Recently, I had the joy of interviewing Disney Legend and Tony-nominated actress Jodi Benson. Jodi has voiced the character of Ariel in multiple iterations since The Little Mermaid was released in 1989 including the two follow-up films, the animated series, and most recently made an appearance in Ralph Breaks the Internet. She also voiced Barbie in the Toy Story franchise. In this exclusive interview, I talk to her about her Broadway career, her work at Disney, and what gives her hope.
How did you get your start on Broadway?
The first thing that I had was an opportunity through Barry Moss casting and through my husband who I was dating at the time to audition for the first national tour of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I didn’t have my Equity card so having that connection of the casting director saying “Hey, I’m going to let you in the door” and then from that, getting the job really paved the way to be able to start the whole process of being able to go to auditions.
After that, you were involved with the musical Smile and that’s how you met Howard Ashman, correct?
Yeah before that, I had done a Broadway show with Kenny Ortega and I did Smile, which is where I met Howard and of course, that gave me the opportunity to be one of the many people who were able to audition for it (The Little Mermaid) because of him.
Howard Ashman was one of the first people to take musical theatre technique and apply it to animation. Was that something you were conscious of during that process?
Well, we knew that this was something special and unique and of course, the animation department was in a very challenging place at that time. The animators were not on the lot; they were out on Flower Street in trailers in Glendale so I knew that things were difficult at that time for feature animation. But when we approached it like a Broadway musical, I knew that there was something different about this. I thought, “I wonder if this is what they normally do” but of course, for all of us Broadway people, this was the norm! This is what we did, we sat around in a room together, did a read-thru with Howard and Alan. Alan was at the piano and Howard was singing all the parts and we just sat around and did a read-thru for a good portion of the first day and then started recording together in groups and in duos with plexiglass in between us. Once we established those relationships and what it was going to sound like reading with each other, then we started to do some recording on our own.
What was the journey from playing Ariel in Mermaid to playing Barbie in the Toy Story franchise?
It was a phone call! (laughs) It was a phone call from Pixar and John Lasseter. My agent called and said, “They want you to do the voice of Barbie” and I thought “Will I be auditioning?” and they said, “Nope! They said that Barbie is inside of you.” He saw and heard Ariel and realized that we were going to make this work because it’s the right combination. At my first session, there was a Mattel rep and John and the rest of our creative staff were there and they were saying that this was the first time that Barbie has had a voice, which was a really big deal. I said “Well, I actually did the workout video” which they didn’t realize and I actually had to tell them! So that was how that came to be, not with an audition by any means. It was just meant to be, and it was incredible, I had so much fun working on both of those films.
It is amazing to me that you can lend such life to these very different characters!
You know, for voice actors, you are only as good as your directors. They give you everything and Howard gave me everything for Ariel and I really just imitated him. I mean, he gave me all the line readings, all the vocals, all the nuance and I just followed him! So, Ariel is really his performance. He is such a great director for actors because he’s an actor himself and has been on the stage. He is just so gracious and humble and so giving. When you have a director who knows what it is like to be in your shoes, it just makes your job so glorious.
Can you tell me about working on Flubber?
That is another bizarre thing! I just got a call from the agent saying “Disney wants you to do the voice of this computer thing”, which I didn’t audition for and so I said “Okay!” I think originally it was supposed to be a computer-generated voice and so the film was finished. It was a change when they decided they were actually going to make it a human and give it this human quality. So, I worked by myself in the studios and needed to match the screen. I really enjoyed doing that; it’s technically challenging, creatively challenging. I did not meet Robin or the cast until the premiere, which was really fun to introduce myself and say who I was. That was such a fun adventure and something completely different than Ariel and Barbie because everything had to be timed perfectly to fit in with the finished film so I had to work off of him (Robin Williams). And how amazing for him having been working off of nothing except maybe a computer! His performance was so fantastic and so real. You can sense the relationship between the two of them that is really loving.
What was it like returning to Broadway after several voice roles? Did it feel like you were returning to your roots?
It really did. When working on Mermaid, there was never the concept of this being my transition and I’m never going back. It truly was doing this wonderful job; it wasn’t really going to be revealed who we were and my life doing eight shows a week was just going to go back to normal. I really thought it was a one and done. So, going back to Broadway with Crazy for You was super fun, of course, because that’s my home base and is what I was raised with. But then I was doing the television series of Mermaid during the day and the show during the night, so it was trying to combine both of those worlds. I could go to the studio during the day, take a quick little nap, have an early dinner and then head over to the theatre by 5 or so. It worked out well.
It’s funny how you thought the Ariel thing was a one and done at the time when you have voiced the character for the last 30 years now. You have played Ariel in almost every iteration imaginable: film, show, and finally, the sequels. What was it like coming back 10 years after the original to voice Ariel in the sequels?
Oh, it was so fun. Like you say, because I have been doing the character for such a long time, it’s not like I have taken a break from it. She’s such a big part of me so it’s not something I have to revisit because I’m singing the song all the time and doing recordings all the time and covering all the different areas of the company. But it was very fun to get to do both sequels, especially when there’s music involved. It is always fun to bring light to some new music for the character.
You mentioned working with Alan Menken a little bit, obviously on Mermaid, but then you got to work with him again when you made that appearance in Enchanted.
That was so fun! Kevin Lima, the director, was an animator and worked on Mermaid and came up with this really fun idea: find the princesses in the movie! It was like a game. We had so much fun doing that. Mine was just supposed to be a real quick little scene and be done. And then it kind of expanded- it was a great time working on that project. I found it so clever, everything they did with Amy (Adams) and the fish tank and the music. So clever of Kevin and the team to think in these ways and fun for Disney fans to put all of that together.
Alan Menken recently talked about working on the music for the sequel, Disenchanted. Do you know anything about that project, and do you have any interest in coming back?
I don’t know anything about it, but of course, I would love to come back! Sam needs to come back and be a part of it. I did hear they are working on it and that is so fun. I don’t know if I’ll be part of it or anything like it, but gosh, it would certainly be fun. Another neat opportunity to get to work on such a great project.
Like you said, you also get to see other princesses in the film. One of them is Paige O’Hara, the voice of Belle. You and she have had a friendship for many years, correct?
Yes, we have probably known each other for 40 years now. When my husband and I were dating, he did the first national tour of the revival of Oklahoma! He was Will Parker and she was Ado Annie, which was in 1981. So, it has been a long time that we have been friends. I’ve known Michael and her for a very long time so it was so great when she joined up as Belle because then we just got to hang out and do events together and we make a lot of appearances together.
Disney has been on a string of live-action remakes and they are working on a remake of The Little Mermaid. Do you know if you are going to be a part of that at all?
I don’t know. The production has stopped, of course. I believe they were in rehearsal for three weeks in the UK and I think everything has taken a break. But, I have no idea if I’m going to be a part of any of that! It certainly would a lovely surprise and gift to get to be part of something like that. Either way, I am excited to get to see the film. The more opportunities we have to enjoy the film, the better it is. Whether it’s on Broadway, the live television special, the original film, and now the live-action. We’ve had albums, we’ve had books on tape, it still is just getting back to the story and that’s what’s so great. We get to introduce the next generation to each and every thing.
I know you are a person of faith and that obviously is a big part of who you are. How has your faith influenced and inspired you throughout your career in a field where that can be difficult?
It is a very difficult industry and without faith, I don’t think I could have made it this long. But for me as a person of faith knowing that God has given me very specific gifts and talents to use for His glory and point people closer to Him and to know that they are loved and they matter and they have worth and value. For me, I just know that each of the steps along my career path have been appointed and very specifically laid out like a puzzle or mosaic. I feel that each piece of the puzzle has been placed for specific times. Looking back at the journey, I know that it has been mostly out of my control and I just go along for the ride. This is definitely not what I have anticipated, being part of the Disney family or being part of an animated feature film. It was not on my radar and when that came up, I could not have guessed in a million years that it could have taken this course and completely changed my life and my family’s life forever. I love the fact that I know that God has everything in His hands and in His control and even now, in the midst of this really difficult and painful situation that our world is going through, I need to have faith and hope and that is where my hope comes from. For me, as a believer, I have to rest my hope in Jesus, I really do. Otherwise, I can get myself worked up with a lot of sadness or grief or fear, so in this crazy business, that is what has kept me grounded. That, and my husband and our kids, to know that God has me on a path and I just put one foot in front of the other and don’t worry too much about the future but take it one day at a time.
You and the character of Ariel have inspired so many children and adults. Was there a Disney film or character that inspired you when you were growing up?
It was definitely Cinderella. That’s the one for me that I have such fond memories of watching and seeing that character who was in a difficult situation and thinking outside of the box and beyond what she had hoped for. I could relate to that, coming from a smaller town and from a community that didn’t have any types of theatre around me and reaching and dreaming for something that just seems so far out of reach. I think the character of Cinderella is so beautiful and I really loved how she has to handle where she’s at with such grace and dignity and you get to see her rise up from the ashes which I find really inspiring.
Thank you so much to Disney Legend Jodi Benson for taking the time to conduct this phone interview.
Head over to Disney+ today and stream all of Jodi Benson work including All 3 The Little Mermaid films, The Little Mermaid series, Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3, Toy Story Toons: Hawaiian Vacation, Ralph Breaks The Internet, Flubber, Secret of the Wings, Lady and the Tramp 2: Scamp’s Adventure, 101 Dalmatians 2: Patch’s London Adventure, Hercules The Series, and Thumbelina.
You can also check out our interview with songwriting duo Christopher and Elyse Willis, who worked on the brand-new Mickey Mouse song “Nothing Can Stop Us Now” for the Walt Disney World attraction Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.