By Maureen Lee Lenker
February 22, 2019 at 10:00 AM EST

Imagine if you will, a mermaid swimming under the sea alongside her fish friend Flounder to uncover the treasures of a human world from a shipwreck — only instead of the vibrant, red-headed Ariel we know and love, she’s blonde!

It almost happened, according to Jodi Benson, who gave voice to Ariel in the original 1989 Disney film The Little Mermaid and various sequels and television series since. The film celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, and Disney is releasing a new Disney Signature Collection Blu-ray packed with bonus features in honor of the milestone.

“I remember the first thumbnail sketches,” Benson tells EW of the first iterations of Ariel. “She had blonde hair. She looked like one of the exaggerated faces from [the] Peter Pan era. She looked a little bit glamorous and a little bit mature to me.”

Those were some of the earliest concepts for Ariel, and Benson says the look of the character shifted a great deal once she came onboard with animator Glen Keane adjusting to her performance and sound. “He was like, ‘The voice is what gives the character life,'” Benson recalls Keane saying. “‘She’s just on the page right now, but when you started to speak, she came alive and now I can see her and get a sense of who she is.'”

Benson doesn’t know exactly where the idea for Ariel to have red hair came from but that it was a part of her evolution overall. “I was like, ‘Oh, she’s blonde. Cinderella was blonde, and Sleeping Beauty is kind of auburn-y colored, blonde-ish…That’s interesting we’re going to do another blonde.’ Then it started to evolve,” she explains. “I remember being like, ‘Woah, she’ll be the first red-headed Disney princess, wow, that’s big!’ If we’re going to make that bold statement, then we need to just jump in.”

When Benson signed on to The Little Mermaid, she had never done voiceover work before. She was recruited to audition by lyricist Howard Ashman after appearing on Broadway in Smile, which he wrote and directed. Ashman was a producer on the film, launching what would become an iconic partnership with Disney before his untimely death from complications from AIDS in 1991.

For Benson, it was a bit of learning curve. “I was acting it out as if I were onstage and I’m also Italian — I use my hands — so I kept hitting the microphone. I was driving the engineers crazy,” she giggles, Ariel’s bubbly laugh still instantly recognizable.

Ultimately, it was Ashman’s tutelage and patience (and ability to wear many hats) that helped her find Ariel’s voice. “Ron [Clements] and John [Musker], our directors, were so kind to let Howard come in the booth and record with me,” she explains. “He played all the parts. Because he knew them better than anybody else. Especially when it comes to the vocals. He could play all the parts and sing all the parts and interpret all the lyrics so beautifully. We figured out who Ariel was between Howard’s leading and me following and just trying to grasp what it was he was wanting me to get from the character.”

Benson did have one significant factor in common with Ariel, however — an affinity for water. She says she’s been a swimmer her entire life and grew up with an indoor swimming pool in Illinois, which was quite rare. “We moved to a house when I was four that had an indoor pool. It was so fun. I started swimming when I was four, so that was a no brainer,” she laughs. “I felt really comfortable making that connection with Ariel because I did grow up swimming and near the water and loved it.”

At the time that production began on the film, it had been years since Disney animation had a feature film hit on a large scale, but Benson says it felt like business as usual for her. “Having just worked with Howard on a Broadway show, it was not foreign,” she explains. “It was the norm — we all got together; we did a table read; we sat around in a circle with Howard and [composer] Alan [Menken] at the piano singing all the parts. I didn’t realize this was something different. That Disney had not participated in this type of creation process before. But it was familiar to me coming from Broadway.”

She never felt any pressure or expectation for the film to revitalize the animation department, though it ultimately did, kickstarting what is often called the Disney renaissance. However, she says she was cognizant that things seemed “weird” with the animators not on the Disney lot, but in trailers offsite in Burbank.

“I just remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, what would Walt think about all of this?'” she recalls. “His foundation of the studio is animation, and that’s so sad. But I did not put all of that together thinking that our film was going to make this huge change forever. I didn’t have a clue to that.”

Thirty years later, Benson is still best-known for voicing Ariel, regularly making appearances at Disney events and concerts, as well as continuing to voice the character (most recently in 2018’s Ralph Breaks the Internet). When she speaks of her connection to Disney and the little mermaid that changed everything, it’s clear there’s still a deep affection there.

One thing, however, stands out above the others when it comes to being associated with Ariel. “I’m proud of her tenacious spirit. I love the fact that she keeps knocking on doors even when they’re closed. She keeps pushing forward without ever giving up,” Benson muses. “I have that tenacity in me. I feel like I brought that to the character by growing up in a small town and wanting to be a Broadway performer having never seen a Broadway show. [I didn’t know] what the heck I was talking about, but I was tenacious.”

Ariel has been tenacious indeed — being an iconic part of the Disney canon for three decades and counting.

Watch the clip above for more on the making of the film. The Little Mermaid Disney Signature Collection edition is available on digital now and on Blu-ray Feb. 26.

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