Talking With Jodi Benson - Part One
I thought it might be a nice idea to do some interviews for this blog. You know, talk to some of Howard’s friends and colleagues, do a little informal interviewing, that sort of thing. Problem is, I’m basically very shy. And I’m totally inept around anything that involves moving parts – like tape recorders, for instance. Not to mention I’ve never conducted an interview before. So, in a preemptive strike, and to give myself courage, I decided that my first interview should be with a really, really nice person…
Which is why I called Jodi Benson.
Jodi, and if you’re reading this blog you probably know this, is the actress behind a little mermaid named Ariel. It’s her voice that first gave flight to Part of Your World. She was also a star of the Marvin Hamlisch/Howard Ashman muscial, Smile. So I figured we had plenty to talk about.
I figured right.
Jodi first met Howard when she auditioned for Smile (which Howard was directing and for which he had written book and lyrics). Jodi had been in New York for only about three years - long enough to get an Equity card and a few professional jobs but not a starring role. At least not yet.
“My first impression of Howard was of a dichotomy of gentle and strong… and he was a tad bit scary,” Jodi says. “The Smile auditions were endless and nerve wracking.”
“There were four, maybe five callbacks. It was really unusual to go back all those times for singing and dancing. Toward the end, we even had to do some improv. They kind of lined us up and called our names out as first runner-up and second runner-up and we’d have to react [Smile is about a Junior Miss beauty pageant]. It was a really strenuous audition, very unusual. I don’t really remember reading from actual pages of a script.”
There was light at the end of that very long tunnel, though,
“My final audition was an all day sing-off, dance-off, everything – it was horrible. And it was my fifth time and I was like, I just don’t think I can do this anymore. Mary [Kyte, the choreographer] is teaching us another combination and I’m dancing again and for some reason… he could see it on my face…Howard comes up to me and taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘Jodi can you come out to the hallway with me for a minute?’ “And I was actually thinking that’s it, I’m done. But maybe Howard could see that I couldn’t stand it anymore, because he looked at me and said,
‘Jodi, you’ve got the part, you’ve got the part of Doria.’
“And I just fell apart and started crying and he said, ‘it’s okay, I just can’t do this to you anymore. I want you to go to the bathroom and dry your tears and go back in there and just have fun. It’s ok, you’ve got the part, it’s done…oh, and you can’t tell anyone.’ It was at that point for me I was like, ‘He gets it. He knows what its like to be in our shoes…when you direct and you’re an actor…he got what you’re going through and I thought that was the nicest thing anyone could do…
It’s my fondest memory of him.”
Taking Smile from workshop to tryouts in Baltimore to a Broadway opening was a brutally tough road for everyone – cast, crew and certainly the show’s creators, Howard and Marvin. I was curious how Jodi, had seen things.
“When you’re in the middle of it,” she said, “you just want to do your work and you want the people who hired you to be happy, that’s pretty much the bottom line. Am I doing what they’ve asked me to do, am I getting the job done? That was my focus. When you’re in a leading role position, you have a responsibility to try to keep the family happy. That was a little bit difficult. I wasn’t old enough, probably, to really put my foot down, to set some boundaries. As far as the show goes, when you have Marvin Hamlisch telling you, ‘You’re going to get a Tony for this.’ It was too much pressure and started building up these unreasonable expectations that the show was going to make it…and then it was such a huge heartbreak for everybody”.
And yet, says Jodi, “I meet people all time who say, ‘Oh my gosh, Smile, that was such a great show. Whatever happened with that?’
Smile closed and not long after that, Howard rewrote the script for publication. Then he and a few of the actors from the show, including Jodi, went into a recording studio and in one day, made a quick recording of the show’s songs. The recording was never meant to be issued but it’s out there in the ether anyway. And if you ever get a chance to hear Jodi Benson sing Disneyland, her big number from Smile, grab it. (It’s on an out-of-print Varese Sarabonde CD called Unsung Musicals – The Ultimate Collection, for one).
A year or so after Smile closed, Jodi got a call to audition for a voice role in an animated movie that Howard was working on…something about a mermaid. She’d never done that kind of work before but took the audition.
We’ll find out how that went for her on another post…