- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Almost 20 years ago, Jodi Benson’s lyric soprano won her the role of Ariel, the title character in Disney’s enchanting animated version of “The Little Mermaid,” over an estimated 500 rivals. That breakthrough transformed her career, which she expected to be concentrated on Broadway “until my pipes broke down or my legs fell off.”

Miss Benson was in Washington recently to help promote a new two-disc DVD edition of the movie, first released in November 1989. A delightful sleeper of that holiday season, it restored Disney animation for another generation while also reviving romantic-comedy operetta in a novel format, happily reinforced in the early 1990s by “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin.” Disney Home Entertainment is touting the double-disc “Mermaid” as a tempting holiday replacement for earlier VHS and single DVD editions, which might be showing wear and tear on family shelves.

Born Jodi Marzorati in Rockford, Ill., in 1961, Miss Benson has vacated New York and Los Angeles for a secluded country home near Lake Lanier, Ga., where she resides with her husband, Ray Benson, also a singer-actor who was once an aspiring Broadway performer, and their two young children. She prefers to home-school her son, age 7, and daughter, age 5, but reserves two afternoons a week for recording sessions and one weekend a month for concert appearances. She joined Marvin Hamlisch for a pops concert with the National Symphony Orchestra a year ago and retains fond memories of Washington from the early 1990s, when she was the leading lady in the Broadway-bound “Crazy for You” and performed at the Kennedy Center for Honors recipient Ginger Rogers.

Her resume eventually included revivals of “My Fair Lady,” “West Side Story,” “Once Upon a Mattress,” “Flora the Red Menace” and “My One and Only.”

During the last decade or so, theatrical appearances have been supplanted by family life and her contributions to Disney soundtracks. In addition to sustaining the voice of Ariel in made-for-video sequels (a “Little Mermaid III” is on the production line), she keeps several other soprano identities in play for the company’s animated spinoffs, television series or albums. “All I need is a handy airport and a recording studio,” she observes, and both are available in Atlanta.

She looks fine at 45 and believes her voice has grown fuller and richer with age. Evidently, no one at Disney believes it has grown too mature to simulate a youthful Ariel. Miss Benson finds it humorously portentous that her first Broadway number, in an ill-fated 1987 adaptation of the Michael Ritchie movie comedy “Smile,” was called “Disneyland.” The show closed after six weeks, but there was time for a Mickey Mouse impersonator to attend the cast party.

“I got a key to the kingdom,” Miss Benson recalls. “A year later, I was working for the Mouse, recording songs and dialogue for Ariel, and I’m still working for him. That’s my full-time salaried job. I’m in the studio every week updating about seven different characters. When I do concerts, it’s understood that I’ll sing Disney music. ‘Part of Your World’ from ‘Little Mermaid,’ the title song from ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Colors of the Wind’ from ‘Pocahontas’ are always in demand.”

The most extensive supplementary segment in the DVD recalls the production of “The Little Mermaid” and incorporates footage of Miss Benson recording “Part of Your World,” at one point with the close collaboration of the late lyricist Howard Ashman, who was also the film’s co-producer. Not coincidentally, he had been the lyricist, adapter and director of “Smile,” expected to take Broadway by storm before the reviews proved unkind. He had already been approached by Disney to participate in the “Mermaid” project and had recruited composer Alan Menken as his songwriting partner.

It was a reunion. The melodies for “Smile” had been supplied by Mr. Hamlisch, still trailing clouds of Broadway glory from “A Chorus Line.” Mr. Ashman also insisted that every actress who had been in “Smile” be auditioned for Ariel. Miss Benson submitted the winning audition tape, which also needed to persuade co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker and Disney executives Jeffrey Katzenberg and Peter Schneider.

“I was very blessed that Howard opened the door for our group,” Miss Benson recalls. “All 16 of us got a shot. Disney would never have auditioned me without Howard’s recommendation. It was logical to go to the New York talent pool, since they had decided to cast someone who could do both the songs and dialogue. Often they’re separated in animated musicals, but the lines and lyrics were so closely linked in Ariel that any disparity could have harmed the show.”

There were two particularly reassuring highlights in the movie, Miss Benson’s love ballad and the comic novelty number “Under the Sea,” which eventually won the Academy Award as best song. The former revealed that a heartfelt moment could be finessed by this group of collaborators. The latter was virtuoso icing on the cake: a playful showstopper that justified exuberant cartoon slapstick to accompany rapid-fire verbal wit and an infectious calypso beat.

The ardor in Miss Benson’s voice is the indispensable emotional force in the love song, and it’s beautifully augmented by the illustrative styles chosen for red-tressed Ariel and her seagoing habitat. The DVD’s background material weds several elements very effectively: Miss Benson reaching a crescendo in the recording studio; animator Glen Keane recalling the initial impact of her voice (he shared responsibility for realizing Ariel and made her hair a particular triumph); and the rapturous finale of the finished sequence, in which the phrase, “Something’s starting right now” seemed to soar out of context. You were convinced that Disney animation was not only back on the beam but back as a melodic-illustrative powerhouse.

Knowing all this, the chapter of recollections dealing with an interlude in which “Part of Your World” was almost cut from the picture generates a near-miss kind of gallows humor. Jeffrey Katzenberg was spooked by a little boy who lost his popcorn during an early preview while “Part of Your World” was unreeling. He feared it was a fatal omen of restlessness in the juvenile public. Fortunately, everyone talked him into reserving judgment at least through another preview, which reversed the death sentence.

Looking back, Mr. Katzenberg quips, “Can’t imagine the movie without it. Can you?” I’ll say.

Show-business lore teems with close calls of this sort: the highlights that might have been discards, even ruinous discards. Jodi Benson concerts certainly wouldn’t be quite the same without a reprise of Ariel’s only song.


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