Ask anybody who knows me and they'll tell you that one of my favorite Disney movies is "The Little Mermaid". I find it to be a wonderful musical with riveting lyrics. "Under The Sea" is playful and "Poor, Unfortunate Souls" is scary. There's one song for me that stands out from all of them. "Part Of Your World" is a heart-rending ballad about wanting something better in your life. It's a theme that many people can relate to. We all have our own roads to travel and a song like this helps to inspire you.
If there's one thing a song inspires, it's cover versions. Some of them are great and some of them have you wanting to do to your radio what Elvis did to his TV set, but for better or for worse, cover versions have always been around and they'll be here after we're gone. Several women have recorded their takes on "Part Of Your World" (and the songwriter, the much-missed Howard Ashman, had his recordings released posthumously) over the course of the past decade-and-a-half, and today I'll be comparing them and ranking them from terrific to merely good.
A brief note: Ashman's section is the lengthiest due to the fact that the version of "Part Of Your World" you hear in "The Little Mermaid" had to go through several interesting changes.
Jodi Benson (1989): Beginning at the beginning (always a good place to start) is Jodi Benson's rendition of the song. Jodi is a theater veteran, and her interpretation hits all the highs and lows, both in notes and emotion. Starting off gently, she eventually powers her voice all the way to the back of the audience. It's enough to make you give her a standing ovation. On top of that, it's impressive how despite being in her late 20s at the time she recorded her vocals, she sounded just like a teenager.
Howard Ashman (1994): You can thank this man in part for Disney's Silver Age. With his lyrics and scripts for "The Little Mermaid", "Beauty And The Beast" and "Aladdin", he helped take Disney back to the top. Unfortunately, he was taken from us in 1991 due to AIDS. To honor his memory, Disney released a box set of the songs of Ashman, his writing partner Alan Menken and Menken's post-Ashman collaborator Tim Rice. Besides the original songs and the Top-40 versions, we're also treated to worktape and demo versions of the songs. On this compilation, we can find Ashman performing "Part Of Your World" in 2 variants. Ashman's voice had a Rick Moranis quality to it, and that's said with affection, considering that Moranis sang often on the various "Second City Television" programs and performed well in the movie version of Ashman and Menken's musical adaptation of "Little Shop Of Horrors". A guy's voice is a guy's voice, and to hear lyrics like "Wouldn't you think I'm the girl/The girl who has everything?" being sung by a man can swerve you, yet it works somehow. Being as this is a work tape version, the lyrics are different in some cases.
Movie version: "I've got gadgets and gizmos a-plenty/I've got whozits and whatzits galore/You want thingamabobs? I got 20/But who cares? No big deal...I want more."
Work tape version: "I should start an aquatic museum/I've got gadgets and whatzits galore/All these fish'd pay money to see 'em/But who cares? No big deal...I want more."
In addition, Ashman also performs a reprise of the song that didn't make it into the movie. The lyrics are bleaker, and they also set up the Faustian angle of the story. I guess Disney execs weren't exactly thrilled with lyrics like:
"I won't get free 'til I can be part of your world...I'd give my life/I'd sell my soul/'Cause I can feel I'll never be whole/But I can see I'll never be part of your world"
Marketing martyrdom would've been a new kick for Disney (Lord knows they've marketed everything else), but in the end, whimsy prevailed and it was probably for the best, because (personal analysis here) lyrics like those above walk around the edge of suicide.
If you want Ashman's versions, you might have to bring out some bank. They're featured in a box set called "The Music Behind The Magic", and it's currently out-of-print. If it's Disney and it's out-of-print, you're either going to part with big dough or get a bootleg. Caveat Emptor.
Faith Hill (1996): This country charmer added her own twang to the ballad on the album "The Best Of Country Sings The Best Of Disney". As a bonus, she even does the spoken interlude. (You know..."Maybe he's right. Maybe there is something the matter with me..."). I think she does a pretty decent job. Her country sound gives what is basically a show tune a connection to the heartland, which is derisively thought of by many people on both coasts as "flyover country". Maybe being part of your world means moving to a city for a person in a country town. Hill isn't the only country singer to put her spin on this...
Chely Wright (2000): The equally lovely and talented Ms. Wright contributed her styling of "Part Of Your World" to the soundtrack of "The Little Mermaid 2: Return To The Sea". How pathetic is the sequel that the only good song in the movie comes from the first "Little Mermaid"? Even when fighting a losing battle, it's how much you give that counts. Ms. Wright gives her all and comes up aces. Too bad her reindition was in a DTV sequel. Although popular on video, I would have to say that creatively, this movie is at the bottom of the ocean. And somewhere next to the sequel, you'll find our next contender:
Jessica Simpson (September 17th, 2002): Before she and Nick Lachey took a chunk of cash from Viacom to further urinate upon the name of the once-great MTV with yet another reality series, Ms. Simpson was known primarily as a teen pop singer. As such, she contributed her take on what has become a Disney standard to the first "Disneymania" album. I enjoy drum machines and synthesizers as much as the next guy, but I think they were a little too prevalent on this piece. Her vocals were nothing to write home about, either...That was until I downloaded a sample MP3 on Amazon of another rendition by a pre-fab Disney pop group called:
Radio Disney's Pop Dreamers (August 20th, 2002): Vocoders, double-time beats, squealy teen-pop vocals a la Britney Spears...All I can say is that Disney blotted Ashman's memory with this version.
It's all in the interpretations. Most of it is good, but some of it is nasty.
Henceforth, from 1 to 7, best to worst, I give you:
The "Part Of Your World" Countdown
1.) Jodi Benson, "The Little Mermaid", 1989
2.) Howard Ashman, Work Tape version, "The Music Behind The Magic", 1994
3.) Chely Wright, "The Little Mermaid 2: Return To The Sea", 2000 (Movie only)
4.) Faith Hill, "The Best Of Country Sings The Best Of Disney", 1996
5.) Howard Ashman, Reprise, "The Music Behind The Magic", 1994
6.) Jessica Simpson, "Disneymania", September 17th, 2002
7.) Radio Disney's Pop Dreamers, self-titled, August 20th, 2002
So, in conclusion, if it's Jodi Benson, the late Howard Ashman or a country singer, it's cool. If it's a teen pop star, don't say I didn't warn you.
An addendum: They talked about "The Little Mermaid" on "I Love The 80s 3-D". Commentator Rachael Harris sang a few lyrics from the chorus and I must say that she had an amazing voice. The reason why she isn't on this list is because she didn't sing the whole thing. If she did, she'd be number 3 with a bullet.