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Jodi Benson and Howard Ashman

The Little Mermaid‘s Jodi Benson on Working with Lyricist Howard Ashman

Some of Ariel’s most famous and instantly recognizable lines in The Little Mermaid like “Flounder, don’t be such a guppy,” “But Daddy, I love him!” and “Maybe he’s right, maybe there is something the matter with me,” were all recited that exact way because the film’s lyricist told Jodi Benson to say them that way.

Benson credits much of her entire 30-year career success as the voice of Ariel in The Little Mermaid to that genius, Howard Ashman.

“It was his interpretation, his nuances, Benson recalled. “He knew the right way to do things and I trusted him.”

Howard Ashman’s life and career as a director, songwriter, and lyricist is profiled in the documentary, Howard, on Disney+. He also co-wrote songs with Alan Menken for Little Shop of Horrors, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. Ashman died at age 40 of HIV/AIDS before they won the Oscar in 1991 for the title song “Beauty and the Beast.” His other Academy Award is for the song “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid.

The first time Benson watched the documentary, she had to turn it off because she felt it was difficult to go down that emotional journey of revisiting all those joyful and painful memories leading up to Ashman’s death.

“I can still envision Howard standing next to me and I can hear him directing and coaching me,” Benson said of when they were recording the audio for the 1989 animated feature. At one point in the process of making the movie, her biggest song “Part of Your World” was put on the chopping block by the producers.

“I really wasn’t aware of that when it happened. I heard about it afterward,” said Benson. The documentary addresses how and why Ashman fought to leave the song in. Had it been cut, “I don’t know what I would do, because that’s what I’ve been doing for 33 years, is singing that song and telling that story.” In its review, Variety wrote “newcomer” Benson “exhibits a show-stopping set of pipes on the ballad ‘Part Of Your World,’ a ‘Les Miz’ ringer.”

When Benson got the part of Ariel, she didn’t tell many people. At the time, cartoon movies were an art form people scoffed at, Benson explained. “Even the word ‘cartoon’ kind of had a cheesy flavor to it.”

The documentary shows Disney’s animation studios housed in a trailer — a huge contrast to the big campus where it currently resides. “Disney was in a huge transition and turmoil at that time,” she noted. “So everything was riding on our film.” The Little Mermaid was the film that propelled Disney’s Renaissance.

Benson explained that at the time the “normal Disney protocol,” was to have her name appear during the end credits. Her face wouldn’t be attached to the film like it is now with high profile celebrities starring in animation. But at the last minute, Benson was sent on a whirlwind press tour of 22 cities in 20 days.

“I thought, ‘something’s different going on with this particular film.’ So that was a huge surprise.”

Benson got the audition for The Little Mermaid because of Ashman. She had just worked with him on the flop 1986 Broadway musical, Smile, where Ashman was the director, lyricist, and book writer. Marvin Hamlish, fresh off A Chorus Line success, wrote the music. Benson recalled that she was in the fifth or sixth round of auditions when Ashman called her aside, put his hands on her shoulders, and told her confidentially she got the lead role of Doria.

“I dropped my bag and I just fell sobbing in his arms,” she said. “He’s rubbing my back and hugging me and he’s like, ‘Now I just want you to dry your tears and go back in. Let’s keep this between us.’ And at that point, I realized this man has a lot of compassion and empathy where he knows what I’m feeling. And that started our relationship.” Ashman’s partner, Bill Lauch, recalled Ashman telling him that story during a 92nd Street Y panel.

Had Smile been a hit, Benson doesn’t know if she would have been cast as Ariel in The Little Mermaid. She would have been deep into eight shows a week on Broadway at the time while the movie was in production back in 1986, and not gotten the chance to audition for it.

“I think with the show closing, [Ashman] was gracious enough to invite [me] to be able to audition. So that was a huge blessing.” Perhaps it was a sign that one of the songs she sang in Smile was called “Disneyland” that later would forever become part of her musical repertoire. “It’s crazy how things work out.”

About two years after the premiere of The Little Mermaid, Benson got some heartbreaking news. Ashman was dying of AIDS.

When Ashman was on his deathbed in a New York City hospital. Benson flew back from California so she could say her goodbyes. She remembers walking in to see him and he was listening to cassette tape recordings of people singing “Proud of Your Boy” from Aladdin. Four of the songs he worked on with Menken were in the film.

“It was a neat little connecting time of just being able to watch him work again and for me to be able to say all of my thank you’s for everything that he did for me. I kept it light and smiling and kind of joking and laughing. Then I stepped outside, fell to the ground, and started crying. I thought the door was closed. I could hear Howard saying, ‘Who’s out there crying?’”

More than 30 years later, Benson says Ashman would be elated to know there are new adaptations of his work, like the Broadway and live-action versions of Aladdin, and the Broadway production and upcoming live-action The Little Mermaid film. So far, Benson says she hasn’t been asked to be a part of it. Rehearsals in London, she says, just resumed.

Adding, “Howard would be so thrilled to see the legacy of that continue.”