By Amy Stumpfl
Catherine Birdsong is certainly no stranger to the stage. Over the years, she has wowed audiences both locally and on the road. But there’s something undeniably special about playing the title role in Disney’s The Little Mermaid on her home stage. In fact, you might say that she’s been preparing for this moment her entire life.
“I really do feel like I was sort of destined to play Ariel at some point,” says the Nashville native. “But to do it here at Nashville Children’s Theatre, with people that I so love and admire, is especially exciting. It’s like watching all my childhood dreams come true – what an amazing opportunity.”
Birdsong says that some of her earliest memories revolve around the 1989 hit animated film, which features familiar Alan Menken songs such as “Under the Sea” and “Part of Your World.” It actually was the first movie she ever saw at a movie theater (at the old Harding Mall), and she had a vast collection of “Little Mermaid” toys, clothes and other merchandise.
“Oh yeah – I had the lunchbox and thermos, the little cereal bowl and plate set, the sleeping bag, bed sheets and comforter, the Ariel and Prince Eric Barbie dolls, and I still have my little Flounder stuffed animal somewhere,” she says. “I think we just about wore out the VHS movie, and from the age of about 3 to 10 years old, if I wasn’t in my school uniform, I was probably wearing a ‘Little Mermaid’ t-shirt or outfit of some kind.”
And with her long red hair and sparkling eyes, even strangers noticed the little girl’s striking resemblance to the popular Disney princess.
“I think she definitely identified with Ariel, visually,” says Catherine’s mother, Julie Birdsong. “People used to stop us all the time and say: ‘Oh look – there’s little Ariel!’ And of course, she loved the music and sang it constantly. In fact, she sang ‘Part of Your World’ as part of a Mother’s Day banquet when she was about 3 or 4 years old. I made her costume, and she was just so adorable.”
Catherine remembers wearing that same outfit for Halloween.
“This was back before Disney had all the official costumes available, so my mom had glued felt shells on a bikini top and made a fin out of this shiny, green fabric. I guess it must have been too cold outside, because I had to wear a peach turtleneck under the top – but I absolutely loved wearing that costume.”
But beyond Ariel’s iconic look, Catherine also identified with the character’s independent spirit.
“So many people look at Ariel and see only the disobedient, spoiled princess. But I’ve always loved her bravery and her sense of adventure. It takes a lot of courage to be true to yourself, even when the path is not easy – even when it’s not what others would choose for you.”
Birdsong’s own path led her to Belmont University, where she earned a degree in Musical Theatre. She would go on to work with a number of regional theaters across the country, and later moved to Los Angeles, where she tackled television, film and stage. She also had the opportunity play her favorite Disney character for a number of themed princess parties and fundraisers.
“Ariel really has sort of followed me throughout my life. I’ll never forget being at the Beverly Hills Hotel, getting ready for a big fundraiser for the L.A. Children’s Hospital, and I’m in this gorgeous couture gown with a seashell purse – it was amazing. Then, about a year-and-a-half later, the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey asked me to play Ariel in a promo video for their upcoming production of The Little Mermaid. I had a custom fin, and we shot in front of a green screen, so that was another really fun experience.”
In 2014, Catherine returned to Nashville, joining NCT’s staff as Education Booking Manager and Teaching Artist. Naturally, her parents were delighted.
“We raised Catherine to be a strong, independent young woman – and that’s exactly who she is,” Julie says. “She works so hard, and she’s really fearless. But of course, it’s wonderful to have her back home in Nashville. I love singing with her in the Vox Grata women’s choir. And we’re so happy for her to be working with Nashville Children’s Theatre. She loves the kids, and she really believes in the power of live theatre – it’s easy to see that this is where her heart is.”
And while balancing her regular job responsibilities with rehearsals has not been without its challenges, Catherine says her NCT co-workers have been incredibly supportive as she geared up for The Little Mermaid.
“Everyone is so excited for me, and totally willing to help out with whatever I need. But that’s one of the things that makes NCT so special. These are more than just co-workers – they’re family.”
To learn more about “The Little Mermaid,” visit NashvilleCT.org.