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Under the Sea and Over the Moon

Three decades after the release of The Little Mermaid, Jodi Benson feels more connected than ever to the character of Ariel.

Jodi Benson admits that while she was very interested in auditioning for the role of Ariel in The Little Mermaid back in the late ’80s, the Broadway star wasn’t as keen on letting it be known to her peers in the industry.

“I absolutely had no clue it would change my life. In fact, when I recorded it I was doing a Broadway show, flying back and forth and kind of kept it under wraps because voiceover was not a very great job back then; it’s what you did when your career was going downhill,” Benson says. “And our names weren’t going to be revealed, it was going to be a secret project that would disappear forever. But obviously it changed my life forever, such a blessing.”

Now as the cast and crew get ready to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the film, the venerable star is looking forward to marking the milestone and connecting with fans young and old.

“Every seven years or so, we pull it out of the vault and we get to now talk to another generation of kids,” she says. “We have grandparents and some great grandparents who share it with their kids, so that’s very exciting.”

We had the opportunity to talk with Benson as she was gearing up for a multi-city promotional tour and taking a break from touring colleges with her daughter, one of two children she has with husband Ray, who also serves as her manager.

A veteran of the theater world, there’s no denying Benson’s connection to Ariel and vice versa. Here she tell us about what the transformation has been like, what kind of things happened behind the scenes during filming and why she is now perhaps the most in-demand wedding singer in the country.

Q&A
At the time you auditioned for The Little Mermaid, voiceover work wasn’t exactly a coveted job. Obviously that has changed quite a bit since then. Were you unsure about even auditioning? What was the experience like for you?
There was absolutely no doubt about it, I was going to audition. Anything that [producer] Howard Ashman asked me to do, I would jump on board; he’s absolutely brilliant. So when he invited all the girls from our Broadway musical Smile—which was ill-fated and closed way too early—to audition for The Little Mermaid, we all jumped at the opportunity.

The audition itself was really neat, I had never done anything like that, never been behind a microphone before. It was in a Broadway rehearsal studio in New York City with a reel-to-reel big tape,

and Albert Tavares who was the casting assistant. It was just he and I in the room alone. I ran to the ladies room with the script in my hand and looked in the mirror and waited for people to leave so I could try and create the voice I thought she might have (laughs). I kind of talked to myself in the mirror and ran back in time for my name to be called.

As the film gets ready to mark its 30th anniversary, how often do you reflect on its success and what it would ultimately mean for your career?
It changed my career, changed my trajectory and the direction in my life and I probably reflect on it daily. Ariel is a big part of my family’s life and my living and my career and our day-to-day life.

Your bio says you abandoned a law career in favor of appearing on stage. What is the most rewarding aspect of being on stage for you and how has it evolved?
I love being on stage. I started performing at our house as a little girl, making up plays and doing shows for people. I really love theater; it’s just a great way to connect to the audience. It’s live, it’s real, it’s unedited. I absolutely love being able to communicate with people from the stage and connect with an audience in a real intimate, vulnerable and authentic way.

Do you think you would have been a good lawyer?
I think I would have, because I’m a pretty good communicator. I’m a good listener, I do enjoy good conversation and I do like to hear what other people think. In those aspects, I probably would have been a good lawyer, or at least tried my absolute best to be a good and fair lawyer.

Your voice is your instrument and a lot of people probably don’t realize the amount of work that goes into taking care of it. What are the special techniques you practice to keep your voice in tiptop shape?
I have been with my vocal coach in New York City, Joan Lader, since 1984 and I still coach with her on Skype over the phone. I think the biggest thing for me is to get eight hours of sleep, drink lots and lots of water, no alcohol … get a good amount of exercise, eat healthy, warm up daily as much as possible and just continuing to sing. Just like an athlete you’ve got to keep everything kind of going all the way around. I have one cup of coffee in the morning, but really no other caffeine. Those types of things make a difference for me. I usually don’t eat anything four hours before I go to bed, which helps with reflux laryngitis.

Because of your strong Disney connections, I’m sure you’ve spent quite a bit of time in Orlando over the years. Any memorable stories or places you like to visit when you’re in town?
Yes, we are in Orlando a lot. I think I was at Disney World 10 times last year for work. … [It’s] our favorite place to go. Unfortunately because of my schedule, every time I’m there I am never off the property. I think one time I went to Universal’s [The Wizarding World of] Harry Potter with my kids. We scooted over there for a day and I didn’t tell anyone at Disney that we were over there because I was being unfaithful (laughs).

But we absolutely love Disney World. We are major thrill ride addicts, so we do every thrill ride multiple times and never get tired of it. I love, love, love being at all four parks, such a very fun time for our family.

Last year, you also went viral when you surprised a New Jersey couple at their wedding. How did that all come about and what did you think of the bride’s reaction?
They are such a sweet couple. They contacted my agent in Los Angeles, then contacted my husband as my manager and we went through an agency that handles celebrity appearances that was based in the New York area, and we kind of vetted through to make sure it was legitimate. I spoke with the father and mother of the bride and just fell in love with them, they were so precious. It was an amazing surprise and tribute for their daughter.

I had never sung at a wedding that wasn’t family or friends. I had to stay hidden … far away from everyone involved in the wedding party so no one would find me. I love the family and the bride was completely shocked.

After the video became so widespread, were you thinking, oh boy, I’m going to be asked to do everyone’s wedding now?
It has turned into requests on a daily basis, so my husband now has another full-time job searching and going through every inquiry and request to see if they are legitimate and to see if it lines up for the character of Ariel and the music of The Little Mermaid. The wedding in New Jersey was an Ariel wedding.

Was the first time you realized you could really sing and potentially make it your career?
I think I was about 8 years old when I announced to my mom that I wanted to be a working actress who could sing, dance and act. I didn’t want to be famous, I didn’t want to be a star, but I wanted to be a working actress. I started singing when I was pretty much coming out of the womb, but around 5 years of age, my sister and I sang at Catholic guitar mass service. My sister and I used to sing at weddings and got hired out. There was lots of music in my household.

You have also been quoted as seeing a lot of yourself in the Ariel character. How so?
We do have a lot in common. I think we are both tenacious, both strong willed, we both think out of the box. Coming from a small town in Illinois and wanting to go to Broadway without ever seeing a Broadway show is pretty ridiculous. So I felt like that was something that Ariel and I could really connect on, trying to live outside the box, dreaming big and thinking beyond what looks possible. I think tenacity, strong will, and a slightly stubborn personality is something that Ariel and I have in common.

The Little Mermaid is such an iconic Disney film, but is there anything that people may not know about the movie, any tales from behind the scenes?
My fondest memories would be all of the recording sessions with Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. Our table reads with the whole cast are just great memories for me. Anything to do with Howard is just a really fond memory. Working with Howard and Alan and of course our directors Ron Clements and John Musker as well.

One of the funny things that happened was I kept hitting the microphone with my hands. I’m Italian so I use my hands a lot when I talk. I, of course, hadn’t worked behind a microphone before and would constantly hit the microphone with my hands. I practically needed to strap my hands down.

I [also] think there was a lot of burping going on (laughs). As a joke the engineers would save these funny little clips of things that I would do or say and I know it will come back and haunt me one day.

You recently also reprised the Ariel role in Ralph Breaks the Internet. Is it a bit surreal to revitalize the character for an entire new viewing audience three decades later?
Working on Ralph Breaks the Internet was incredible. [Director] Rich Moore is a phenomenal genius who reminds me so much of Howard Ashman. It was so much fun to work on that project with Rich inside the booth with me, just like Howard did, and all the other folks behind the glass. Rich would play all the characters for me and I had a blast, I really did.

It’s a really fun film, and I’m just so excited that all the princesses are gathered together in such a historic event. And [for the filmmakers] to take us out of our comfort zones, that was really fun as well. Not necessarily making fun of ourselves, but having fun with ourselves as far as being princesses was very clever on the part of the studio to come up with that plan. I’m very thankful that Ariel has been reintroduced to yet another generation. Each time is just glorious and I’m so thrilled, so blessed.

You were named a Disney Legend in 2011; what did that honor mean to you?
Being named a Disney Legend was truly the greatest honor to me. The funny thing is that when I did get the call from Disney, I actually thought it was to let me go and that they were finding a replacement because there was some change being made in the voiceover community. And so it was quite a turn of events when I was asked if I would fly out to L.A. and be inducted as a Disney Legend. I kind of dropped the phone. I didn’t know what to say, I was so blown away because I was expecting something totally the opposite.

I think my comment was something like, “I thought you had to be dead to get this award (laughs).” I was completely shocked and utterly blown away and honored. One of the fondest memories was accepting that award and being able to say thank you to all the people that made it possible. I’m happy to be part of the Disney family forever.

Do you often get asked by younger performers for advice and how do you best mentor them?
I do get asked often for advice, and I coach a lot of high school kids and college kids. The No. 1 thing I try to encourage people, especially for a young student, is that if this is a dream of yours and you have the skill set that goes with it, then by all means you need to go for it because you don’t want to regret things later on in life. I can honestly say I have no regrets and that is a gift and I try to share that with kids.

Now we do have to be honest with our skill set and we do need to be accountable to find out if we do have the right skill set to be able to pursue the industry. So we have to be realistic. A gift of a singing voice is a natural gift, it’s not necessarily something you can be taught. You pretty much come out of the womb with the gift of being able to sing and then you hone that craft, you work that craft, you exercise, you train and you can improve upon that. When a student has that passion, you have to have that feeling that you were created to do this and if I don’t do it than I’m going to explode … then I say go for it. But if you have those questions, of, “Well I think I’d like to try it but I don’t know. I think I’d like to make a really good living and have a steady paycheck and have a steady life of a calendar,” then I say no, you need to find something else. This industry is not scheduled, you have to be very flexible, you have to go with the flow, you have to be willing to be patient and just trust. For me as a faith-based person I think trust is a huge element.

Ariel was a once-in-a-lifetime role to be sure, but if you could have had your pick to play any other Disney princess, who would you like to take a crack at?
This is easy because I grew up with Cinderella in 1961 and she was my girl and my princess. If I could have a crack at voicing another princess that is more of a classic, it would definitely be Cinderella. I love the script, love the story, love the music and I think that would be so much fun.

If I took a crack at more of a contemporary princess, I think Anna and Elsa [from Frozen] would be tons of fun, because not only are they great vocal parts but there’s a great score with great music. Both characters, I love their songs. I do sing “Let it Go” in concert, it’s so much fun, a great story song and those are my favorites.

This article originally appeared in Orlando Family Magazine’s 
February 2019 issue.

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