John Tocco Finds His Sea Legs with Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ at SCC

John Tocco
John Tocco, Photo: David Taylor

Disney’s classic 1989 film The Little Mermaid, based on the timeless tale by Hans Christian Andersen, splashes into the spotlight at Southampton Cultural Center’s (SCC) Levitas Center for the Arts on Friday, October 11, running through October 27. The story of a young mermaid making waves in her community with determination and musical ability bears a strong parallel to the SCC production’s musical director, John Tocco, a fresh-out-of-college 22-year-old with dreams of being a great composer like The Little Mermaid’s Alan Menken.

Tocco’s involvement with the SCC show began during a chance encounter with a friend in the local theater circle. As he was pulling out of his driveway in East Quogue last August, Julie Crowley, who frequently works with SCC, approached his passenger window to persuade him to audition for The Little Mermaid cast. Seeking a paid position to succeed his nearly concluded summer job, he asked her if the show could make better use of his talents as music director. She loved the idea, and he aced his interview for the position soon after. “If you want to do the cool things [in music and theater], make lots of friends,” he advises. “It’s half craft and half who you know.”

Tocco owes a great deal of his craft’s foundation to Westhampton Beach High School. “I didn’t grow up with Disney and musical theater the same way other people did. I got into theater really late in the game…I was a stuck-up middle-schooler who only wanted to listen to Metallica,” he recalls. “[But my music theory teacher Eric Rubinstein] was a very positive influence on me and a very encouraging voice.” Tocco says that his mentor pushed him to audition for chamber choir and then for the school musical at a time when he only considered himself a guitarist and upright bass player. From WHB, he attended SUNY Fredonia’s School of Music, where he graduated in May 2019 with degrees in composition and jazz guitar.

When it came time for The Little Mermaid auditions, Tocco admits he wasn’t sure what to expect. He was blown away by the diversity, talent and passion of the people who ultimately made the cut, and he was surprised that everybody, including director Bethany Dellapolla already knew each other. “I didn’t know anybody—I was the new person,” he says, adding that he was also initially concerned that the entire production team and half of the cast were older than him. “It’s always been a fear of mine that people won’t take me seriously because of my age, and I’ve been in those situations, he says. “Not only has that not been a problem at all [with The Little Mermaid production], everyone has been super respectful and super kind…It’s personally very flattering that these people trusted me—somebody they didn’t know—to do this. I very much appreciate that everyone was willing to ride it out with me.”

The SCC production of The Little Mermaid is a staged concert version—featuring all of the dialogue and musical numbers of the original film, plus a six-piece band and some staging and choreography. “Whatever you would consider to be just below a fully produced version of it, that’s what we’re presenting,” Tocco clarifies. “The way that I generally approached [each musical number] was if I don’t need to alter something, I’m not going to, especially because of the nature of the production…Everybody is [performing] because they love to do it, and they’re doing it because it’s fun.”

As music director, Tocco’s job isn’t done on opening night—he also plays the vital role of conductor for the singers and musicians. “The Little Mermaid is a show that needs to be conducted. Some musicals are very rhythmic—very groove oriented,” he explains. “But in a show like The Little Mermaid, you have a lot of washy textures and tempos, where things are a little ambiguous.”

Tocco adds, “This whole process with The Little Mermaid has been very rewarding and very fun…It’s very flattering that [the cast and director] were willing to go on this journey with me and listen to me and trust me.”

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