In the first part of our Little Mermaid interview series behind the sea-nes, Jeremie Noyer speaks to voice artist Jodi Benson on bringing Ariel to life!
Have you ever talked with Ariel, The Little Mermaid
? I mean, for real? Well, I did! And that’s an experience I will never forget!
Of course, when I say Ariel, I mean Jodi Benson. But there is such a strong connection between the little mermaid and her that it’s pretty easy to make the confusion. Both of them are true princesses, really. Both share the same sense of innocence and generosity, positive spirit and playfulness, kindness and elegance. No need to tell you how impressed I was!
For Animated Views, we’re going back to the very first Little Mermaid movie, the one that started it all, and will travel with her all the way up to Ariel’s Beginning, the latest Mermaid production, just out on DVD.
As if destiny had just put the right people in the right place on her journey, Jodi’s Broadway debut coincided with her meeting Little Mermaid producer and lyricist Howard Ashman, during the production of the short-lived Broadway musical Smile, and with Samuel E. Wright, on Welcome to the Club, another short-lived musical, before they became partners as Ariel and Sebastian. The rest is history and Jodi Benson’s voice is certainly one of the most famous and beloved voices in the “world above”, as lyricist Glenn Slater calls it in the new Broadway musical version of the original film, but also “under the sea”!
So now you, too, can get “enchanted” by…”her voice”!
Animated Views: How did you find yourself cast for the role of Ariel?
Jodi Benson: I was doing a Broadway show called Smile with Howard Ashman [below, left, along with Alan Menken] and Marvin Hamlisch, and our show unexpectedly closed after six weeks. Now, during the show, I was given a song to sing, that my character sang, called Disneyland. And so, because Howard was starting his relationship with Jeffrey Katzenberg and Peter Schneider at the Walt Disney Studios, they had come to see the show, and because of me singing Disneyland, they invited Mickey Mouse to come to opening night, to the party and present me with the keys to the kingdom. So, after the show closed, Howard had already started working on The Little Mermaid and kindly, they asked all the girls from the show – there were 20 of us – to be part of the audition process. And they auditioned from New York and Los Angeles and from London.
We made old-fashioned, reel-to-reel tapes where each of us put down a scene of Ariel and then some singing Part of Your World. So, I went to the ladies’ room before my audition. Keep in mind there were many, many ladies there! I looked in the mirror and I started to talk to myself at the mirror as what I though Ariel would sound like. Then, I went in and I made my tape of the reel-to-reel and they sent that away. And it wasn’t until almost a year, or a little bit longer than a year, that I got a call that said that my tape had been selected. I had completely forgotten about that audition because so much time had past. And I started traveling back and forth between New York and Los Angeles to record, but I had never been in a recording studio, I had never worked with a microphone like that before. So, it was all new and a new process for me. It was just a wonderful miracle that God selected me to do this part!
AV: How did you work with Howard Ashman to develop the character of Ariel?
JB: Because Howard and I had worked together in Smile, he came into the recording booth with me while everybody else was in the control room behind the glass. He came in next to me and stood next to me, and he directed me in each and every scene, in every line that I did. Of course, as the director, he had a wonderful idea of what this character was going to be like. He was my director. Even though we had John Musker and Ron Clements as the directors of the film, Howard was really my personal director because we had a relationship and because I had never done voice ever before, he was very helpful with me and the studio. So, he directed me like I was doing a play, a stage play. So, we acted everything out together. He played my father, he played Sebastian, he played Ursula. He would play the other characters and then I would act off of him, physically, in the recording studio. So, that’s how we were able to kind of work together and develop this character. It was just a wonderful gift for me to be able to work with him that way!
AV: One very special moment must have been the recording of Part of Your World. How did that happen?
JB: We had rehearsed the song with Alan Menken [above, at the piano] and Howard at the piano the day before. We worked on the song for many, many hours, and we found out that we had a technical difficulty, that it was the wrong microphone. So, after having sung it for about four or five hours, I think, we realized that there was this technical difficulty and that we had to change microphones! That was a little bit frustrating for everybody. Then, after that, we just tried to not be too discouraged and to start over again. But this time, what we did, and what Howard suggested was to turn of all the lights in the recording studio and just leave on the tiny little light above the lyrics; and for me to close my eyes, and sit on this stool, because I had been standing for quite some time.
So, I sat on the stool and he said: “I just want you to put your arms next to you. Close your eyes and imagine that you’re there, in the grotto, all alone, just thinking about your own world.” So, I did that and he left. He went behind the glass. We ended up doing about two passes and that was it! It was just his direction of getting me into that specific kind of mental place to be able to sing the song. After doing all those hours with the wrong microphone, over and over again, we went a whole different direction. I think it was just two times, and he said: “that’s it. We got it!” And I never heard the song until I went to see the movie at the premiere. I did not want to see the song, I didn’t want to see the movie in pieces. I would look at tiny little bits and pieces when I got to Los Angeles, maybe half a minute here, but I never wanted to see the song until I got to see it all the way through. And it was very magical then!
AV: How did you work at the dialog?
JB: We did a whole read-through of the movie, like a stage show. The whole cast was there together and we read through it with the piano, with Howard and Alan and all the producers. We did a whole presentation and then we recorded together, with other cast member. We don’t do that anymore, we work by ourselves, now. Howard and Alan were very involved in the whole process each and every day that we were there.
AV: How was your relationship with Ariel’s main animator, Glen Keane?
JB: Glen was there every day that we were recording. He had a video camera. So, he was videotaping everything that I was doing in the studio. Then, each time that I would go back to Los Angeles – because it was like 14 different days over the course of two and a half years. Glen and I would continue on with our friendship. He would show me the different sketches and the different scenes that he had worked on. By the time the movie came out, Glen and Linda were very close friends for my husband and I. That was in November 1989. And by the time, the year 1990 happened, I moved to Los Angeles and I actually lived with them for about three months. Long story short, my husband and I were going through serious troubles and I didn’t have a place to stay and Glen and Linda opened up their home to me and I lived with them and their kids for three months. So, they’re like my family. And that truly just came because of my relationship with him as my animator, but then, we just became like family members together and they just were so wonderful to me during a very difficult time.
AV: How did you go from the classic Ariel to the one of Little Mermaid II, who is more mature, then to the one of the prequel Ariel’s Beginning, who is more kind of juvenile?
JB: Once we did the original movie, then we went to the television series, which was set two years before the movie. Then, when we jumped into Little Mermaid II, I was actually pregnant. I was expecting my first child. So, that was really interesting because I was pregnant the entire time I was recording Little Mermaid II in which she has a child! So, we had to really make sure that there is a bit of maturity in her voice, but not too mature. It was a bit of a challenge to make sure we could find the right balance.
Then, between Little Mermaid II and Ariel’s Beginning, we continued with all the Ariel products which are pretty much around the age of 16. Then, starting on the third one, to go back in time, we had gone through several different scripts. Initially, for the very first reading of the script, Ariel was very “edgy”, a little bit sassy and a little bit sarcastic. And when we were reading, I thought this wasn’t capturing who she is. But, you know, they were trying to make her relevant to the year 2008, and unfortunately, in some of the teenage stuff that you’re seeing on TV or in the films for 2008, the children can be very disrespectful, and very sassy, and with attitude.
AV: Indeed, it’s not the Ariel we know and love.
JB: I had a few nights after work of a lot of restless no-sleep for me. My husband was like “What is going on?” I said: “You know what, I’m not happy with this first script. It is not who she is. It is not true to who she is. I don’t like the direction it’s going”. So, I just sat down and had a talk with them and just said: “Guys, I’m not trying to heart anybody’s feelings or make anybody loose a job, but I have got to speak out. There’s nobody else here that can do that. Howard is not here, Ron and John are not here and I have to tell you: this is not the way she talks, this not not her heart. She is not sarcastic, she is not sassy and she doesn’t have an attitude. If she speaks, it’s from her heart, it’s from truth. We’re gonna have to find a way to change these lines.” So, there were a few nights that were difficult for me, after work, to feel good about it and I think, with our rewriting and the direction we were going by the time we got to the final product, it felt better. We had to stay away from that because the people that are going to see this film need to be reminded of the original and innocence of her heart.
So, we had to really work hard on that, to make sure that she was relevant, that she was still a teenager, but that she had the innocence and passion, and not the attitude and the sassiness of a teenager of today. So, with Peggy Holmes and Kendra Haalland, the director and the producer, we worked very hard to stay true to the heart of who Ariel is and not to loose that in this third movie. I’m very protective of Ariel, you know. Very protective. I’m probably the person that’s living today, besides Howard and maybe Alan and Glenn (Slater, The Little Mermaid‘s Broadway musical lyricist), that knows that character better than anybody else. So, when it comes to her dialog and to her songs, I have a lot to say. So, the team was really great about respecting that with me and making sure it has to stay true to who she is. We were able to do that with this film and I hope we were able to translate that for the children.
AV: How did you work with songwriter Jeanine Tesori on this new film’s score?
JB: I’m sorry to say I never got to meet her during the process. Movies are so different today than they were. Nowadays, I did Ariel’s Beginning all by myself. I have never met the other sisters, I have never met the composer. I just talked to her and introduced myself on the phone. You’re very isolated now. You do everything by yourself. I don’t like that, to be honest with you. I’m more of a relational kind of personal and, coming from a stage background, I like to work with people face to face.
AV: So, how did you approach your song, I Remember?
JB: With a whole lot of heart and passion! I pour myself into the character, but singing, of course, as a passion for me, is an extension when you run out of words to say in a moment. This is what Howard always told me: “The reason why you sing in a movie or on stage is because you cannot express yourself anymore with words.” So, it’s just a complete extension. That’s exactly what the song is. Jeanine captured it perfectly. Ariel is in a moment with some frustration and some confusion. Her tail brushes against an instrument and hits a note, and it just triggers something in her mind, in her memory. Oh, I just had such a great day working on that song. It was a wonderful moment of tears for me, and happiness. You know, just tons of emotions come out, at least for me, when you sing a really great song that means something.
AV: You took part in Enchanted and got a scene with Giselle. How is it when two Disney princesses meet?
JB: Goodness! Well, Kevin Lima, the director of Enchanted, is an animator, and was an animator on Little Mermaid. So, his history for Disney for the last decade and a half has been in the animation world and he though it would be a wonderful inside joke to put princesses in the film. So, he put myself and Paige O’ Hara, who does the voice of Belle, and Judy Kuhn, who is the singing voice of Pocahontas. Now, the joke is: you have to find us! My role was supposed to be like one line and for some reason, my character got extended and they wrote another scene with Patrick Dempsey and I working together. They wanted to develop his character a little bit more so he and I can hit it off, me like his big sister. So, my role actually turned into a little part. Initially, it was just supposed to be: show up on the screen and play Part of Your World behind the water tank and sort of make this little inside joke.
But anyway, meeting Amy was a delight. She is such a delightful girl. And she’s a huge Ariel fan! When I got there, I had never done a film before. I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. So, I got there and do make-up and she sat next to me. We talked and she was like: “Oh, my gosh! You are Jodi Benson. You are Ariel. I’m your biggest fan!” It was so funny because it was like turning tables. She was the star of this huge film and I was just coming in not knowing what the heck I was doing. I didn’t even know who Patrick Dempsey was. I don’t watch TV. So, I though I was doing a movie with Patrick Stewart, who is a Star Trek guy. So, I was looking for a bald actor! And then, I saw Patrick Dempsey, this young kid coming to me and I had no idea who he was! It was just very funny those three days, working with these guys. It was a new experience for me and they were so generous and kind to me because I just didn’t know what I was doing whatsoever out of my realm. And Kevin was so sweet. So, I had a blast!
The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning
is available to buy now from Amazon.com
With all our admiration and gratitude to Ms. Jodi Benson, and our special thanks to Mac McLean