Jodi Benson is probably one of the most anonymous incredibly famous people in the world.
Her voice is heard by countless millions all over the world. Her films have grossed billions of dollars. She is a former Tony Award and Helen Hayes Award nominee. She has performed around the world. One of the world's most famous companies has been her home for more than a quarter century, and last year it honored her as a "legend."
But you probably wouldn't recognize her if she walked right past you.
Actress Jodi Benson has been the voice of Ariel, 'The Little Mermaid,' since 1989.
You - and your children, and your grandchildren, and your great-grandchildren - know Benson as the voice of Ariel, the adventurous but naive title character in Disney's 1989 animated classic "The Little Mermaid."
The actress, who also does the voice of Barbie in the "Toy Story" film series, will perform two shows, at 3 and 7 p.m., this Sunday at The State Theatre in State College. The performances will each feature a first act of Broadway favorites, followed by a second act of classic Disney songs.
Benson, who turned 51 on Wednesday, spoke with the Mirror recently in a phone interview and said she has no problems being known as "Ariel" to generations of fans.
If you go
Who: Jodi Benson
When: 3 and 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: The State Theatre, State College
Tickets: $28 and $38, with VIP tickets available for $48 which include a reception with Benson. Tickets available at the theater box office, online at thestatetheatre.org or by calling 272-0606
"It's wonderful," she said. "It's a huge, wonderful, miracle. It's a gift that God has given me to be able to work with kids and do entertainment for all ages. It's a huge honor and it's a big responsibility to be such a role model."
And, even more than 20 years later, she never gets tired of singing the iconic songs from "The Little Mermaid," especially her character's signature song, "Part of Your World."
"I sing [those songs] for every concert and I tell my audience every time that 'Part of Your World' is a great story song that I never get tired of singing," she said. "And if I love it, then the audience is going to enjoy it."
Since "The Little Mermaid" revitalized Disney animation with huge box office grosses and Oscar and Golden Globe wins for Best Score and Best Song "Under the Sea," Benson has continued to give life to Ariel in sequels, on TV and in countless Disney products. In addition to Ariel and Barbie, she also does assorted voices for Disney cartoons and TV movies.
She made her only live-action film appearance during a cameo in the 2007 Disney movie "Enchanted."
"I've been with Disney for 28 years," she said. "What I do now is I do symphony concerts on the weekends and then I do my recording stuff, the studio work, during the week.
"We still have a lot of Princess products. We do [the voice work for] all the ancillary products like video games and TV shows."
In 2011, Benson and the voice actresses for other modern Disney Princess characters like Belle and Jasmine were named Disney Legends - the award is given "to acknowledge and honor the many individuals whose imagination, talents and dreams have created the Disney magic," according to the Disney website.
"I was inducted as a Disney Legend and it was unbelievable," Benson said of the honor. "I thought that was something they just gave to people after they passed away. I was like, 'You mean I get this and I'm still alive? Awesome!'"
Benson's State Theatre performance was organized by her longtime friend Richard Biever, the executive director of the theater since January.
"We've known Jodi and her husband for 25 years, probably," Biever said. "My wife, Heidi, worked with her one summer many moons ago. So we knew her before the whole 'Little Mermaid' thing and we kept in touch over the years."
Coincidentally, Biever has a "Little Mermaid" connection completely separate from Benson. Biever was attending Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., during the late 1980s when "Little Mermaid" co-writer and lyricist Howard Ashman, an IU alum, came to the school to direct the first licensed production of his Broadway hit "Little Shop of Horrors." Biever was to be the show's musical director.
According to Biever, Ashman got the "Little Mermaid" job and had to drop out of the Indiana production. But he spent a good deal of time working with the show's cast when he could before the musical opened. During one visit, Ashman auditioned one of the "Little Shop" actresses for the role of Ariel.
Biever played the piano for the audition.
"[Ashman] got out this crumbled piece of paper that he had jotted down this song from the movie on - it turned out to be 'Part of Your World,'" he said. "I was actually one of the first people to play 'Part of Your World.' I got through playing it and said, 'Wow, that's beautiful.'"
Biever and Benson had talked about collaborating on a performance even before he got the State Theatre job. But once the show was scheduled, he got the idea to add a choir of local children to the performance.
"Because my wife and I have a studio in town called Singing On Stage and we work with a lot of kids ... 'The Little Mermaid' is so beloved by children, that we thought it would be a good tie-in," Biever said.
Auditions were held and 120 kids, ages 6 to 18, were selected to perform. Each show will feature 60 of the children performing one song as a group and two songs with Benson. The shows will also feature performances from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts dance school in Spring Mills and Benson dueting with a pair of Penn State musical theater students.
Biever said the children's choir auditions increased awareness for the show and drove ticket sales.
"When we announced the auditions, that's when [the show] really caught fire," he said. "Obviously, people don't know her name as much as they know what she's done. It's interesting, especially with the younger kids who've just heard her voice [for the first time]."
The shock at Ariel's voice coming from a live person even affected Benson's own children, who are now 11 and 13.
"They each had their own moment of time at about 2 1/2 and 3 and they were watching 'The Little Mermaid,'" she said. "And if I was standing beside the TV singing at the same time, it was a little bizarre [to the kids].
"They both started crying and I was like, 'No, that wasn't supposed to happen!'"
Mirror Staff Writer Keith Frederick is at 946-7466.