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Backstage At The Little Mermaid Live In Concert in Tokyo

By Ashley Sutherland-Winch

When the Walt Disney Company released the animated blockbuster, The Little Mermaid, in 1989, it was dubbed for foreign release in over 40 different languages.  Over 28 years later, Disney on Concert Premiere and Harmony Japan presented four incredible performances of The Little Mermaid Live in Concert in Tokyo and Osaka, Japan from February 11-14, 2018. The event was a presentation of the Japanese version of the film accompanied by a live symphony orchestra and live performances from the film.

In June 2016, The Little Mermaid Live in Concert, was performed at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. The event featured performances by Sara Bareilles as Ariel, Tituss Burgess as Sebastian, Darren Criss as Prince Eric, Rebel Wilson as Ursula and Norm Lewis as King Triton. The audiences were also delighted each night with special performances by Disney Legend and composer Alan Menken and Disney Legend and original voice of Ariel, Jodi Benson. The event was such a hit that a performance was added to the run with Jodi Benson playing the role of Ariel on the final night to a sold-out crowd of 18,000 people.

For the Japanese version of The Little Mermaid Live in Concert, the Japanese language version of the film was presented with Japanese mega-stars, Mitsuki Takahata (Ariel), Yoshio Inoue (Prince Eric), KREVA (Sebastian), Shinji Saito (Chef Louis), Marcia (Ursula), and Kojiro Oka (King Triton) singing the songs from the film led by conductor Michael “Koz” Kosarin with music played by the over 70-piece symphony of Orchestra Japan. Prior to the film, there was an extraordinary performance by Disney Legend, Alan Menken playing a medley of his most beloved songs from his illustrious career from Aladdin, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre DameTangled, Enchanted, Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast and of course, The Little Mermaid. Finally, all performances of the Japanese production were concluded with a breathtaking special performance of “Part of Your World” by Disney Legend and original voice of Ariel, Jodi Benson.

Over sushi and vegetable rice served in craft services, conductor Michael Kosarin and Jodi Benson shared stories. Kosarin began working with Alan Menken in 1993 but never had the opportunity to work with Howard Ashman. Jodi Benson and Michael Kosarin discussed working with Marvin Hamlisch and their mutual love for Broadway legend Barbara Cook. In the dressing room gondolas, Disney Legend and composer Alan Menken chatted with Jodi Benson about this and that before warming up for his special performance at the concert. The entire vibe of the production is extremely respectful and fun. All of the incredible talent in the building seemed genuinely honored and excited to celebrate The Little Mermaid in this extraordinary performance for the Japanese audience.

As we sat backstage, Jodi Benson shared a few memories from recording the original film.

On the first days of recording the film:

“We started working on The Little Mermaid in 1986 and I worked for about 14 days over 2 and a half years. What was so special about our film is at the beginning of the process, we were able to record all together in the same room. To start, we were able to do an entire run through and sing through with Alan Menken at the piano and Howard Ashman playing all of the roles for the whole cast and the Disney production staff and executives. To be able to do the whole piece as if it was a Broadway musical was a wonderful way to start the project so that you could hear what each person was going to do with their character and the emotions they were using. As soon as we did two run-throughs, we began recording later that afternoon. The first three days that we were recording the film, we were all able to work together and that has never been done since The Little Mermaid. This was a specific request of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, to start the project like a Broadway show in order to have a better sense of unity with everyone being on the same page and having a strong understanding of the project together.”

“Nowadays, you play opposite your directors, so I may not meet the other actors on a project until the red carpet or hear their voice until I watch the piece at the premiere. It made it so special for The Little Mermaid because we all felt connected from the first day,” she said.

On creating the character of Ariel:

“It has been an incredible honor to create the Ariel. All we had in the beginning were a couple small 2 inch x 2 inch thumbnail sketches of Ariel. We had the animator, and of course we had Howard Ashman and Ron Clements and John Musker, our directors. You really rely on your team behind you, especially Howard, he was very good at creating the scene for you in your mind by telling you the story and then you have to start recording, because there is nothing to go off of except the script.

It took us eight hours to record “Part of Your World”. At hour seven, we were told that the microphone wasn’t working properly. We had just recorded the perfect pass and everyone had agreed that it was the take to use in the film, when we heard the news about the microphone and the staff was so upset because ultimately the previous footage was unusable.  After the microphone was fixed, we finally finished the song in about an hour. Since I now knew what everyone wanted for the song, I was able to recreate the pass and together we finished the song,” she remembered.

In Tokyo, the Ariel character is everywhere from an entire land called “Mermaid Lagoon” at the Tokyo Disney Sea Park and at the concert, hundreds of people came dressed in outfits inspired by Ariel, The Little Mermaid.

On what Ariel means to people:

“It’s very overwhelming to see the impact that your character has had or made a difference in a child or parent’s life. We are now on the fourth generation of fans since the film was released in 1989. We call each seven year period that passes a generation. We now have great grandparents that have watched this film with their great grandchildren. It’s really neat because I think each person has a connection with a different character.   When I meet children or parents along the way and they tell me their story of where they were the first time they saw the movie or how the movie helped them get through difficult times in their life. I’ve met children who have not been able to speak because of severe autism and I will hear the story of the child learning to speak for the first time watching the movie. So, it’s really fascinating to see how an animated character can make such a huge difference in a child’s life. For that, I am very grateful and I take it very seriously to use this opportunity as my passion and ministry to encourage people along the way. I am very honored and it’s a huge blessing to be part of the Disney family and part of a film that started the second golden age of animation.  I would even say that every opportunity I have had since 1989 has been because of The Little Mermaid, and it’s been an incredible journey and life with experiences along the way because of this film. I am very thankful to Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, John Musker and Ron Clements for giving me a chance and having the faith that I could give what they needed,” Jodi Benson shared.

On being a role model:

“For me, because of my faith, I feel that God has given me this opportunity to be part of The Little Mermaid because it is a perfect match for me as a person with my passion and my love for children and great quality family entertainment. That’s what I am most comfortable being a part of because I want to make sure that my children and family can see my work.  I never want there to be a question of my integrity or my character. I feel like God knew that in putting me together with Disney. When I think about it, if one of the other several hundred women who auditioned for Ariel had been given the role – what if they didn’t like children, or Disney, or talking to people or going to the theme parks and riding the rides a million times like I do, or doing publicity? Walt Disney’s nephew, Roy and I were good friends before he passed away and he said to me, “Jodi, it’s just perfect that you are Ariel, because you believe in all of this and The Little Mermaid film.”

“I believed in what we were doing and still do! I get to have the blessing of being part of things that are right in my comfort zone. I do love kids and getting to work with them like doing fan events with children. I get the opportunity now to do Comic Cons and fan conventions where you get to meet fans for eight hours a day. You can meet 100,000+ fans in a weekend and I did my first one last October in Salt Lake City, Utah and it is a perfect thing for me because I get to meet, talk and connect with all of the kid fans and their parents. I was in heaven the entire weekend! It’s so exhausting but so fulfilling because you are meeting people that feel the same way you do about Disney films, that they matter to you. The Little Mermaid is not just a cartoon to me, it has character and integrity and I think we try to always maintain that at the Disney studio.”

On being told she was selected to become a Disney Legend:

“Well this is a funny story. I was at my home in Georgia and I was upstairs in my husband’s office when I got a call from Chris Montan’s secretary who said, “please hold for Chris.” Chris Montan is the executive music producer for Disney Animation Studios. The first thought that came into my mind was being retired. Some of the Disney Princess voices have been recast over the years like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella, when the actresses playing the original voices had passed away or had retired. When Chris got on the phone, I think I said, “You know, it’s ok, whatever you are going to tell me, I have had a good long run with the company and I’m so happy. Whatever you have to say to me, it’s going to be fine”. He said, “What are talking about? No, that’s not why I am calling you, I am calling to ask you if you would like to be inducted as a Disney Legend?” I think I just put the phone down and began to cry. I was so shocked that I wasn’t being retired!

The next thing I said to Chris, was even more silly than my first. See at the time, I only knew of Legends that were dead. I said to him, “Don’t you have to have died to receive this honor?”  He told me “No, you can be alive and we would love to invite you for the ceremony in August to be inducted.” I just kept saying, I am so confused. Finally, Chris asked me, “so is this a yes or a no?” I immediately told him yes and thanked him for the honor.

Becoming a Disney Legend was a huge surprise and honor. One of the greatest days and memories in my life was being at D23 and accepting the award, it was a very surreal moment to be there with my family and be able to say thank you to the entire Disney family for that honor. I would never have been there without Howard Ashman and Alan Menken,” Jodi Benson shared.

The Little Mermaid Live played to sold-out audiences in Tokyo at the Nippon Budokan with 15,000 fans at each show.

“Japanese fans are so loyal to Disney”, Jodi Benson said. “They are sweet and so enthusiastic and I am really looking forward to having that encounter with the fans – coming out on stage and being able to share “Part of Your World” with them is going to be extra special,” she shared.

All photos in this article are courtesy of Jodi Benson and Ashley Sutherland-Winch
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