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'Little Mermaid' endures under the sea

The Baltimore Sun

LOS ANGELES -- The Little Mermaid, re-released on a special edition DVD, became an instant family classic when it first hit theaters in 1989, and 17 years later, actress Jodi Benson articulates its enduring appeal.

It's "a classic fairy tale, the first one for our studio since Sleeping Beauty in '61," says Benson, who provided the voice of the title character. "But then to add the music to it, you know, to really make it like a Broadway musical, is what makes it so magical."

Composer Alan Menken, who won Oscars for the film's score as well as the original song "Under the Sea" with lyricist Howard Ashman, sees much to identify with in the tale of the mermaid Ariel who falls for a human despite her father's disapproval.

"It's got a wonderful innocence about Ariel," says Menken. "As a father, I look at it as a story of a father giving his daughter away, or allowing her her independence. It's about a young woman who ... dreams of going to this other world. It's really like a rite of passage.

"It's a very heartfelt musical, a genuine musical. It's a score that is very guileless," he adds. "I think it reflects the best of the Disney animated musicals, and it also brought the contemporary musical into a marriage with Disney animation."

When the opportunity came to audition, Benson tapped into her inner mermaid without any prompting.

"[Directors Ron Clements and John Musker] will tell you, 'We didn't know what we wanted till we heard it. Then we heard it; then we wanted it,'" says Benson. "So I think it was just meant to be."

Menken and Ashman had already known Benson as a Broadway chorus girl.

"Jodi [is] not a pure soprano," Menken says. "She's got this wonderful mixed belt, which just floats, and was perfect for Ariel."

While playing Ariel boosted Benson's career, Menken's time on the film helped change the face of the Oscars. After winning those first two Academy Awards, the composer won six more for Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and Pocahontas. Both credit Ashman, a Baltimore native, for the shape of their success; he died in 1991 from AIDS.

Ashman had persuaded Menken to try his hand at scoring, and guided Benson in how to perform her songs.

"[He did] everything -- every single line of every single character he has said, either on a tape or to your face," says Benson. "And every song, he's played all the characters. ... He just knew it better than anybody else."

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