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.
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!