It is always a delight to speak with the sweet-voiced Jodi Benson, who plays Ariel in this week’s DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week, The Little Mermaid. She has also provided the voice for characters including Barbie in the “Toy Story” movies, Weebo in “Flubber,” and Helen of Troy in Disney’s “Hercules: Zero to Hero.”
I love the story of how you originally support cast in the role.
I was in the Broadway musical called “Smile” with [lyricist] Howard Ashman and Marvin Hamlisch around ’84 and ’85. When the musical shut down rather quickly, Howard was in the middle of pre-production of “The Little Mermaid”. He was kind enough to invite all the girls in the cast to audition for the movie because they were looking for actresses who could do their own singing.
I’d never been in front of the microphone like that. I’d never done voiceovers so I just kind of went in, created what I kind of thought she would sound like, saying a little bit of the song. A year and a half later my tape was selected. So it was just a huge, huge surprise and a huge blessing.
What did they tell you about the character?
Basically, there was a little thumbnail sketch. We had most of the script. Then, they just said that she’s headstrong. She’s tenacious. She’s passionate. She has a lot of drive. Between the dialogues that they had and a little bit of the pencil sketch, I just kind of went in and started going for it. But directors Ron Clements and John Musker and Howard Ashman were there. They were just directing me all the way until they got exactly what they wanted.
Do you feel that there’s always an element of acting in any song?
Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, it is. It’s a story song. “Part of Your World” is definitely a story song. That part of it is what I love. I love any kind of story song that way. That focuses so much on the music and the notes per se as just really trying to create a feeling for the character. Howard was just brilliant at doing that.
The traditional Broadway structure which is used in this movie is that ten minutes into it, Ariel sings a song about her dream. That really kind of what sets the whole story going.
Absolutely. It’s beautiful when you have that ”I want” song. Howard would say, “You want to root for them. You want everything to work out for them when you hear what their heart is and what they’re trying to describe.
Getting to record “Part of your World” with Howard there at my side I was in such good hands because he had already laid down the demo. He knew exactly what he wanted and what would work. It’s very different than singing it on stage or in a Broadway setting. So we just try to create a much more intimate feel.
When you were interacting with the Sea Witch, were you in the same room together? Or were you separate when you were recording?
The first day we recorded all together. We did a read-through together with the cast. Then, we all recorded together with plexiglass in between us, which was really smart on their part. Because you got to react off of each other. You got to play off of each other as if you were on stage.
The second day on, we were separate and would go one-on-one. But you already done all that work and you kind of knew in your mind and in your ear, you could hear what the other character had already brought to the table. So that was really, really helpful. Unfortunately, we don’t do that anymore. But that was really great for our project.
When your family watches the movie, what do they think about it?
Oh, they love it. My kids love it. We just got back from Walt Disney World and riding the attraction. It’s just amazing. We’re all so blessed, so thankful and just incredibly thrilled that it has such great longevity. I would have never guessed that this job would be the job that just keeps going. It’s wonderful. Just really wonderful.
What is it about this story that makes it just so enduring, so touching?
It’s a classic fairy tale. Ron Clements really twisted the end and there was a great team over at Disney. Just adding the element of Howard. Howard was genius. They were so smart to bring him in and to create this music to add to it. Every element came together perfectly. It was at the right time. It was really at the right time for the studio. I just think the longevity of it in getting to enjoy it as a family is just great. I think introducing it is pretty special for a family member to say, “I grew up with this film. This is how I felt about it. I’m so excited to share it with you.” I think it makes it really cool for families to get to do that together.
And you are Ariel in the theme park attractions, right?
I’m Ariel everywhere. So it’s good. She’s an ongoing character. It’s an ongoing job, an ongoing voice and I’m thrilled.