'Little Mermaid' star Jodi Benson loves life as Ariel
05:00 AM, Oct 02, 2013
The Little Mermaid is still a part of Jodi Benson’s world. A really large part.
The singer voiced Ariel, the mermaid under the sea in the 1989 Disney animated classic, and still does in cartoons. In addition, she often plays shows where she belts out Ariel’s signature ode to dreaming of being on land, Part of Your World.
Ariel and the movie itself are introduced to the next generation of Disney-loving youngsters with a new 3-D Blu-ray release, out now.
“The fact that it’s had this kind of longevity is just amazing,” says Benson, who’s part of a third home-video re-release of The Little Mermaid. “We do it for every new batch of kids that 7- to 10-year mark is usually when you have the next round of children who are ready to have their first experience with it.”
Ariel was introduced to an unfamiliar landscape in the movie, and so was Benson when she was cast in The Little Mermaid. It was her voiceover work after having been primarily a Broadway and stage actress up until that point.
“Everything about it was such a huge surprise,” Benson, 51, recalls. “My fondest memories are probably working with Howard Ashman in the studio and just having his direction and his guiding force. Just being so confident to know I was in good hands with him.
“To get everything across with just your voice was a bit challenging, and that’s where Howard came in.”
Ashman, the lyricist for the Little Mermaid songs, had just directed her on Broadway in the show Smile in 1986, but for the Mermaid audition, she heard Part of Your World via a demo cassette with Ashman singing and composer Alan Menken on piano and submitted a little sung portion of the song on a reel-to-reel tape.
The tapes weren’t marked so the actresses were anonymous to Disney executives and Little Mermaid writer-directors John Musker and Ron Clements, so when Benson’s tape was pulled as the chosen Ariel, Ashman was just about as happy and surprised as she was.
Once she was in the studio, Benson found Part of Your World a little tricky when Ashman told her it was a monologue not to sing it but to instead tell a story.
“The passes and the selects they chose are not perfectly sung some of them are not sung at all, some of them are spoken words, some of them are not held out, there’s no vibrato, some of them are not the right note,” Benson says of the final track that’s been heard over the years on the soundtrack. “The first time I heard it, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s not a perfect musical selection.’ And they’re like, ‘No, that’s what we did not want. We just wanted it to be real.’ That goes through my mind.”
Whenever she performs it, Benson goes back to that original day of recording it with Ashman, who died in 1991 at the age of 40 due to complications from AIDS.
“I can hear him singing it in my ear, I can hear him directing it every step of the way. So I (recently) sang in front of 20,000 people in the Magic Kingdom on Main Street (in Walt Disney World), and singing it there is exactly like singing it in the studio. It’s just as special to me as that first time.”
In addition to performing as the speaking and singing voice of Ariel for wherever she appears, be it video games or TV animation, Benson is also a “soccer mom” to son McKinley, 14, and daughter Delaney, 12.
She introduced both of them to The Little Mermaid and her role as Ariel when they were both just about 3 years old.
“For my son, I stood next to the TV and sang along with her, and he looked back and forth, back and forth, and he was like, ‘Mommy’s Ariel.’ He just made that connection,” Benson says. “But then when I started singing in public, he would start to cry: ‘No, Mommy, no sing!’ It would be like, ‘That’s my mommy singing and I don’t want her to go on stage because then that means she’s not my mommy anymore, whereas Ariel in the box was still Mommy.’
“My daughter on the other hand was totally enthralled with the whole thing,” she continues. “I was definitely Ariel and I had fins when I was in the water and my hair turned red.
“Every child just makes that correlation that moment of magic, they create it for what they can handle.”
When visiting the Disney parks, Benson and her daughter usually wear matching Ariel T-shirts, and she doesn’t even have to force her teenage son to go to the Little Mermaid attractions at New Fantasyland in Disney World. They also star with their mom in one of the bonus features on the new Blu-ray introducing the new section of the park.
“They rode the ride 20 times to do the filming at 4 in the morning. They were such troupers about it and it was really fun to get to work together,” Benson says.
An extra that will interest most teens, even those outside Benson’s household, is a music video of Carly Rae Jepsen covering Part of Your World, which Benson found to be “super fun.”
She was never overprotective about over other women voicing Ariel or singing her signature song. Benson remembers “just crying the whole night” during the opening night of The Little Mermaid on Broadway and sitting next to the parents of star Sierra Boggess.
“People were like, ‘Oh, you’re passing the baton,’ and I really don’t think about it that way. Ariel is my full-time job I was just in the studio doing Ariel. It’s not like I’m done and it’s dead and we’re over and somebody else has taken my place,” Benson explains, laughing.
“The more people who want to sing the song, the better it is for all of us. If Madonna wanted to sing it, I think that would be incredible. Go for it, do your version of it, film it.”
Not that she loves all of the versions of Part of Your World over the years.
“Sometimes the dance versions are a little bit like, ‘Ugh, really?’ ” Benson says. “Then I go, ‘Oh, I don’t think Howard would have really liked that.’
“That’s the only thing I’m sensitive about, knowing what he liked and what he didn’t like, and he did not like cheese.”