Jodi Benson on ‘The Little Mermaid,’ its LGBTQ legacy and her new book

(Photo courtesy Tyndale)

Before Jodi Benson became a Disney Legend for her contributions to the Walt Disney Company in 2011 – among them voicing Ariel in 1989’s “The Little Mermaid” – she stole the spotlight with “Disneyland.”

The performer originated the song in “Smile,” the 1986 Broadway musical directed by Howard Ashman. The late, LGBTQ lyricist wrote its book and lyrics, receiving a Tony nomination in the process, but the show wasn’t considered a commercial success.

“Smile” closed after 48 performances, but the musical has endured. It’s a testament to both Ashman’s lyrics and Benson’s vocals.

The pairing would go on to change the trajectory of animation when Ashman invited the cast of “Smile” to audition for his next venture, Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” He’d begun work on the film with his cherished collaborator Alan Menken.

The Academy Award-winning feature would go on to usher in Disney’s Renaissance, in no small part because Benson was cast as its lead. Ashman served as her personal director, perfecting Disney staples like “Part of Your World.”

The Tony nominated actress has voiced Ariel in multiple sequels and spinoffs in the decades since, cultivating the character while creating others in animation and live action. She’s also a regular celebrity narrator for Walt Disney World’s annual Candlelight Processional.

Benson discusses all that and more in “Part of My World: What I Learned from ‘The Little Mermaid’ about Love, Faith and Finding my Voice,” her new book published Sept. 13 by Tyndale House Publishers, a Christian company. She hopes it tells an inclusive tale that honors those who’ve impacted her life, Ashman chief among them.

The entertainer reflected on the enduring LGBTQ legacy of “The Little Mermaid” and more with Watermark ahead of the book’s release.

WATERMARK: What drew you to performance and to Broadway?

Jodi Benson: I grew up in a town outside of Chicago and I had never seen a Broadway show. We had a little community theater that I think I went to a couple of times, but really, I just started singing probably when I was four. Then I started singing with my sister at church when I was nine, and around then I just came up with this idea of, “I’d like to see if I could do that. I don’t want to be famous and I don’t want to be rich, I just want to pay my bills.”

I don’t really know where I came up with that idea because I’d never seen a show at that point, and I wasn’t a part of anything on a stage until I was in high school. I was doing some community stuff in our town, just in the ensemble, and it was a lot of fun. I just thought “I wonder what the next step looks like for me.” I didn’t know if I was any good.

What were those next steps?

So my senior year, my parents had divorced, my dad left when I was young, and I had to get myself to college on my own. I found a private, tiny little school, Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, that had a musical theater program. I went to an audition, I got the highest scholarship and thought, “well, here we go.” But I still didn’t know if I was any good and if it failed I wanted to be a lawyer … it was more just like, “let’s just give it a try.”

You eventually met Howard Ashman on Broadway and performed “Disneyland.”

Yes, that was amazing. It is a beautiful song, isn’t it? It is so iconic and I’m so thrilled that they had written that for my character. As life would have it, that was just part of the journey from “Disneyland” to Disney Legend. It’s pretty crazy to look back at that whole season of time.

What are some of your earliest memories of working with Howard? What was he like?

I think everyone thought he was just lightyears ahead. He was absolutely brilliant, probably 20 years ahead of his time, coming up with all of his genius ideas; his lyrics as a director and as an executive producer. He was my personal director for “Mermaid,” which was amazing.

But I think because of him being so brilliant, and more introverted and quiet, people may have found him to be aloof or unapproachable, which is exactly the opposite of who he was. He was very loving, very empathetic, very compassionate … when you’re a brilliant person like that your mind is working at a million miles an hour.

We just had a great relationship. We did “Smile” and then the show closed in the beginning of ’87 and I started working on “Mermaid” that same year. I got to go from one Howard adventure to the next.

How did your background prepare you for it?

Because of Howard, we approached it like a Broadway musical. I had no experience in voiceover, I’d never been behind a microphone like that before, so I didn’t know what I was doing.

But Howard did and everything about it was basically the same process. I acted everything out physically in the studio, as if I were on stage, and so I had that knowledge and background as a theater kid. I just brought what I knew about that way to express myself into the studio.

What was it like working with the cast and crew?

Amazing. Incredible. It was wonderful to be with everybody. The first couple days, we did a readthrough like we do in New York and recorded together with plexiglass between us, and then I think it was like the third day that I started recording by myself. From then on, I was always recording by myself, but we established all those relationships between each other. It was really wonderful.

Within the last two years, we lost [Sebastian the Crab actor] Samuel E. Wright and [Ursula the Sea Witch actress] Pat Carroll. What can you share about them?

Pat was hysterical and just a joy to be around. She was constantly laughing, constantly smiling, very encouraging, very loving, very kind. Just a super amazing woman that had an incredible career that spanned more than 70 years. Just brilliant.

Sam and I did a Broadway show together while we were doing “Mermaid,” the feature film, and then while I was on Broadway with “Crazy for You” for four years, we did all of our episodes of [“The Little Mermaid”] TV series in the studio together. So we spent a lot of time together. He was just an amazing guy. So loving, empathetic, compassionate, kind, creative. Just a joy to work with – big losses for us in our “Mermaid” family for sure.

Why do you think “The Little Mermaid” has endured for over 30 years?

The reason why I think our film has lasted this long is really because of Howard. He brought and blended this world together between the Broadway musical and the animated feature film that was just so far beyond and ahead of its time and it changed the course of animation forever.

It was Disney’s second Golden Age of animation, but even all of the animation studios – I’m honestly boldly, I’m going to say it’s all because of Howard, and Howard brought Alan; that was a package deal. That was nonnegotiable. He brought his writing partner and friend, and they changed it, they changed it all and still are to this day.

Remember, back in the day, animation was not in a good place. It was not necessarily thought highly of in the 80s. It’s what people participated in in the studio when their career was tanking in the end. Now when you look at it, every celebrity wants to be part of an animated project, and I believe that’s because of Howard. That’s because of his brilliance and the way that he blew animation out of the box and just went beyond what we could all imagine.

The film has a number of other ties to the LGBTQ community, from the fairytale’s writer Hans Christian Andersen’s same-sex romances to Ursula’s design being based on Divine, the drag queen.

Yep, absolutely.

Have you long been aware of some of those connections and the film’s LGBTQ fan base?

Absolutely. There’s not a convention, there’s not a meet and greet, there’s not an audio or video podcast or interview that goes by – it happens every time – where someone will share their story. Everyone shares their story with me and I love that. There’s not a day of work that goes by without someone telling me, “I found my voice, I found my identity.”

The film is really special, the character is special and the company is special. I’m just thrilled that I get to be a little bitty part of all of it. It’s Howard’s giftedness and his love and his empathy. His inclusion, his thinking outside of the box in how to connect with all people, with everyone, he just did it so beautifully in the midst of his own personal struggles and suffering. That’s mind blowing, it really is. [After also writing the lyrics for Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” and many for “Aladdin,” Ashman died of an AIDS-related illness at 40 years old in 1991.]

Your faith is a part of your life, work and book. Do you have a message for LGBTQ fans who may have a complicated relationship with organized religion?

Yeah, I’m gonna say I do too. (Laughs.) I have a complicated relationship with organized religion, too. It’s interesting – first of all, let’s just be really honest, I did not want to write this book. You’ll see that on the very first page, never in a million years did I want to write a book. Tyndale came to me and I said, “No, absolutely not. Hell will have to freeze over. Literally, no way, and I’m definitely not going with a publishing company who publishes Bibles. I’m not doing that. This is not a Christian book.”

What happened next?

They said, “How about we try a different way to approach this?” So we did. This is not a book that’s pen to paper. This is me talking into a microphone and then it’s just transcribed. That’s why when it reads like I’m talking to you, it’s because I am. I am sharing the stories verbally.

When I saw the first rough draft I still said, “No, I’m done. Thank you so much, but no … This is just not my comfort zone at all.” Then the publisher said, “What if you collect 24 little stories – it’s not an autobiography, it’s not a memoir, it’s not in chronological order – and you shine the light on other people to say thank you? Especially your private stories about Howard, that will be lost forever if you don’t share them.” That’s what got me.

What are your hopes for the book?

I want this book to be inclusive. I don’t want anyone to pick it up and go, “Oh, it’s Christian. I’m not a Christian. I guess I shouldn’t read it.” Or “oh, I hate Disney. Should I pick this book up?” My plan was to share stories where everyone would feel included, where no one would pick it up and have their feelings hurt.

Those were really big, important issues to me. So it’s kind of crazy, because you’ve got me and my faith, which is my foundation and it just comes out in various ways as I’m talking, but it’s not a Christian book. So here we have this Bible-publishing company, coming to me to share my stories, but my friends are [“RuPaul’s Drag Race” entertainer] Nina West. My friends are in the LGBTQ+ community. They’re drag queens. My friends are Jewish, my friends are New Age Buddhists, you know? (Laughs.) I think it’s been, for Tyndale and for my team, quite an interesting adventure. I just want people to feel included and to not have anyone’s feelings get hurt. That’s my hope and prayer for my little bitty book.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I just want to say thank you to all of your readers and to the wonderful community down there in Florida – near my favorite place on earth, near Orlando. I just really appreciate your support of our film, of Howard and Alan and of the character. I’m just so happy that people can connect to her and feel like they belong. That they feel like they can figure out that wonderful journey of, “who am I? What makes me me and what’s my next step?”

Ariel was part of a world where she just really wanted something more and reaching for that somewhat unobtainable seemed to be next to impossible. So I admire how Ariel was a big dreamer, and I’m very thrilled to hear that she is encouraging to people all over the world.

Jodi Benson’s “Part of My World” is available wherever books are sold. Learn more at and follow her @JodiBensonOfficial.

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