An Interview With Jodi Bensonby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Actress and singer Jodi Benson is a 2011 recipient of The Disney Legends Award. She is the original voice of "Ariel" in The Little Mermaid and continued to voice the character in a variety of other related projects from straight-to-video sequels, toys and video games.
On July 19, 2015, I had the good fortune to be asked to participate in Part of Your World: An Evening with Jodi Benson at the Bohemian Hotel in Celebration, Florida, that was an intimate three-course meal for 60 guests. The event was put together by Jennifer Beaudoin and Lance Kirkland of Legends Events.
During the evening, Jodi and her husband visited the tables and interacted with each of the guests, answered questions from the audience, posed for photos and performed a mini-concert of some songs including Part of Your World. For copyright reasons, no recordings or photos were allowed while Benson sang.
I spent a half-hour asking her some questions on stage and then fielded questions from the audience. I actually got additional time to talk with her before the event started and to ask some follow-up questions after the event ended. I found Jodi to be articulate, gracious, funny, informative and genuinely happy to be there, not always the case with some performers.
Benson was fighting a slight sore throat especially since she had spent the afternoon repeatedly riding the Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid attraction at the Magic Kingdom and insisting on singing along loudly with the songs each time. However, her performance was not dimmed by her vocal concerns and the audience would never have known if she hadn't mentioned it.
Jim Korkis: When did you first know you wanted to be a performer?
Jodi Benson: I think I was maybe about eight years old when I told my mom I'd love to be on Broadway, singing, dancing, and acting. I had never seen a Broadway play. I memorized all the songs from A Chorus Line and created my own choreography.
I knew that was something I was passionate about and I didn't want to be famous, I just didn't want to be a waitress in New York. I kind of came out of the womb thinking that this was something God had given me a natural gift set for, that it was something I needed to work on but yeah, I knew at an early age that this was at least something I wanted to pursue.
JK: Did you ever grow up wanting to be a Disney princess?
JB: Cinderella. I grew up in the Cinderella era. Yeah, Cinderella was my movie. I just loved everything about it. I always loved cheering for the underdog. She comes from one area and she wishes for something more, a dream to come true. But never in a million years did it cross my mind to be a Disney princess, work with Disney or become a voice actress. It's beautiful to see God take something that never came into my consciousness and turn it into my livelihood. It was all a wonderful gift and that's why I love Ariel and the film so much.
JK: I understand one time in New York you actually wore Ariel's mermaid tail.
JB: How did you ever hear about that! You are right. One time, in the privacy of a hotel room, a costume designer brought the Disney World Ariel's costume, and just she and I were in the room in between events. I put it on, just for fun, and laid down on the little sofa. I don't even know if I have that picture anymore. I had always wondered what it would feel like to have a fin and to wear the seashells.
Then she wrapped the costume back up and brought it to the next event and Ariel was there in full costume on top of the rock. I came out in my gown singing but chuckling to myself because the actress portraying Ariel was there all decked out in the full outfit, and I said to myself, "I tried that on!"
I could actually fit into it at that time, so it's pretty funny. People ask me all the time, "Are you the Ariel in the theme park?" No, but I know it's hard to understand. Ariel is so much more than just me.
That's why people cry when they meet me because they are not meeting me, Jodi. They are meeting the memory. I have met several kids or parents completely fall apart when they meet me.
They will say something like, "You're the one that let me come out to my parents to whom I really was inside." Some people have told me their child was completely autistic and they learned to speak because of this movie, because "Ariel" lost her voice. Paraplegics, quadriplegics relate to the film because "Ariel" can't walk as a mermaid. It's unbelievable the connection people have to this film. This movie is going to live long past me.
JK: How did you end up auditioning for the role of Ariel?
JB: Back in the fall of 1986, I was appearing in Smile, a Broadway musical that Howard Ashman had written with Marvin Hamlisch. It was a show about beauty pageants in which my character, Doria Hudson, performed Disneyland, a song about wanting to be part of the world of Mickey Mouse. She wanted to escape her difficult home life and live full-time in the Happiest Place on Earth. Disney sent Mickey Mouse himself to the opening night party to present me with an honorary Disneyland citizenship.
Given that Howard and Marvin were such huge talents, everyone thought that this show would run forever. It closed at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre after just 48 performances in January of 1987 and we were all out of work.
Now at this point, Howard had just begun pre-production on The Little Mermaid at Disney. And he genuinely felt bad that Smile had closed so quickly. Which is why he then invited all of the girls from that show to come audition for Ariel. I had never been behind a microphone before, and I thought, "Oh, this is a really cool experience. How sweet of Howard to let us have this learning experience".
So I like everyone else laid down my audition on an old-fashioned, reel-to-reel tape with Albert Tavares, Disney's casting associate. And this tape was then sent into the powers-that-be at Disney with no names or pictures attached. They were just listening to voices, trying to find just the right actress to sing and to speak for this character in that movie. I was told it was something like 300 tapes.
After I sent in my tape, I did what other actresses do in New York. I went out on auditions. I tried out for a lot of other parts. I went on with my life. It wasn't until early 1988, a full year later, that I got a call that my tape had been selected.
So much time had gone by that when I got the call from my agent, I had completely forgotten about it. She was like "You know, Ariel". I'm like, "What are you talking about?" I'd put it out of my mind.
When you're doing Broadway, you're only thinking of theater; doing voiceover was not in my realm of consciousness. I didn't even know what that actually really meant.
I started flying back and forth between New York and Los Angeles but animation was not a good job back then in the mid-eighties. So I didn't really tell people about it because it was kind of…not such a great job to have, doing voice-overs and such. I just thought it would disappear and I'd go right back to Broadway.
And the next thing I knew, I was in a recording booth with Howard.
JK: Didn't you try to imitate Howard on your audition tape?
JB: The first time that I heard the song was on a cassette player on my Walkman, with Howard singing it and (composer) Alan [Menken] playing it. We (Ray Benson and her) were in our apartment, and I popped it in the Walkman and listened to it, before I went to my audition, which was probably a couple of days later, and I thought, "Oh, my gosh!"
Of course, Howard is a brilliant actor and singer, and I just loved what he brought to the character. I thought she was just so real and so genuine. I love story songs. I love songs that aren't fully sung out. I love that it's a monologue to pitch.
So I was very smart and I just imitated Howard. That's exactly what I did. At the audition, I went into the ladies' room and waited until it was empty, and then I looked in the mirror and started talking to myself, trying to remember what it was like to think like a sixteen year old. And then, I waited for my name to be called.
There was a big reel to reel machine in the studio, and they pushed play and record, and that was it. I started doing a little bit of the dialogue since they had given us two pages, and then I sang part of the song. I can't remember if I was singing along with Howard, but I remember that I wanted to do it exactly like Howard had on the recording #39;cause it was so good.
JK: I understand that Howard personally coached you after you were cast.
JB: Normally, when you record a voice for an animated feature, the performer's in the booth in front of the microphone and the director is behind the glass. But because I had never done anything like this before, Howard was in the booth with me the whole time as I was recording Ariel.
In fact, even now, if you listen carefully to the voice tracks and songs that I recorded for this Disney film, you can actually hear Howard breathing in the background sometimes if you listen closely. I certainly can.
With all the preparation for Smile, I had been working with Howard for three years at this point. So I was already very aware of how intense he could get sometimes. But at this point in my career, I had never voiced an animated character before. So to have Howard there in the recording booth right beside me, helping me shape my performance of Ariel, sometimes spoon-feeding me specific line readings, was really quite helpful. And very generous of Howard, I might add.
He also acted out every other role, screaming so loud in my face as King Triton that I was at the point of sobbing. And then I went back to Broadway with no idea about what would happen.
What's funny is the voice of Sebastian, Sam Wright, and I were doing the same Broadway show together, Welcome to the Club, while we were working on The Little Mermaid. What are the odds of that? And that was another horrible Broadway flop that closed.
We had no idea the film was going to be a success. It was great to see this new Disney animated feature get such great reviews. I was proud of my work on this project. And because people seemed to genuinely love the music from Little Mermaid. I was, of course, very happy for Howard and Alan. Especially after this film took home that year's Oscars for Best Song and Best Score.
JK: Most people don't realize you also voiced another character in The Little Mermaid.
JB: That's true. People often forget that in addition to voicing Ariel, I also voiced Vanessa who is the human disguise that Ursula used to trick Prince Eric into marrying her. After all, she is using Ariel's voice.
I had to get some coaching from Pat Carrol who was the voice of Ursula to try to mimic her cackle which was necessary considering how iconic that laugh is to the Disney villain. They have Morgana now who was Ursula's sister. I mean, after all these years of voicing a Disney Princess, it might be fun to see what it's like being a Disney Villain.
JK: Of course, the song Part of Your World has become iconic and I'm glad you are going to sing it tonight.
JB: For Part of Your World, I was in the recording studio with Howard and Ron (Clements) and John (Musker), our directors of the film, were so kind to let Howard stay in the booth with me and direct me. We just had the best time recording that song. It was hard for me because I kept over-singing it. On a Broadway stage, I need to sing really loudly and project.
It was a little different for me to try to tone everything down and make things really simple, a little bit more realistic. But Howard was so great. He just kind of spoon fed me all the lines and got me into the zone and we turned off the lights and kind of created the grotto. He kept telling me to just tell the story and not worry about being pitch perfect. He made a demo tape for me to listen to it.
I did not want to listen to my recording after I did it that day. It was painful for me, being a perfectionist coming from the Broadway stage of wanting to sing every note of its full value and perfectly with vibrato and a straight tone and the right kind of emphasis.
The first time that I actually saw the film was a screening on the Disney Studio lot, out in Burbank. I was white-knuckling it, waiting for the song to come and wondering which version they picked, and I just loved it. I got so caught up in it that I forgot it was me. My favorite part of the film is the reprise of that song and the animation done by Glen Keane.
JK: What was it like recording The Little Mermaid?
JB: It was an incredible experience. I had never been a part of anything like that, I had never been behind a microphone, and I had not worked in voice over; this was my first experience, and they were just incredibly generous and gracious to me.
We had a cast that primarily had a Broadway background, and so they approached it like a Broadway musical and tried to accommodate all of us in our background and what we were comfortable with.
It was different for this film than any other animated project I've worked on as we all came together on the first day and did a big read through like a Broadway show. Howard and Alan were at the piano interspersing with the music as we read the script.
Then we broke off into groups of twos and threes and recorded everything together. The remaining few days we were all isolated and recorded by ourselves. But we had already everyone's interpretation of their characters, and so you could carry that with you while you worked.
The first two days were just a whirlwind, and you have to overcome your nerves, because your nerves show through your voice so much, and I just didn't know what I was doing. I REALLY didn't know what I was doing, and I felt embarrassed, I think, and completely unqualified.
I kept hitting the microphone with my hands, just doing silly stuff. The sound engineers said, "Well, that was really good, but you've got to put your hands down." I talk with my hands all the time. Just learning this whole craft was a little hard for me the first few days. Those guys were so patient. They were so kind putting up with me.
Today, the whole thing is completely different as we work by ourselves and you don't meet the rest of the cast until the movie comes out. So it is very, very different.
JK: How would you describe Ariel?
JB: She's tenacious, strong-willed, determined, and motivated. She dreams big and lives out of the box. I identify most with her independent spirit and we are kind of one in a weird way after all these years. I'm very protective of her.
For me the realization that this character was possibly going to live forever and to maintain the integrity of it, it is a huge responsibility. Ariel is alive and living, and that is my full-time job. She is just incredible and amazing.
JK: I understand you are good friends with another Disney Princess?
JB: Paige [O'Hara], the singing and speaking voice of Belle, and Linda [Larkin], the speaking voice of Jasmine, and I are really good friends. We have been connecting with each other, at various conventions, and we've had so much fun.
Paige and I have been friends since long before Mermaid. We met in 1981. I know her from Broadway and from working with my husband on a Broadway tour of Oklahoma! He played Will Parker, and she played Ado Annie, and they both were the standbys for the two principals. So, I've known Paige since long before I got married.
I actually auditioned for Belle, as well. It was actually between Paige and I for Belle, which is really fun. I remember calling her the night before going, "Honey, I hope you get this." And she said, "I don't know. I think they want me to sound more like you." I was like, "Well, that's weird. You shouldn't want to sound like me."
I remember Howard calling and saying, "You know, it was between you and Paige. We just felt like, with the fact that you're gonna be connected with Ariel – your name and what you look like and who you are – that we probably should have two different people representing two different princesses."
I was like, "No, I'm so thrilled! I'm so happy!" I didn't even expect to be in the running for it, so I was thrilled for Paige when she got it. It was really great to have two old Broadway girls in the Disney Legends family.
I have voiced Belle in some television episodes, but we don't want to talk about that.
JK: Do you feel trapped by people just thinking of you as Ariel?
JB: Everything that I've had has come from The Little Mermaid. Ever since the movie came out every job, every concert, business relationship, pretty much everything that's happened. It's been really life changing, and I'm very, very thankful.
This character has definitely changed my life. Some people ask me, "Is it limiting for you, because that's the only way people know you?" But I don't see it that way. I see it as an incredible blessing, and very, very positive.
I'm honored, very blessed, and very thankful to get to be part of Ariel's world and the Disney family, for all of these years. But if you had told me back in late 1989, that decades later Ariel would still be going strong, that they're be these direct-to-video sequels and theme park attractions and TV shows, or that I'd still be providing the voice for this character on all of these projects…Well, I'd have told you that you were nuts!
JK: Thank you for sharing these stories and memories.