Actors can be very odd.
Big news, right?
But the thing that strikes me the oddest about Jodi Benson is how very un-odd she is. To me, at least, she seems to be a wife and mother who home-schools her kids, probably makes a really good tuna casserole (okay, that’s conjecture but you get the picture), drives to the recording studio once a week for a session and on weekends sings a few songs in some nice place – like Disney World or the Hollywood Bowl for instance.
So she may not be odd, she may just be the usual incredibly talented voice actress and singer with great stories about Howard Ashman and the making of The Little Mermaid. Who am I to say?
Neither Jodi nor anyone else working on The Little Mermaid knew quite what they were getting into when the process began. They certainly had no way of knowing how the movie would impact their lives.
“I thought it would be just a quiet little job,” she told me. “I thought I’d just fly out to California, have a blast for a couple of days, hang out with Howard and then it’ll just disappear and I’ll get a paycheck. It was the opposite of the Smile experience.” (see March 10 post).
“You walk into an experience where no one is expecting anything. You get a paycheck to show up at work for seven days, you’ll disappear into oblivion, no one will ever know, there’ll be no publicity and you’ll get your residual check every seven years. I thought it was really cool that we weren’t going to be revealed. They were just going to run our names at the end of the credits. That was it.”
The Mermaid audition was totally unlike those for Smile, with its faux beauty pageant and endless callbacks,
“The audition was very quick,” Jodi recalls. “Just Albert (Tavares, the casting director) and me at the Nola Studios in New York. There’s Albert with an old, big reel-to-reel tape recorder. He didn’t even know how to work the thing, he was like, ‘I think I just push this button here. Okay, ready. Go.’”
It was almost a year before Jodi got word that she’d won the starring role of Ariel. Jodi had almost forgotten the audition and her friends were less than impressed with her new job.
“Anytime I told somebody, they said, ‘Oh that’s too bad you’re doing a cartoon’. Like my career had really tanked. So I just stopped telling anybody about it. Then when the movie came out, everybody was saying ‘why didn’t you tell me?’ but they had been acting like my career was going down the toilet, basically.”
Making the movie turned out to be great fun.
“I had a blast. Oh my gosh, Howard and I were just playing in the room – that’s what we did for seven days straight. Everybody else was stressed out and doing their job. And I was like, ‘Hey I’ve got it made, he’s got my role all laid out, knows how I’m supposed to sing and act it”. So I had a blast.”
I mention to Jodi that I’ve always heard that it’s a cardinal sin for directors (or lyricists) to tell actors how to deliver a line or a lyric. Which was exactly what Howard did. There was no way he could or would hold back when he knew what he wanted.
“For me, I found line readings helpful,” Jodi laughs. “I would say, you know, you already know what you want, let’s just get past this and tell me. On Mermaid I was just like, oh my gosh, it was my first time behind a microphone and he had all these characters he’d created and he handed Ariel to me on a silver platter
In Waking Sleeping Beauty, we see Howard and Jodi working in the recording booth.
“It was a funny kind of conversation going back and forth”, she says now. “Because he was like, ‘OK, right here, I don’t need you to belt it out. I just need you to speak. I just need you to speak it behind the song. I need the intensity… Pull back. I need it to be very intense.’ and I’m saying to him, ‘ do I sound like Ethel Merman?! ‘And he kindly says, ‘ No, I just need less volume…’
” He directed me all the time in the booth. Now that’s unheard of. You never have anybody inside the booth with you because they make too much noise. But he stayed with me the whole time inside. I mean all of my lines, all of my vocals he was right on my left side. Whenever I’m crying and I’m doing my scene it’s because he’s looking at me, playing Triton. And then he’d get me to that point and he’d slip out and go behind the glass so that his motion wouldn’t be heard. So he’d get me to that pivotal point of the emotion and he’d slip out and he’d come back and we’d keep going.”
“There was this real trust factor going back and forth and a level of respect as well, that I thought was mutual so that you could have that freedom with no blockades in it. So you could really go and do your best work. And he knew he could push me- even to the point of frustration and anger and getting me to cry and sob for about 45 minutes, and then he’d apologize and say, ‘I’m really sorry, I’m really sorry I had to bring you to that place but we got to get the job done.’”
Jodi laughs again.
“And I was like let’s leave the screaming to the end of the day, that’s my only request. I did put my foot down about that.”
Mommy Is Ariel, Ariel Is Mommy
Talking with Jodi, it’s hard not to hear the voice of Ariel. I half expect her to burst into Part of Your World at any moment. I wondered how her children (a boy and a girl) handle their mother’s fame as the voice behind one of the most popular animated characters of all time. When did they realize that their mother was, in fact, Ariel?
“For my son it happened when he was 2 ½, my daughter was 3 when she made that connection. I waited ‘til I thought they could make that connection, I would say, ‘Mommy makes the voice,’ then I would stand next to the TV and I would sing at the exact same time as Ariel and that’s when their eyes would go back and forth and back and forth and you could see the connection of… Mommy is Ariel, Ariel is Mommy.
“I had to wait until they were ready, otherwise that could be really scary. They believed for a while that was me on the screen. So they’d ask, ‘how did you hold your breath, how come your hair isn’t red now, Mommy?”
The Concert World
“When I do my concerts and I travel all over the world and sing, Part Of Your World I give Howard all the credit and I’m very plain about that. I’m very clear, you know, every nuance, everything you hear, everything you like about Ariel is because of one man. And this is his name and this is who he was and then I show the clip from Waking Sleeping Beauty, which I love, I love that clip. Because it teaches audiences how the process happens and they can understand about animation, that it’s not just a cartoon.
“I’m really passionate about that and I think that’s why Howard and I connected in that way – he was passionate about what he did and believed in what he did and I feel the same way about my craft. I’m passionate about it. It matters to me. It’s not just a paycheck. Quality matters to me. The privilege for me is to be able to make sure that I give credit where credit is due because if you like the giggle or you like this or you like that – that’s Howard. That’s his interpretation that he gave me to read and then translate. So I don’t take that performance of Ariel as mine. It’s not mine, I just got to embody it as an actress but it was handed to me, spoon-fed on a platter by my director.
“I never get tired of singing Part Of Your World. I’m honored to sing it. I’m truly blessed. And I look back to that day with Howard Ashman standing at my left hand side in the studio whispering every line to me as I’m singing it. That’s where I go every time I hear the overture of that song starting so it’s a real wonderful memory that I get to relive every time I get to sing it with a symphony.
“So for me, Howard is alive and well and in my heart and in my performance. I feel very thankful that I get that. I can hear him, I can hear that going on in my head. It’s wonderful. It’s really neat for me, I’m very thankful.”
As am I, Jodi, as am I.