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.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.