Theater News

Quick Wit: Jodi Benson

Why do kids look at Benson’s feet? The star of Broadway and animated films shares tales of the sea with Jennie Webb..

Jodi Benson is like a lot of actresses who left her hometown in the Midwest with hopes of making it big on the Great White Way. Yet her extensive Broadway credits, complete with Tony and Helen Hayes Award nominations for the starring role in Crazy for You, represent only one facet of Benson’s show business career.

More than 10 years ago, an open call for a Disney animated feature–Benson’s first voiceover audition–changed the course of her life forever. After she gave voice to Ariel in The Little Mermaid, Benson found herself on the Magic Kingdom family’s fast track, and pretty darn well suited for it. Listen and you’ll recognize her as Tour Guide Barbie in Toy Story II and as Robin Williams’ sidekick Weebo in Flubber. Upcoming features include The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea, Lady and the Tramp II, and a 101 Dalmatians sequel; her animated TV series include The Little Mermaid, Barbie, and Hercules.

On April 30, Benson took time out from the one-dimensional world to headline Encore 2000, a tribute to Long Beach Mayor Beverly O’Neill presented by International City Theatre at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center. Before the show, she chatted with me about the differences between fantasy and reality, and what it’s like to be a star in a world where your biggest fans are four feet tall.

Did you start out as an actor or as a singer?

Both. When you work on Broadway, you pretty much have to do it all. My passion was to do Broadway musicals; [the animation] was just a wonderful thing to do on the side.

Nice day job! But how is performing on stage different from singing in a recording session or providing the voice for a cartoon character?

On stage, it’s the whole package. One thing that’s great about animation: You can go in with your baseball cap on and not worry about how you look! You can just focus on the job at hand.

What kind of a job was The Little Mermaid?

I worked about 14 days over the course of two and a half years.

You had to stay in character for two and a half years?

Yes. Animation takes two to five years, depending on the project.

So you lived with Ariel for a long time. Was she a complete character before she spoke?

No, not really. We had some initial sketches, but the sketches changed drastically.

You mean, as Ariel became more like Jodi?

Between her singing and her mannerisms, yes–I saw a fair amount of me in Ariel. But there were also live reference models that they used, for the swimming and for her hair.

That’s not your long, red hair?!

No. But it’s all me in the facial expressions.

Ariel was one of the first Disney heroines who was branded a feminist. Is that you?

I don’t know if I’d put it like that. But she was definitely reaching for her dream, and I could relate to those things. As far as the independence goes, and the spunkiness of her personality…that’s me, too.

A lot of actors get fed up when they’re identified too closely with a role. Does being known for playing a one-dimensional character compound things?

I don’t feel anything like that in the negative way. I started working with Disney in 1986, and it’s been really great. I’ve been all over the world and experienced wonderful things.

So, you’re not even a little bit sick of Ariel?

Not at all. I’m just so thankful that I’m in this field where I’m working with children and family entertainment. Every job I’ve gotten since The Little Mermaid has come from my relationship with that movie or my connection with Disney entertainment.

You’ve toured, and you’re playing Ariel again in The Little Mermaid sequel…

Return to the Sea. She’s married and has a baby named Melody.

And you have a 15-month-old baby. Are you sure that you and Ariel aren’t the same person? Are you ever seen in public together?

We make a lot of personal appearances.

What reaction do you get from kids when they meet you?

The first thing they do is look at my feet.

At your feet?

For the fins. But then they work it out that Ariel turned into a human, and so they believe it’s me. Children have wonderful imaginations.

Sounds like you have a pretty wonderful life. Kids, family, Disney…”The Happiest Place on Earth?”

It’s a really good marriage, all around.