Who is Laura Benanti? Who isn’t she? might be the better question: Segueing from Nashville‘s rising C&W starlet-turned-victim Sadie Stone to Supergirl’s doomed-but-wise mom Alura Zor-El, not to mention playing Captain Georg von Trapp’s ill-fated fiancée Ilsa on The Sound Of Music Live, garnering most of that show’s best reviews (even if Carrie Underwood’s Maria got the Captain) would cover only the last couple of TV seasons for someone who considers herself first and foremost a Broadway denizen. There were arcs on Nurse Jackie and The Good Wife and a heavily promoted, under-dressed stint as First Bunny Carol-Lynne on NBC’s short-lived Playboy Club.
Benanti’s range, however, is even more impressive on the stage side of her CV, beginning in 1999 with her Broadway debut as fellow nunnabe understudy and later replacement for Rebecca Luker’s Maria in another revival of Sound Of Music. A five-time nominee, she won her first Tony Award in 2008 for featured performance by an actress in a musical, for her knockout turn in the title role of Gypsy, the Arthur Laurents-staged revival starring Patti LuPone (also Tonied) as Rose. Other more disparate revivals included Nine and Into The Woods. But it has been in new work as well that Benanti has proven equally adept at drama and comedy, including the spottily brilliant Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown to the compelling dramedy In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play.
And here she is with her first leading-lady Tony nomination for another title role, in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of She Loves Me. You probably know more about the show than you think, since this musical is one of those rare gems better known for its antecedents and offspring than the thing itself. It’s based on the same Miklós László comedy that became Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 hit The Shop Around The Corner with James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, and half a century later Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. She Loves Me is the 1963 musical Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock scored (with book author Joe Masteroff) before Fiddler On The Roof, one of the biggest hits of all time (and also revived this season), and it was the first show staged from start to opening night by Harold Prince, heretofore known as a producer. It’s so Old World — a model of craftsmanship, tonal balance and joy, tempered with a smidgen of middle-European existentialism — it’s practically modern.
As it happens, She Loves Me also was the first Broadway musical revival presented by the Roundabout, more than two decades ago. Set in a Budapest parfumerie, it concerns two disputatious clerks who, unbeknownst to one another, are secret epistolary lovers through a
“People are very comfortable boxing women into particular roles, like the madonna / whore complex, or a Bunny. You’re the girl next door. You’re hot. You’re sweet. So I feel compartmentalized quite a bit…In any other show Amalia might be vaguely boring or only concerned about a man, [instead] is a fiery go-getter. The first time we see her, she is getting a job that she needs, and then we get to see her sort of soft underbelly, her romanticism.”
lonely-hearts club. They meet uncute when Benanti’s Amalia Balash enters Maraczek’s Parfumerie in search of work, only to be rejected by Zachary Levi’s imperious Georg Nowack — until Amalia seizes an opportunity to show off her innate salesmanship in front of Georg and Mr. Maraczek himself. In a nice switch, among Benanti’s co-stars are Jane Krakowski, also of the Nine revival, as Amalia’s sexy comic foil. Which is what led to my first question.
DEADLINE: I want to go back to something you mentioned when we talked right after the nominations, when you called it a triumph for “silly sopranos.”
BENANTI: Silly? I did? Because I’m silly? What do you mean?
DEADLINE: You said it! You said that one of the great things about the nomination was it was a tribute to the silly soprano as a character role.
BENANTI: Oh, yeah, I am silly. I feel like in life in general…OK I’ll just make it about the arts. I feel like people are very comfortable boxing women into particular roles, like the madonna/whore complex, or a Bunny. You’re the girl next door. You’re hot. You’re sweet. So I feel compartmentalized quite a bit when I’m performing, and I always try to bring humanity, and levels, and layers of true feeling to any role that I’m playing.
But sometimes it can be challenging when you feel like, Wow, I’m playing a stereotype. I’m playing a man’s idea of what a woman is. So, to be in a musical written in 1962, to have these two fully drawn female characters of Ilona [Krakowski] and Amalia, to have Ilona be the sort of comic relief, but she has so much heart, and she’s going on this journey to no longer be a woman that men throw away, is a very brave thing to talk about at any point in time, but particularly the ’60s.
DEADLINE: And Amalia?
BENANTI: In any other show Amalia, who is our leading lady, might be vaguely boring or only concerned about a man, or how she looks, or how she’s perceived. To have Amalia be a fiery go-getter who, the first time we see her, she is getting a job that she needs, and then we get to see her sort of soft underbelly, her romanticism.
DEADLINE: And a little silly?
BENANTI: Yes! As a soprano, it’s very rare to get to be funny, and silly, and witty, and have tremendous heart, and pathos, and intelligence. For me, playing this role feels like a culmination of all the things I try to do well in my job and in my life. So I feel enormously grateful to get to sing this operatic, tremendously difficult score, but then also have the audience laugh and be with me on this journey. Sometimes it feels like a slog, when you’re the soprano when you’re like, Come on, come with me! This is hard, and the audience is like, Yeah, but we want the other, the belter, to come out and make us laugh. So it’s extremely gratifying to be in this beautiful production that’s been handled to masterfully by Scott Ellis and to be in this company of actors.
DEADLINE: Your music director is Paul Gemignani, forever associated with Hal Prince and especially the musicals of Stephen Sondheim. And a genius. Did he play a large part in this revival?
BENANTI: Oh yes. He’s amazing. He’s incredible. I did Into The Woods with him, too. So I’ve loved him since I was 22 years old.
DEADLINE: My own discovery, going back a long time ago, was realizing that a lot of what we associate as the “Sondheim sound” is significantly the Gemignani sound.
BENANTI: Oh, it’s the Gemignani sound. He moves it along. There’s no need to let the audience get ahead of you, and that’s what I love about it, is that he’s all about the acting, as is Mr. Sondheim. It’s all about let’s tell the story. He lets you make it your own. He doesn’t come in and go, This is how it’s going to be done. He’s, What key do you want to do it in? Well, maybe we should stop here. Maybe we should put in a musical break here. You know, he is just more than happy to tailor it to your version of this character, which is so helpful. There’s nothing worse than coming into a rigid idea of what somebody wants you to do, because, in a musical, the singing is the continuation of the scene. So it flows effortlessly because of Paul.
DEADLINE: Is this the first operetta-style show you’ve done?
BENANTI: No. Most Happy Fella I did at City Center Encores. And I did [Sondheim’s] A Little Night Music at the LA Opera. Certainly, Into the Woods [Sondheim, too] has its moment of true legit soprano, but singing in a legit soprano, I just love it so much. It’s how I was meant to sing, and it’s refreshing for me to not have to be like, all right, I’m fake belting, and I’m mixing. I really, really enjoy singing this type of music, and I will say I wish people would write for the soprano more.
DEADLINE: I can’t imagine a better part than what you’re playing now, but what have you not done that you would love to do?
BENANTI: Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady.
DEADLINE: You also told me that you don’t have the “tone” for grand opera. What does that mean?
BENANTI: I don’t have the fullness of tone, I don’t think. I could be a lyric soprano in the opera, but I could not be a true coloratura soprano and I would never claim to be. It’s funny, because sometimes people say to me you should sing opera, and I’m like, Oh, if any real opera singers heard you say that, they’d be like, how dare you? I would love to sing lyric soprano in an opera, but for me, the acting is so important that that’s almost primary for me. So it would need to be the type of situation where that was understood.
DEADLINE: What’s been your happiest experience on television?
BENANTI: The Sound Of Music Live. That was a really happy experience because I felt like it used the full breadth of my abilities. What I find sometimes in television is I feel frustrated that I feel like I can do more. I am more than this, is sometimes what I feel, but I’m tremendously grateful for the experience, and I am tremendously grateful for the opportunity and the visibility that it gives me. I really loved being on Supergirl. I really loved being on Nashville.
I’m forever looking for the role that I feel will make audiences go, Oh, that’s it. We get it now. That’s what Sound of Music Live did for me. As an actor, I always thought, Oh, you just wait around, you wait for somebody to write you the perfect part, but that’s just not how it works anymore. So I really try to take my own career into my own hands a little bit more in terms of creating my own content and writing. I’m writing a comedic book of essays. I really like being funny. I know that sounds ridiculous in that most of what people have seen me on television doing is drama. I’ve done a lot of drama, but I’m not a dramatic person. I am a person who sees the world through the lens of humor.
DEADLINE: And other media?
BENANTI: Currently, I’m trying to figure out a hybrid in digital space, like a late night variety show. As a socially conscious person, I would like to incorporate that into my career, and this feels like a very good way to be funny, which I love; to create content, which I love; to learn about people, which I love; and to help people, which I love. Like John Oliver, what I love about him is that when you’re watching the show, he calls to your attention things that should incense you, and then it calls you to action to do something about it.
My goal would be to call attention to people doing something extraordinary in their lives and in their communities just to remind each other and ourselves that there are still good people doing wonderful things. It would be 30 minutes, and I would come out and do a monologue. Sometimes that would be songs. Sometimes it would be just a monologue. Then we’d have a famous person, and then we would bring out a man, woman, or child doing something extraordinary, and then there would be a gaming portion where, for 48 hours online, you could pay to play, and then the money would go to the organization that the civilian person is representing.
DEADLINE: I’m not sure how you tie all this together.
BENANTI: Here’s the thing for me. I want to play a human being. I want to play a fully fleshed-out human being. If that is on television, fine. If that it is in a movie, fine. If that’s on Broadway, great. Off-Broadway, great. If being famous was my goal, I would’ve taken a very different career path. Angela Lansbury is my idol for that. Julie Andrews is my idol for that. They are beautiful, but their career’s not predicated on it. They don’t have an expiration date. It’s not like their career is because they were on the cover of Maxim.
There was a moment there in my 20s where I felt like, should I be doing this? Should I be greasing myself up and posing in bikinis? And I did the cover of Playboy because I was in The Playboy Club. That remains my saddest moment where I was like, is this sexy? Is this right? I actually loved that show. My friend, Chad Hodge, wrote that show, and I felt like it had so much potential, and then, all of a sudden, it became about men and a murder mystery which I didn’t understand. So I just want to play people, and I just want to do it forever until I can’t do it anymore, and the platform, whatever the platform is, is what I want.
DEADLINE: I have to ask, if you had your druthers, what would you be concentrating on?
BENANTI: I always say Broadway. Broadway is my husband, and television is my mistress. So if I could just screw my husband all the time, I would, but sometimes I need to visit the mistress because I got to make some money.