shop into the theatre. I said, "You have no idea how lucky you are. Your scene shop was built on the backs of our petitions. You are so lucky." Ironically, my name is on one of the doors of that theatre. I didn't even know about the theatre. (Laughs) It's amazing though to think of where we came from, and the conditions that we worked in, that we still got to the places that we are. We got there after rehearsing in the back of a church or someone's house. Now, these kids have all of this state of the art equipment. It's really awesome.
BWW: How did you come to be involved in Theatre Under the Stars' (TUTS) production of Disney's THE LITTLE MERMAID?
Liz McCartney: Well, I did it at Paper Mill Playhouse about a year ago, and we sort of went on a mini tour to Pittsburgh and Kansas City's Starlight Theatre, which was an experience I've never had in my life. We went outside to do theatre for 3,000 people just sitting on the benches. It's complete daylight outside, and then it gets darker and darker, bats fly on stage, it starts to rain, and they still sit there and watch you. (Laughs) Then, about two months ago we were in Dallas Summer Musicals, and I loved that just as much. I love this production, and I would almost do it anywhere. I could probably do without the bats though. (Laughs)
BWW: I'll admit, this is my first time seeing THE LITTLE MERMAID. When TUTS announced that they were bringing it through, I was really excited that they were giving Houston that opportunity.
Liz McCartney: This production is a little bit different than it was for the Broadway company. And, I think it was reworked for the better. At least for my part! (Laughs)
BWW: What is like preparing for an iconic role like Ursula?
Liz McCartney: Well, I did one of the first workshops of it in 2005, and there were a few different songs and there was sort of a different take on Ursula and Ariel. It was not too much different from the movie, but their power as women had sort of dissipated by the end of the show, and all of the power went to the men in the show.
When I read the script to this, I thought, "Oh my God, this is brilliant because they've sort of done the back story on Ursula's character." You get to see why she wants what she wants. Of course, everybody would want to take control over the ocean, but you see why she wants to take control over the ocean and why she picks on Ariel rather than her other sisters. Ursula was banished, and you get to see why she was banished, and where she got her powers from. Ursula is King Triton's older sister, and in this one song "Daddy's Little Angel," you see her going through all of her sisters because they were all Daddy's little angels, and her father always hated her. It could be because she was a squid and they were all merpeople. Maybe that had something to do with it. (Laughs)
This new format, this new script, tells Ursula's backstory and Ariel is more of a source of power at the end of the show. No one needs to save Ariel. Spoiler alert: but all of a sudden Prince Eric can't breathe under water and stab Ursula with a ship that's been lying under the sea for a hundred years.
BWW: It sounds like this production really shines a light on both Ursula and Ariel's strength and power, and I think that's pretty great.
Liz McCartney: It is great because she stands up for herself, and I think fathers and daughters usually have a bit of a hard time with it because Ariel wants to exert her independence. She knows who she is, and she knows what she wants, and the father can't deal with any part of that because she is the youngest. She's the baby, and she needs to be where he can watch her all of the time. Then he realizes that she's grown up right in front of his eyes, and he hadn't even noticed because he just wanted to keep her a child. She actually teaches him how to be loving and accepting of someone who is not like him.
It's also an amazing story with the transgender community because she knows who she is inside, but it's not reflected on her outside.
BWW: It's somewhat unusual to see both a female lead and villain in a show. There is sort of this trope or binary of the fair maiden versus the outcast, or good versus evil. Through that, it gives the performer room to make pretty bold statements and inspire. What is that like?
Liz McCartney: For me personally, I get to be at eleven as much as I want. You know, in the fake documentary of a rock band, This Is Spinal Tap, and their speakers go up to eleven? I get to be at eleven as much as I want, but I need to connect it to me or else she's just a cartoon and anybody can play her. Her anger, her insanity, her humor has to come from a real place that I need to heighten, and it's amazing to watch my character almost get her way and take revenge on the ingénue because a character woman always wants to crush the ingénue. (Laughs) Even in an audition, it's like, well okay she's going to get it because she's a cute little girl, and here I am walking in a dress that looks like my grandmother. (Laughs) So, you always want to get revenge and win, and the character of Ursula is the embodiment of every character woman's revenge toward the pretty young girl, who they think takes something away from them. (Laughs)
I'm the youngest in my family, like I said, and there's only one boy, just like in Ursula's family. As the youngest child, you see people getting things before you, and it's not fair. It's, "Why does he get that because he's a boy," or "Why does she get that because she's first?" Ursula finally gets to speak out for all of the people that it's not fair for; she might just have a skewed perspective of it. (Laughs) Ariel gets to speak out for all of the girls that people look at and think, "Oh, aren't you cute? You belong here in this little envelope." The two of us get to speak out for women who aren't usually heard and get placed somewhere simply because of the way that they look.
BWW: I think that's an excellent way of putting that. It's really, very empowering. Are there any unique challenges that preparing for Ursula has presented?
Liz McCartney: I've worn a lot of large costumes in my life. I did PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and my first dress was 85 pounds from the waist down. But, this one is also about 85 pounds, and there are tentacles that are controlled by myself and the Eels. It's heavy, and if one Eel goes slightly to the wrong direction, you pull the whole thing over. I have tripped several times, and, knock on wood, I have not fallen yet. But, that was the first challenge - the heaviness and control of it.
Actually, the first challenge was figuring out what it was going to be because I saw on the website, from the Dutch production that Glenn Casale directed, that Ursula sits on a rolling cart, and she has these big puppet tentacles. She just sits there and sings her face off, and people push her around and move her tentacles for her. And, I immediately thought, that is the job to have! (Laughs) I can do that job until I'm a hundred. Then, I got to the first day of rehearsal, and I was like, wait a minute! I have to walk? I didn't sign up for this. Where are my puppet tentacles? (Laughs) So, just figuring out what I actually was going to be in, and what kind of contraption it would be, that was the first challenge.
The second challenge was dealing with how heavy it is, and figuring out things like, if I turn around will the tentacles turn with me or will they get in my way? And honestly, through about three-quarters of the rehearsal period at Paper Mill I walked around with a giant elastic waist band and six dryer vents sewn to it. It was ridiculous. It was hilarious to walk. But, you know, my tentacles are jointed like that and they needed to roll up and they needed to move with me. They are unique because they sometimes have a life of their own, and sometimes they come along for the ride, which is good. (Laughs)
BWW: I can only imagine what a unique challenge that costume is! But, in the long run, I guess that it part of the spectacle that we expect from a show like THE LITTLE MERMAID!
Liz McCartney: I'm so thrilled that they re-designed the costume, and made it closer to the original animated show. I do wish I had to do less work, but it's alright. (Laughs) No, seriously, at the end of the day it's all very satisfying. You get to just rip out "Poor Unfortunate Souls," and it so joyous in such a hateful way. (Laughs)
BWW: Okay, confession time. That was always my favorite song. While my friends were belting away to "Part of Your World," I was the bawdy one singing "Poor Unfortunate Souls."
Liz McCartney: Of course! Because, it's the most visceral. I mean, "Part of Your World" is lovely, and she wants to do all of these things. And look, she met this guy, you know, who she has not exchanged a single conversation with. (Laughs) But, she's suddenly in love with him. That's fantastic, and she's trading away her tail. She's an idiot! And, I'm right there to support her in her stupid decisions, so it's terrific. It's an awesome number. It's just a rip-your-guts-out-from-the-bottom-of-your-soul song.
BWW: Anyone familiar with the film is a fan of "Poor Unfortunate Souls," but what is your favorite song in the musical?
Liz McCartney: Well quite honestly my favorite number is "Poor Unfortunate Souls." It's a bit of a toss-up for my favorite song in the show. "Poor Unfortunate Souls" is my favorite song that I sing. If we're talking about my favorite song from the show, it's between "Poor Unfortunate Souls," "Under the Sea," and then there's a quintet which is stunning. And spoiler alert again: I'm already dead by the finale, but I sing off-stage in the finale just because I can. And every so often I pretend to go on stage during "Under the Sea," and I pretend to go onstage during the finale, like "Ha ha, you didn't really kill me," and "Ha ha, I'm under the sea too don't you think I should be in this number? No." (Laughs)
I do sing other songs. When I did the first workshop, there was a song sort of based on one line that Ursula in the movie says, "Look at me wasting away to practically nothing." That song didn't really inform the character too much. I believe the song was called "I Want the Good Times Back" on Broadway. That song informed the character a little bit more. It was "Look, I've been banished. I think I am going to try to get that back." This song is called "Daddy's Little Angel." It gives you the backstory about why Ursula is so mad, why she was banished, and it tells you who she is. She's not just this random witch with a grudge who wants control of the whole ocean.
BWW: With rehearsals underway in Houston, why should our local audiences be excited to see TUTS' production of THE LITTLE MERMAID?
Liz McCartney: You know, I think that there will be a lot of naysayers who are like "THE LITTLE MERMAID, is that the Disney cartoon? Can't we just watch the movie?" It's not like watching it on stage. Watching it on stage, it speaks to everybody in a different way. Like I said, it speaks to the father and daughter issues, the bitter sibling jealousy issues, and a girl wanting to be more than she has been told that she is. Also, it's just worth coming for the party and the celebration of "Under the Sea." I could watch that number fifteen times in a row, and it would be just as much fun. It's not like plunking in the DVD. It's an experience. It is joyful for any age, and it addresses almost anything that anybody is going through personally in their life.
BWW: What advice do you offer to others hoping to make a career in performing?
Liz McCartney: That's funny. Someone asked me a similar question the other day. Megan Hilty who was in 9 TO 5, and she was on SMASH, said "Just be nice to everyone because you never know who they really are or who they might become." I just think that's a really good idea. Someone else told me that everything is easier with a breath. If you take a breath before you try and make a decision, the decision will look clearer.
But, my favorite piece of advice, and it was when I first moved into the city, was, "Don't piss off the monitor. When you go to an audition, don't piss off the monitor because the monitor might be the boyfriend of the director, or the best friend of the choreographer." (Laughs) You never know who the monitor is. I went to a seminar, and the woman conducting it gave that advice. Right after that seminar, I went to an audition and I saw someone piss off the monitor! They did not get a callback, but I did. (Laughs) See, never piss off the monitor. Be nice to everybody.
It is almost here! THE LITTLE MERMAID is coming to Houston on June 13, and will be playing at the Houston Hobby Center's Sarofim Hall through June 29, 2014. For tickets or more information about THE LITTLE MERMAID and other upcoming TUTS productions, please visit www.tuts.com.
Photo courtesy of Theatre Under the Stars.