A confession: when I got an email asking if I’d be interested in speaking with Tony winner Laura Benanti, I replied immediately with an all-caps “YES.” I saw her in the short-lived Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, for which she received her fourth Tony nomination; I was blown away by her standout number, “Model Behavior,” which I still contend is one of the best musical theatre songs in recent years. I was excited to see her later turn up on both The Playboy Club and Go On, two TV shows that eventually were canceled. (You may remember Benanti performing at the Tonys earlier this year with Smash‘s Megan Hilty and The New Normal‘s Andrew Rannells; the three hilariously lamented their TV failures).
She’s returned to New York and her first love, having recently released her first solo album, In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention, (recorded live at 54 Below), and she’ll be appearing in the live television production of The Sound of Music as Elsa Schrader opposite Carrie Underwood. I spoke with her yesterday about recording her live show, The Sound of Music production, and her return to New York.
Flavorwire: I was listening to your album this week and really enjoyed it. Was that something that you always wanted to do, like a live cabaret recording?
Laura Benanti: It’s not something I ever thought about doing, honestly. I love doing my show. It’s one of my favorite aspects of what I do for a living. It’s probably my favorite job. But I hadn’t even thought of doing anything like that until Broadway Records approached me and asked me if I wanted to do it. I had never done an album before and I’ve been saying I was gonna do it for so many years and I thought, “Well, this is the perfect introduction to recording — y’know, kill two birds with one stone.”
Right, absolutely. It seems like pretty seamless. I think, as someone who does a lot of theatre, it’s a completely different kind of performance style. How long have you been doing that sort of show?
Since… I want to say 2009 or 2010. It was at the Kennedy Center, at the Barbara Cook event, that was the first time I ever did it. And I just was hooked after that, and I feel like each show has just gotten better and better and more defined, and I’ve enjoyed myself more and I feel more and more relaxed.
I know you wrote a couple of things for this show. Is that something that you’ve always been doing while also acting?
Yeah. When I was younger, I wrote a lot, and then when I started working professionally, I wrote less. I wrote, like, in my late teens and early 20s, and then life sort of intervened and I, for whatever reason, stopped writing. Over the past year or so, I sort of picked it back up again.
Something that I think is really interesting about your career is that you started fairly young and had immediate successes in some huge shows like The Sound of Music, Into the Woods, and Gypsy. It’s rare that you see a young actress really nail it on Broadway like that.
Aww, thank you.
Oh, you’re welcome!
They were all in college. That’s why.
Good point. But do you still have dream roles, like, waiting for revivals to happen so you can swoop in?
Oh, yeah. Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, hands down, number one, and then everything Sondheim. But Eliza Doolittle is my number one thing.
I can see that. Can you tell me a little about The Sound of Music, which you did on Broadway as Maria? Is it shooting in New York or is it in LA?
It’s shooting in New York, in Long Island on the soundstage. Yeah, it’s not in front of a live audience.
Have you started rehearsing for that yet?
Oh yeah, we’ve been rehearsing for a month. We’re rehearsing like it’s a Broadway show, and then opening night will be on television.
Can you talk about what’s different about rehearsing as a normal show where you have previews and you’re actually playing to an audience? Is it completely different?
You know, as of right now, we’ve been in the rehearsal studio, so it feels very much like rehearsing a Broadway show. I think once we get out to Long Island, which we do on the 14th of November, and we start to see, y’know… there’s camera blocking and a crew and all of that. I think then, we’re gonna realize really what we’re doing. But right now, we’ve been just rehearsing in a taped-off rehearsal room like you do for every Broadway show. Thus far, it hasn’t felt any different to me, but I’m sure it will come the 14th.
I assume that it’s going be filmed kind of like a television show, rather than a Great Performances production on PBS?
Oh, it’s gonna be like a television show. Yeah, this is the stage version, so it’s not a remake of the movie.
A lot of people that I’ve talked to about The Sound of Music know the movie version much better. Because it doesn’t get revived very often, and I feel like most people, if they’ve seen the stage show, it was at a community theatre or they were in it in high school or something, so it’s a lot different — especially with your character, because you actually get to sing! So that’s an exciting thing to be a part of.
And I know you’re on Nurse Jackie as well this season.
Yes, which I’m very excited about. I’m actually shooting that today.
So that’s what you’re kind of bouncing between while you’re in New York.
Yes, yes. I’m doing that and tons of readings, and I’m performing with The Skivvies this coming Saturday at 54 Below [Ed. note: see video of the performance here], which is fun, and then I’m doing The Most Happy Fella at City Center Encores in April.
Oh, right. So you’re in New York for a while then.
Yeah, I’m in New York for a while. I’m hoping to be in New York forever! That’s my goal.
You joked about your experience working on two canceled TV shows in your show and in an amazing number on the Tonys earlier this year. Did the television experience kind of make you want to just be back in New York full-time?
Well, it wasn’t the television experience — I loved being in Chicago shooting The Playboy Club. I’m not a big LA person. I’m an East Coast girl, I’m a New Yorker. I miss my friends and my family too much when I’m there. But it’s funny, I don’t think of those experiences as negative experiences at all. Most people don’t get to be on TV ever, and the people who have hits, you know, the Modern Familys of the world, that’s like winning the lottery. There’s no possible way when you sign on for a pilot to know what it’s gonna be, so I just feel grateful that I’m able to go back and forth in television and musical theatre and straight theatre, and I feel lucky that I haven’t pigeonholed myself into only doing one thing. Not that there’s anything wrong with doing one thing, obviously, but it’s more fun and there’s more work when you branch out. Those experiences have certainly broadened my marketability in terms of TV, so now I’m able to do Nurse Jackie and Royal Pains and Law & Order and all these other things that I’ve been doing, so I feel grateful that I’ve had the experiences that I’ve had.
Other than The Most Happy Fella, are you looking at any projects that are happening soon, or is it just feeling things out and doing readings and stuff like that?
Right now, I’ve been doing a lot of readings, but yeah, there are some things that I’m talking about, but I obviously can’t talk about them yet.
Obviously. In terms of readings, are there things that people typically approach you to do? Are there things that you hear about and put your own feelers out with your own interests? How does that work?
It’s mostly people contacting me or my agents and saying they have a project that they’re doing a reading for. Yeah, and doing a reading doesn’t mean that you’re going to do the production or that they even want you to, but it’s good to get in on the ground floor. I think it’s always good to hear new work, and it’s good to just keep your mind fresh in that way, you know?
What was the first thing that turned you on to wanting to do this sort of work? Was there an early theatre-going experience that shaped you?
No, there’s not a timeline. I can’t remember not wanting to do this. I can’t even remember. I was so little. I’m sure it was something Disney. We had, like, a bootleg tape of a live Snow White, and I literally wore that out. That and Annie. And my mom is a performer and a voice teacher, and my dad Marty is a performer, so I don’t know. I can’t pinpoint a specific moment. It’s been every moment.