Seth Kubersky’s Best Week Ever July 23, 2014: An Evening with Jodi Benson

Share This!
Jodi benson best week ever
Spend an evening with Jodi The Little Mermaid Benson in the best Best Week Ever ever! (Photos by Seth Kubersky)

The hyperbolic title of this column is intended to be tongue in cheek, but every so often I truly do experience something that qualifies for the Best Week Ever superlative. Last Sunday night certainly qualifies, since — thanks to a contest conducted by Shelly Valladolid via her Fabulous Disney Babe column on MiceChat.com — I had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet a real-life Disney heroine. Part of Your World: An Evening with Jodi Benson at the Bohemian Hotel in Celebration, afforded 60 guests an intimate audience with Jodi Benson, original voice of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, over an excellent three-course meal, as she told stories, answered questions, posed for photos, and (best of all) performed a mini-concert of songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken.

The Part of Your World event was put together by Jennifer Beaudoin and Lance Kirkland of Legends Events, and was hosted by Disney historian Jim Korkis, whose Vault of Walt series and other books are must-reads for serious Disneyphiles.

I was an avid Disney animation fan as a kid, but drifted away in my early teens because of the company’s meh mid-80s output. A VHS copy of The Little Mermaid bought me back to the fold just in time to enjoy Disney’s Second Golden Age (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King) in their original theatrical runs.

More than a decade later, I got to see Benson perform live at Epcot’s American Gardens theater. Torrential rain forced the orchestra offstage, but Jodi and a pianist braved the soaking sideways storm and completed the show for a drenched but deliriously happy audience. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to thank her for demonstrating what theatrical professionalism is all about — and thanks to Legends Events, I finally had my chance!

 

We arrived at the gorgeous Celebration Bohemian Hotel shortly before our check-in time, and once we located the proper ballroom we were swiftly confirmed and handed our programs:

Unfortunately, Mrs. Benson’s sound check ran slightly behind schedule, delaying the doors opening. That turned out to be fortunate for us, as we had time to grab a discounted happy hour drink from the bar and survey the hotel’s public spaces.

 

I’ve visited the downtown Grand Bohemian Hotel, which is also owned by The Kessler Collection, and this one is equally luxurious and eccentric, with an emphasis on Florida-based artworks throughout.

 

 

The hotel’s lobby and lakefront patio turn into a full-service restaurant in the evening.

 

Before we knew it, the ballroom was open and we were seated.

 

After a few introductory remarks, we began with our salad course, followed by a very good steak (or vegetarian lasagna)…

 

…and a yummy Key Lime dessert.

 

During the meal, both Jodi and her husband Ray Benson (or “Mr. Mermaid,” as Korkis joked) made the rounds to each table, graciously taking the time to say hello to every single guest. They seemed genuinely happy to be spending the evening with Jodi’s fans.

 

There was also time while we ate to sign up for the silent auction, which included photos and posters signed by Disney Legends like Dick Van Dyke and Richard Sherman, along with Frozen stars Kristen Bell and Josh Gad. Proceeds from the auction benefited the restoration of Walt Disney’s birthplace in Chicago.

 

As dinner wrapped up, Jim Korkis grabbed the microphone and led the room through a fascinating Q&A covering Jodi Benson’s career in stage and screen. A few of my favorite revelations from the interview:

  • Her favorite Disney film (other than The Little Mermaid) is Cinderella because she likes to “cheer for the underdog.”
  • Howard Ashman coached Benson through recording Part of Your World by telling her “don’t sing it, just speak it,” and recorded a demo track that she tried to imitate exactly. Ashman wanted to “tell a story”, but didn’t want Ariel to “sound perfect.” He also acted out every other role for Benson, screaming so loud in her face as King Triton that she was “at the point of sobbing.”
  • Benson’s favorite part of The Little Mermaid is the reprise of Part of Your World, especially the way animator Glen Keane captured Ariel’s hair movement and mannerisms.
  • After recording Ariel, Benson was seriously considered for the part of Belle in Beauty and the Beast. When Paige O’Hara (an old friend of Benson’s who ultimately got the part) she was asked by the producers to “sound more like Jodi Benson” — and then called Benson asking how to do that! Benson went on to play Belle in some TV episodes, but “we don’t talk about that.”
  • When Benson was only 8 years old, she told her mother that she wanted to be a “working actress” who wasn’t going to be rich but got to perform on Broadway, even though at that age she had never seen a Broadway show. Instead, she memorized ever lyric to the Chorus Line original cast LP and made up choreography in her home.
  • Benson identifies most with Ariel’s “independent spirit” and “tenacious spirit,” saying “we are kind of one in a weird way after all these years…I’ve very protective of her.”
  • When Benson played Barbie in the Toy Story movies, there was no script. Instead John Lassiter brought a box of Barbie dolls into the studio for them to play with, and they improvised the dialogue on the spot. Benson never met Michael Keaton, who plays Ken, since their parts were recorded separately.

 

Soon, question time was over, and it was time for the centerpiece of the evening. For copyright reasons, no recordings or photos were allowed while Benson sang, so put on your favorite Disney CD while I recap her performance.

Benson began her brief concert with a medley of songs from Beauty and the Beast, then sang “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas, which she first heard Alan Menken play backstage at an AIDS benefit shortly after Howard Ashman’s death.

The most interesting part of Benson’s setlist was “Disneyland,” her showstopper from Smile, the obscure 1986 Howard Ashman/Marvin Hamlisch musical where she made her Broadway debut. In the song, a beauty contestant dreams of escaping her difficult home life and living full-time in the Happiest Place on Earth.

The show closed quickly and is largely forgotten, but Disney sent Mickey Mouse himself to the opening night party to present Benson with honorary Disneyland citizenship, and the role led to her Little Mermaid audition, setting the course for the next three decades of her life.

Of course, Benson concluded with “Part of Your World,” Ariel’s iconic “I want” song. Though she was struggling with a sore throat (exacerbated by spending the entire afternoon repeatedly riding the Magic Kingdom’s Little Mermaid ride and singing along loudly on every lap) Benson didn’t need to make any apologies; even with the occasional crack she sang 1000 times better than anyone else in the room could, with the possible exception of the talented youngster who (at Benson’s urging) sand a note-perfect rendition of Part of Your World while Jodi posed for photos and bade guests farewell.

 

 

As an extra special added bonus, Disney Legend Bob Gurr was in attendance, direct from Disneyland’s 60th anniversary celebration just days earlier. I had the chance to thank Gurr for his amazing engineering work (he designed everything from the Autopia Cars and Monorails to Mr. Lincoln and Universal Hollywood’s original King Kong) and asked his opinion on the new Kong attraction under construction at Universal Orlando. He said they haven’t consulted him on the project yet, but he’s hoping its better than the 3-D version in Hollywood’s studio tram tour.

 

Seth with Disney Legend Bob Gurr…
…and event emcee Jim Korkis.

My night with Jodi Benson was truly a magical evening, and one that I couldn’t have afforded otherwise, so I want to close by again thanking Shelly, MiceChat, and Legends Events for the opportunity to share this experience with our readers!

What Disney celebrities have you met in the flesh, and who do you wish you could meet? Share your stories in the comments below!

 

U

 

Seth Kubersky

Author of The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando. Co-author of The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland and Beyond Disney. Contributor to Unofficial Guides to WDW and Las Vegas. Live Active Cultures columnist for the Orlando Weekly. Travel and arts journalist. Theatrical director and producer.

6 thoughts on “Seth Kubersky’s Best Week Ever July 23, 2014: An Evening with Jodi Benson

  • July 23, 2015 at 6:14 pm
    Permalink

    Nice article! I wish Jodi would return to Broadway – I was fortunate to see her in both SMILE and CRAZY FOR YOU, for which she was Tony-nominated. SMILE, though only having had a brief run on Broadway, is not “largely forgotten”, however. Several songs from the score (including “Disneyland”) are staples in Broadway revues, cabaret performances and the like. The show was recently revived off-Broadway, and is frequently produced around the country. Musical theatre enthusiasts (much like Disney fans) often lament that it wasn’t more successful, and many of us relish our bootleg copies of the score! Truth is, SMILE was a traditional show that opened at the height of the British mega-musical invasion (Les Miserables opened soon after, CATS was all the rage, and Phantom of the Opera was working its way across the Atlantic.)

    I knew, after seeing Miss Benson in Smile, she was going to be big!

    I once met Angela Lansbury – a private audience, not an autograph at the stage door – and she is about as gracious and down to earth as can be! A real thrill.

    Reply
  • July 23, 2015 at 6:46 pm
    Permalink

    Aww, TLM is my favorite movie of all time. I’ve never seen Jodi Benson in person though…She seems wonderful. That looks like a great time!

    Reply
  • July 24, 2015 at 4:02 am
    Permalink

    On a side note. The Celebration Hotel is a lovely hotel. We visited our friends who were staying there in December. Great views of the lake!

    Reply
  • July 24, 2015 at 9:30 am
    Permalink

    Looks like a wonderful evening. Love your wife’s Lilly Pulitzer dress 😉
    We had the pleasure of spending the evening with Bob Gurr for a monorail crawl the evening after this event. How fortunate are we to have access to several Disney greats, right here in our own backyard?

    Reply
  • July 28, 2015 at 10:12 pm
    Permalink

    Awesome event! Her voice is pure magic…her children are so lucky to have a mom that is Ariel!!!! I love TLM soundtrack! Great article Seth, keep up the great work! Daisy who? Kidding… 🙂

    Reply
  • August 1, 2015 at 10:43 pm
    Permalink

    Catching up on my disney blogs after I got back from my vacation and this article helped solve a family mystery! One night we were on the monorail back from the Polynesian when a very nice looking man stepped into the car with us. When we got out to the Grand Floridan he was escorted to the front, which we knew was no longer allowed so he had to be important! After we got to the Magic Kingdom he got off as well. Someone in the crowd asked him what he did for Disney and he simply replied, “I worked on machines.” Who knew the “machines” he was referring to was the one we had just gotten off! Some great Disney magic. Thanks Seth! I love your blog. Even more so now 🙂

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *