ANIMATION ANECDOTES
December 10, 2021 posted by Jim Korkis

In Her Own Words: Jodi Benson on The Little Mermaid

Suspended Animation #349

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. In addition, she has done a lot of voice-over work for other animation projects.

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 where I got to interview Jodi in front of a limited paying audience of sixty people.

Jim Korkis: How did you end up auditioning for the role of Ariel?

Jodi Benson: Back in the fall of 1986, I was appearing in Smile, a Broadway musical that Howard Ashman had written with Marvin Hamlisch. 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 (Ashman) 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.

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.

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 that I got a call that my tape had been selected.

So much time had gone by, a year and a half after my first audition, 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 completely out of my mind.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Actors Jodi Benson (Ariel/THE LITTLE MERMAID) (L) and Paige O’Hara (Belle/BEAUTY AND THE BEAST)

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.

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.

9 Comments

  • Stage actors are trained to project their voices into the farthest reaches of the highest balcony in the theatre. Singing into a microphone in a recording booth is a completely different milieu. So it was very wise of Howard Ashman to join Jodi Benson in the booth, to stand close to her and speak to her in a soft voice, almost a whisper, in order not only to shape her performance but to rein it in, in a fashion quite contrary to all her theatrical training. Ariel may have Benson’s voice, but her interpretation is all Ashman.

    Benson would have benefitted from Ashman’s guidance a decade later when she recorded the role of Ann Darrow in “The Mighty Kong”. She sings everything at full throttle in that movie, like Ethel Merman hailing a taxi from across Broadway. Something tells me Ashman wouldn’t have touched that project with a ten-foot pole, although he might have welcomed the opportunity to collaborate with the Sherman brothers.

    Two questions:

    1) The caption on the movie poster above reads “Sea [sic] It On The Big Screen This Summer.” But “The Little Mermaid” was released in November 1989. Is that poster from a summertime re-release, or was it made for the Southern Hemisphere market?

    2) Do all Disney Legends leave their handprints in their Disney Legend plaques, as Jodi Benson apparently did? And where are these plaques displayed?

    • I believe that poster was from the British release (note the “U” rating next to the movies title). The film actually came out the following Autumn (October, 1990) in that territory.

      • I believe it may have been from the 1998 re-release of the film, which was in July in the UK. The original UK release was in October 1990.

      • Now that you mention it, I notice the watermark that reads “OriginalPoster.co.uk”.

        • One thing I noticed looking at that UK poster. In the upper left corner of the crowd of fish (next to the green and orange fish), there’s a fish with glasses that bears an uncanny resemblance to Warner’s Incredible Mr. Limpet!

    • Yes, all the Disney Legends did handprints and they are displayed in the forecourt of the Walt Disney Company corporate building (the one with the seven dwarfs on top) at the Burbank Studio in California. It is called Legends Plaza.

  • Ariel clearly didn’t hurt Jodi’s stage career. After doing The Little Mermaid, she starred in Crazy for You, getting a Tony nomination. She has also appeared as the narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

  • Great video!

    No detail is insignificant @ Disney.

  • One of the unique things about Jodi Benson is that she truly feels a responsibility to the generations of children who grow up with Ariel and has said that she tries to accept roles in keeping with that image.

    She was also very happy to voice Tula on Hanna-Barbera’s Pirates of Dark Water series because the actors worked as an ensemble, like a Broadway show, and they could get acting energy from each other.

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