Exclusive From The Philly Fan Expo: Jodi Benson on Her Impactful Relationship With Howard Ashman

The voice of Disney’s Princess Ariel herself, Jodi Benson, visited adoring fans at the Philly Fan Expo this past weekend and even graced those who attended her panel with her beautiful voice, singing The Little Mermaid’s iconic song “Part of Your World”.

Benson spoke to a packed crowd during the recent Philly Fan Expo on Saturday, June 3. Among the many celebrities featured at this jam-packed event were Henry Winkler, Rose McIver, Hayden Christensen, Sean Astin, Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, and Tom Welling. 

The voice actress touched on a variety of topics including some of her other Disney favorites, (spoiler alert: she’s a huge fan of Tangled), her time working with Halle Bailey for The Little Mermaid live-action remake, and of course, her time working with lyricist and writer Howard Ashman. 

Many long-time lovers of Disney remember the first time they watched the 1989 classic and heard the playful yet melancholy “Part Of Your World” as it illustrates Ariel’s deepest desires. But not many know that Ashman’s fervent insistence saved it from being cut from the final film.

“The first time seeing Part of Your World was so magical cause you can see yourself in the character…without that song, you don’t really have an opportunity to care for her,” Benson said. 

DreamWorks founder Jeffrey Katzenberg who was the studio chairman for Disney at the time speculated that the song wouldn’t perform well with movie-goers after a test screening of the song didn’t seem to grab the attention of the audience. 

Ashman, being a lyricist for a number of Broadway productions including “Little Shop of Horrors” explained to Katzenberg that “Part of Your World” played an integral part in Ariel’s story as her “I want” song. If you know anything about musicals, you know how necessary an “I want” song is for the protagonist. 

Ariel and Flounder. Photo Credit: Disney Studios

Eventually, “Part of Your World” was given the green light and is now one of the most recognizable Disney songs of all time. It’s also featured on Playbill.com’s “33 ‘I Want’ Songs to Keep You Motivated.”

“So much of Part of Your World is Howard…It pays tribute to Howard,” Benson said. She also mentioned how Ashman was with her every step of the way, even inside the recording booth with her when she first sang the history-making song, “It was amazing that he could be in there, next to the microphone, and not make a peep.”

In addition to The Little Mermaid, Ashman also wrote the lyrics for The Beauty and The Beast and Aladdin before passing away in 1991 due to complications from the AIDS virus. Beauty and The Beast, which was released later that year, was dedicated to his memory. 

Despite Ashman being such a prominent figure in the making of some of Disney’s most identifiable and adored classics, always working tirelessly even towards his final days, not many knew of the astounding contributions he made to these films.

Fortunately, in 2018, the documentary film Howard premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and was released later onto Disney+. The film can be seen on the streaming site’s front page as a part of their Pride collection, celebrating the LGBTQ+ community during the month of June. 

Benson is briefly featured in the film seen working next to Howard as they collaborated and brought “Part of Your World” to life. Benson offered even more elaboration on their dynamic and heartfelt relationship at her Fan Expo panel, describing how much Ashman’s guidance meant to her and how it still affects her as a performer today, 

“The biggest lesson Howard taught me was…perfection isn’t performance. [He would say] I don’t want it to be perfect, I want it to be real.” This advice was extremely resonating with Benson as The Little Mermaid offered her a transition from the stage to the recording studio.

“I didn’t know what I was doing, doing an animated film. I had never done that before. I felt pretty nervous about it, you know, pretty scared…but [Howard] always believed in me and I think him believing in me was able to kind of pull out the best of the character to create who Ariel is today.”

Being one of the only artists that closely worked with Howard on multiple projects Benson expressed that she “felt very blessed and very fortunate to be able to have these two different types of experiences and both were very different types of projects.” 

In addition to The Little Mermaid, Benson was also cast as one of the leads in the Broadway show “Smile,” directed by Ashman, which ran for a short time but showcased to the world Benson’s electric energy and impeccable talent. 

Benson ended the panel by treating the audience to an enchantingly nostalgic performance of “Part of Your World.” When she concluded, a fan from the back of the room shouted that their “inner child had been healed.” 

Through her incessant love for her fans and her exemplary character Benson not only upholds the legacy of The Little Mermaid but the legacy of Howard Ashman and serves as a constant reminder of the lives he changed with his sensational direction and masterful creativity.