EXCLUSIVE: On March 13, two days after the coronavirus was declared a pandemic, Broadway’s Tony Award-winning Laura Benanti walked outside of her parents’ home in New Jersey – where the actress-singer was isolating with her husband and three-year-old daughter – and gave what might be the closest thing to a commencement address many students will experience this year.
Benanti, who won the Tony for 2008’s Gypsy, was a standout as Baroness Elsa Schräder in NBC’s 2013 The Sound of Music Live!, and was more Melania than Melania herself in recurring appearances on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, turned on her phone camera and began talking, commiserating with high school students across the country whose musical productions had been scuttled by the pandemic. She urged the kids to send their video performances to her, to be seen.
Benanti expected maybe 20 submissions. The total is now more than 6,000 – and counting.
Now the actress is taking the project she calls SunshineSongs a step further: On May 2, she will host a special livestream concert made up of those student videos – along with some live performances – giving students who’d thought their work would go unseen a national audience. After that, Benanti and friend Kate Deiter-Maradei will partner with three companies to turn the video submissions into 30-minute collections, to be shown at senior living centers and children’s hospitals. (A website, SunshineSongs.com, has additional information about the livestream special).
Those endeavors come fast on the heels of Benanti’s just-released version of the Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker,” along with a video that includes some of those students, her family and friends and a tribute to the doctors and nurses putting their lives on the line. All proceeds from the single will go to the charitable organization FoodCorps.
In this column for Deadline, Benanti explains what inspired her to reach out, why she wasn’t surprised at Broadway’s response, and more.
Benanti recently spoke to Deadline about these projects, about what motivated her to reach out, and the response she’s gotten from students and more than a few Broadway stars. Theater, she says, “is how we tell our stories, and I think it always will be.”
The following column is by Benanti as told to Deadline. It has been edited and condensed.
My mom is a voice teacher. The day that my husband and my daughter and I came to stay with my parents in New Jersey, very, very early on, the first day of the quarantine, she was saying how all of her students’ school shows were being canceled and that she was really sad for them and worried about them. So I thought, you know, maybe I’ll take to social media, and I know it’s not the same as their communities getting to actually see all the hard work they’ve put into their performances, but at least it’s something, to know that I’m watching and I want to see them. I thought it would be like 20 videos or something, but I’ve received more than 6,000 submissions, and there’s no sign of it stopping. I’ve watched every single one and have commented on every single one and it’s not slowing down, and that makes me incredibly happy.
And now it’s not just school kids who didn’t get to do their musicals, but little kids and older people and painters and dancers and poets, artists of all kinds reaching out. What I really love, and as I said I’ve looked at them all, is I’ve not seen one negative comment on any single one of the posts, which for the Internet is unheard of.
I think it caught on in part because of the timing – it was the first day of quarantine and nothing quite like it existed yet. So I think part of it was timing, frankly.
But I also think that school musicals are not just for the kids performing, but for the community as well. They bring communities together, and it’s a way that we can connect. Everybody knows somebody whose high school musical or middle school musical was canceled and they know how devastating it was to the kids.
I hesitate to play favorites because I don’t want to turn SunshineSongs into a contest, but there definitely are stories that I was incredibly moved by. There is a young man, who actually is in my “Sucker” music video, who was supposed to be Seymour in his high school production of Little Shop of Horrors. And what moved me about his post is that one of the reasons why he was so disappointed not to be able to perform it is because he wanted to show his community that a person of his size – he’s larger – could be a leading man. I was extremely moved by that. There’s a young woman named Khadija who is from Union High School and sang a song from Once On This Island, and she is just such an extraordinary talent and such a beautiful person and spirit.
A little boy named Noah, who is five, he has Down syndrome, and he posted a SunshineSong, and through that I’ve now become friends with both of his dads, who adopted him at birth and who live outside of Detroit. There are so many people that I feel I’ve connected with through this, and a lot of parents are reaching out to say they’re so grateful that their child has something to focus on right now. Not to get too deeply into this, but the physiological benefits of singing are undeniable. Just the breath that it requires in order to sustain a note calms the nervous system. It’s calming for the person singing and it’s calming for the person listening. There’s no downside.
This generation of young people self-identifies as anxious more than any previous generation in our nation’s history. That’s a big deal to me. We’re dealing with mental health and anxiety on a large scale.
So now there’s a combination of a predisposition toward anxiety, isolation, along with not knowing what is fact and what is fiction, not knowing when it will end and then having the one thing that they really looked forward to and put so much hard work into all year long, to have that taken away from them, I just really was concerned about their mental health. I’m not like “musical theater can save the world!” But I genuinely feel like we have to connect with each other as people to survive. And I wanted these kids to know that someone was there for them, that they were not alone. That someone was there to see them, which is why it’s important to me that I watch and comment on each video. I want them to know this is not just lip service, I’m really there.
Now I’ve been able to take it even further. My friend Kate Deiter-Maradei, a mediator and community activist outside of Raleigh, and I have partnered with three companies: K4Connect, Prompt and Seniorly to take SunshineSongs submissions and turn them into 30 minute concert specials, which we will then provide to residents in senior living communities and children’s hospitals. This is purely charitable. Nobody’s making any money for this.
View this post on Instagram
Dark times for all. Trying to find some bright spots. If you were meant to perform in your High School musical and it was cancelled please post yourself singing, tag me and use the hashtag #SunshineSongs so whoever wants to can be your audience!! Sending all my love and black market toilet paper. 💛
Our website SunshineSongs.com will host our first concert, a live viewing party on Saturday, May 2 at 6 p.m. Eastern Standard time. I’m hosting it, we’ll show some of the videos and a couple of the kids will be performing live, and I’ll be interviewing them. And we’ll have some residents from a senior living facility that we’ll interact with. So we’re creating an intergenerational concert of sorts for people who are not on social media but who really need connection right now. They really need human connection. And what better way to do that than through song?
What I can say is that with initiatives like SunshineSongs, where we’re getting to see how incredibly talented these kids are, we will all figure out ways to continue on the great tradition of theater. Theater is primal. It’s what we’ve been doing since we started standing on two legs, living in caves and painting on walls. It’s how we tell our stories, and I think it always will be.
I recorded an album that will be released at some point – everything is sort of TBD right now in the world – and we always meant to release a single from the album around this time. But the single we were originally going to go with ultimately was just not the right call for the times we’re in. So we went through the song list, which is 11 songs, and “Sucker” was really the one song that I felt could make sense in terms of what we’re all dealing with. The idea of monetizing it, though, felt wrong to me, so I chose to donate 100% of my earnings from it to FoodCorps, an organization that I have a lot of respect for. They’re a very boots-on-the-ground organization, their members are part of the communities in which they serve because hunger certainly is not a one-size-fits-all situation. In the U. S. one out of six children relies on their school cafeteria for the majority of their nutrition, so FoodCorps makes sure that during this time no kids go hungry. And beyond that, they work tirelessly to point out and deal with the deep-seated inequities in our education and health care systems. I’m very proud to be donating my proceeds to them.
With the music video, I felt like I had an opportunity to create a bit of a time capsule in terms of what we’re all going through. I reached out to my family and friends, I reached out to people on social media and asked how they were being of service in their communities. Most importantly, I wanted to honor the medical professionals who are putting themselves on the line for all of us. They have families that they can’t see. My friend Joy is pregnant and has two little children, and her husband is in the video swabbing people. She hasn’t seen him in five weeks. So I wanted to bring some joy to people through the song, to honor the time we live in as well as the people who are working so hard to make this horrific time safer for all of us.
I come from a really small town – 89 kids in my graduating class and none of them were interested in musicals but me. So we didn’t have a theater program – our science teacher directed our musicals. For me, it felt like survival. It felt like the thing that I could put my time and attention and creativity in that made me feel like I wasn’t just whittling away my life. That’s how it felt living in my rural town, like I was just going to crumble to dust if I didn’t get to do something, and theater was the thing I got to do. It felt important to me, and that’s why I knew how important it is to these kids. I wanted them to know that someone is recognizing that.
The Broadway community – my community – were these kids. I’m never surprised when Broadway rallies around people at a time of need. In the ’80s, when no one would even say the word AIDS, Broadway Cares was already raising money to help find a cure and help people in need. You know, you don’t get into Broadway or theater because you want to be rich and famous, because that doesn’t really happen. You do it because you love it and you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else, and you want to feel your heart beating in the same space as 1,000 other hearts while you sing to them. That’s a very different thing than going to Hollywood. The people in this community were the kids for whom the high school musical was a lifesaver, sometimes literally, and so to have Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ben Platt and Stephanie J. Block and Haley Kilgore and so many Broadway luminaries commenting on and continuing to comment on those student videos, does it warm my heart? 100%. Does it surprise me? Absolutely not. I don’t take it for granted, but I would have been shocked if they hadn’t. This is a community that lifts people up. This is a community that rallies around. That’s why, no matter how much television or film I do, in my bones, in my marrow, I will always be a theater person. Always.