At the neo-classic Disney animated film The Little Mermaid makes its first big splash on Blu-ray, Jodi Benson remembers how becoming the singing and speaking voice of Ariel marked a sea change in her life.
“I was doing a Broadway musical called Smile with Howard Ashman and Marvin Hamlisch, and it abruptly closed on Broadway, which was really heartbreaking,” Benson says. The stage actress, then in her late 20s, was summoned to a unique audition by Ashman, a Broadway lyricist who, with composer Alan Mencken, was in the early stages of crafting music for the forthcoming Disney film.
“Howard just thought it would be a great idea to invite all the girls in the show to audition for Ariel, so he was just really kind to let us all go in and do it,” Benson recalls. “About a year and a half later my tape got selected, so it was just a huge, wonderful surprise – and getting to work with Howard again, of course, was just amazing. I was in good hands with him, never having done any voiceover or working behind a microphone before or anything like that!”
The Little Mermaid would mark a major turning point for Disney’s animation arm: after several years of feature films of uneven quality, both for its attention to strong storytelling and lavish animation, as well as for introducing Broadway-quality musical sequences into the films. Benson admits that, given her initially limited involvement, she had no idea how special the project was about to become.
“Right as the movie was being released we kind of got wind that, ‘Whoa, this is something that’s really huge,'’’ she says, recalling that initially there were no plans to publicize the voice actors. “[We] were just going to go back to New York and keep going on with life and no one would ever know,” she says. “And then right before they had sent me on a big press tour around the United States, and I thought, ah, wait a minute – something’s going on here! And then when the movie came out then we thought, this is really making this huge difference for Disney animation. It was just incredible, and the fact that it was a surprise just made it even better.”
As result, Benson’s voice has become an indelible part of the childhoods of ongoing generations, something she’s extremely grateful for. “It’s a wonderful blessing,” she says. “It gives me opportunity to travel all over and come in contact with kids, and just to see their reaction and how they feel about a character and how they feel about a film is really precious.”
The role also provided her with her own treasured memory with Ashman, who died in 1991 at age 40, just two years after the film’s release: “Recording ‘Part of Your World’ with Howard standing to my side in the studio and just helping me to create everything I need to get across with just my voice, directing me and leading me through line by line,” she remembers. “Because he had recorded the demo and did such a beautiful job, it just made it really easy for me to work off of what he had already done. So that’s just an incredible, fond memory for me, just getting a chance to record that incredible song with him.”