Tony Award Winner and Broadway superstar, Laura Benanti is heading to Concord, MA for two-nights only at the Umbrella Arts Center! “An Evening with Laura Benanti” in Concord is coming up March 10th and 11th at 7:30pm! Tickets can be found at theumbrellaarts.org. Benanti has been seen in shows ranging from Broadway classics like She Loves Me and My Fair Lady to hidden gems like The Wedding Singer and Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, as well as numerous film and television appearances including her spot-on impressions of Melania Trump on Stephen Colbert.
Standing Room Only Host, Emelia Aragon sits down for an interview with the Broadway star ahead of her March concerts.
By Emelia Aragon, Host of Standing Room Only
What, to you, is the most important song in the set? What song really encapsulates what you want people to leave with at the end of the night?
Maybe “Both Sides Now”, which is a Joni Mitchell song, I've loved since I was young. I've always loved Joni Mitchell's voice because she was sort of a folk-star, pop-star who is a soprano. And I always loved that song, but I didn't really understand it (laughs) until having children and getting older. So I would say that one.
And then I do an encore called “Quiet Thing” where I sing off the microphone and only my voice, no accompaniment. And it's a song my mom used to sing to me when I was a little girl. So that's always really meaningful to me.
What parts of your story does doing this revue at The Umbrella Arts Center let you tell?
Oh, all of it. You know, basically all of the revues say that it's stand up comedy and music. And that is essentially what it is. You know, I think cabaret brings with it what can feel sort of antiquated. Just the name of it, the title of it, you sort of picture someone draped across a baby grand in like, a beret. But this is definitely more just stories about my life, stories about shows that I've been in, experiences that I've had, my children, my husband. It's all very conversational. There's nothing stuffy about it. You know, I want people to feel like we're all just hanging out in a room and I'm telling stories and singing songs.
You started so young and made your broadway debut at 18, understudying Maria in the Sound of Music, and at 19 took over the role! I can’t even begin to imagine how insane that must have all been at only 19. I’M 19 and that blows my mind, it’s just incredible. What was your apartment like? What was life like being so young and a part of something so huge and in such a big city?
Such a good question. You know, I hadn't been like a child actor. When I turned 13, I was allowed to do one community theater show a year. And then when I got into high school, I was allowed to do the spring musical and then one community show a year. So it's not like I was like a show-biz kid. I grew up in a really small, rural town in New Jersey. And though people don't necessarily think of New Jersey as rural, there are parts that are very woodsy and I grew up in one of them. There was really no arts program to speak of, you know, like our science teacher directed the musical, if that tells you anything. But I always took it really seriously. It was always my passion. And I think sometimes, and this is not [true] for everyone, but sometimes youth brings with it a confidence, you know? I was confident in my abilities and I sort of took my high school show as seriously as I took this Broadway show.
I think the challenge was, you know, I'd gotten into NYU on a scholarship. And then when I booked this job, they understandably had to revoke my scholarship because I wouldn't have been a full time student. Which meant I'd leave. So I think the biggest piece for me, if we're doing, like roses and thorns, the rose was certainly achieving my dream at 18 years old, being around such consummate professionals, you know, performing on Broadway. That was the thing I wanted to do my whole life, my whole 18 years of life.
But the thought, I think, was, you know, I went from my family home with my mom and dad and my sister to living in a studio apartment by myself, right on 43rd and 10th. And there was nobody my age in the show. I was closer in age to the children than to the grownups.
You know, the girl playing Liesl was only two years younger than me. So it was a little lonely in that respect. And I don't blame the grown ups for not wanting to, like, chill with a 19 year old kid. And you know, they were wonderful to me, but it's not like I was going to their houses and stuff and so I think that was the hardest bit for me.
And, you know, when you're in college, I imagine that there's stress there for sure. But you're alongside peers, right? And you're kind of allowed to fail. And if and when you do it, it's in an environment that's a little more sacred. When I failed, it was in front of everybody.
So that is a tremendous amount of pressure. I think because I always seemed like a grown up, and I felt a tremendous pressure to behave like one when I didn't. When I acted my age, people like thought I was difficult. I just sort of got in trouble for being the age that I was. But I'm also exceedingly grateful that I got my dreams so young, and then I was able to maintain it for so many years.
Yeah. That's incredible to hear. Thank you. It's such a fascinating contrast to hear about because, coming straight from high school here, to college, they do give us so much structure in which- especially within acting classes- to fail. Like they want us to, you know? In order to learn.
Yeah. And I think that impeded my acting for a while. You know, sometimes in musical theater, it's very result oriented. But in order to really get to the heart of something, you have to let yourself fail. You know, you have to have the good, the bad and the ugly, and I think because I was so concerned with putting out a proper product, I didn't allow myself to be in the moment enough to not always get it right. So I have spent quite some time sort of undoing that and allowing myself to get a little dirty, for lack of a better word.
Yeah. That makes so much sense. That makes me wonder what was the transition like for you? Because now you've done a lot of film and TV work. What was that transition like for you when you did start moving into doing more of that after doing a lot of Broadway?
You know, it's such a different skill set. I had only done theater, which, frankly, was my only goal in life. You know, I didn't ever imagine I'd be on TV or in movies. All I wanted to be was Julie Andrews. So at first I was so nervous that I think I was a little robotic in terms of my auditions and stuff. I wasn't able to tap into myself because I kind of didn't know who I was. You know, I spent so much time trying to be who everybody else wanted me to be, to please people, to be the sweet girl, the nice girl. And so I would go into an audition and be so afraid of failure, so afraid of disappointing people, that it was performative. It wasn't organic. So it took a while for me to learn how to bring the audience to me rather than me going to the audience. Because when you're on stage, there's a certain energetic level that has to happen in order for you to touch every single person in that theater. Not just the people right in front of you. While it needs to obviously be rooted and grounded in truth, there is something a little heightened about it. And so if the energy of theater is out, the energy of camerawork is in. You want the audience to lean in to you. And the camera's like a lie detector. You know, if you don't believe what you're saying, if you don't know what you're saying, you're screwed.
You know, the audience is not far enough away that you can sort of get away with it. There's no getting away with it. So it took me a little while to sort of, like, learn how to just be a person. And I think in part that's because that's what I was doing in real life.
Yeah! I'm in my first on camera acting class right now and that's a huge thing that we're talking about because most of us primarily have been on stage and it’s our first time doing stuff behind the camera.
You know, a really amazing actor said to me one time, if you're on set and you and your scene partner are rehearsing and someone comes up to you and says,
“I'm sorry to interrupt your conversation,” you're doing it right. If someone comes up to you and says, “Oh, I'm sorry to interrupt your rehearsal,” You're doing it wrong because they shouldn't be able to tell the difference between a conversation and you rehearsing. That really helped me.
But, you know, one other thing I wanted to mention about camerawork that can be frustrating is the editing process.
So when you're, you know, on stage, once the director leaves, you obviously want to implement everything you all worked on. You don't want to change your performance, but you're in control of it. You know, from beginning to end, you drive the train, all of you drive it together. But when you're in a television show or a film, you have no control over how they edit your performance and it really can make or break it. That is the thing I find frustrating. Where, you know, I have known the performance that I gave, and then I saw the outcome and it was frankly devastating. You can be cut out of things completely or just minimized to the point that, you know, you're hardly in it. So it's hard. That's a brutal business. The whole thing is brutal and also sort of magical.
Especially with theatre, I feel like, as we're becoming an increasingly digital world where and even when you're watching a television show or a movie, people are on their phones, they're having conversations, they're getting up and going to the bathroom. They're not sort of receiving the intended piece of work, unless they're in a movie theater, which we haven't done in a really long time. So for me, I feel like theater is the last sacred space where we all agree on the rules ahead of time. And then we all sit in this, you know, quiet, beautiful, cathedral (laughs) and do what we've agreed upon. And for the most part, people don't talk. For the most part, people don't answer their cell phones or let them go off, and there's something incredibly primal and beautiful and necessary to that.
I get a little nervous about how we're concerned about social media in this increasingly digitized space that we all live in. So I do want to say to young people, young theater artists, what you're doing is important. You're carrying on a tradition that was started since we started walking upright and painting in caves and telling stories around a fire, and no one can ever take that away, no matter how many new gadgets are created. That's never going to go anywhere because we need it. I just wish it was cheaper! (laughs) You know, it's often prohibitively expensive, which is obviously something that we need to work on and why local theater is so important.
You of course had this awesome gig playing Melania on Stephen Colbert which started with her plagiarized speech at the Republican national convention, how do you get inside the character- what were the aspects of Melania that were the most enjoyable for you to dig into?
You know, it's so funny because with the impressions, or at least this one, you know, I don't know if there's an inside to get into with her. I just sort of nailed down the physical bit of it, you know, it was more working from the outside in rather than the inside out, which is what I try to do in other circumstances, in performances that aren't sketch comedy. So really it was about sort of nailing down her mannerisms, the squint of the eye, the person, the lips. And then throughout the course of it, because we did many, many sketches, I started to have more and more fun digging into, like, the model piece of her-her vanity. I also loved the sort of tact that we took where she secretly hated him, too. I thought that that was really fun.
And then ultimately making Stephen laugh. I learned that to sort of just phone it in, in rehearsal and then not really give the full performance until the live bit, because then he didn't know it was coming and it was just so fun to crack him up.
I saw that you’re in a movie coming out later this year called “no hard feelings” with Jennifer Lawerence, and Matthew Brodrick, I can't wait to see it! Can you tell us a little about the character, what’s their story?
It's not a huge part, it's an integral part in the movie, but Matthew Broderick and I play husband and wife and we're in it throughout, but, you know, I don't want people to think that I'm, you know, in every scene because I'm not. But I play the mother of a young man who's getting ready to go to college and he's been very sheltered. So his parents are very worried about that and worried about what's going to happen once he goes to college. So they hire Jennifer Lawrence, sort of bring him out of his shell.
And the reason they're able to do that is because they're living in the Hamptons, where it used to be, you know, a small farming village, essentially, and then a bunch of rich people came in and jacked up the prices and jacked up the taxes. And she's no longer able to afford the home she grew up in, so she's doing whatever she can to keep her house. It's super funny. It also has heart to it, which I appreciate. And it just was a really good time. It sort of feels like a throwback to almost like the raunchy nineties comedies, which we haven't really had very much of recently, you know. Big movies tend to be like Marvel or, you know, stuff like that.
I fell in love with you both in the reveal of She Loves Me and as Candela in Women on the verge, in middle school I was and am just obsessed with “Model Behavior” and I always thought that show deserved a little more hype so I’m curious, what’s a show you were in or project that you worked on that you thought man i really nailed this and it deserved some more attention, a little more hype!
Oh, my God. All of them! (Laughs) You know, I was in a show called Swing that I think was so amazing. The revival of Into the Woods, I feel like didn't really get a fair shake.
Your recording of “No One Is Alone”, that was my comfort song and it still is, like for the past three years. I always turn that on when I'm having a bad day. It's an incredible song.
I mean, frankly, I do, too. Not my own version, but the OGs.
But, you know, Nine got, you know, was hyped because we had a movie star at the helm. Same thing with Meteor Shower, because we had Amy and Keegan. Women On The Verge and She Loves Me, I think, you know, sort of made a bit of a splash, but it was in a super competitive season.
So it's funny. It's like these are things we have no control over, right?
The only thing we have control over is our own performance and our own behavior, how we conduct ourselves and the lack of control in that is really hard. Especially for someone who wants to control my environment. So for me, my daily practice is acceptance. Being where I am and the dichotomy between, how does one be accepting and grateful, but also ambitious. So how so? How does one achieve the divine dissatisfaction of being appreciative for what you have, but knowing you want more? And that's a constant battle for me.
Certainly Women On the Verge is a really good example of a show that I think would have benefited from going out of town or having a longer preview period. We were making so many changes that, when the reviewer from The Times came, he only saw the show that he saw and we had only ever done one other time, which was the same day.
So we made all of these changes. We implemented those changes on a Saturday matinee, and he was there that night. So people who came to see it at the beginning and then saw it at the end were like, “Oh my gosh, this feels like a totally different show.”
And it was. And yet that's another lesson in letting go. We couldn't change that. Nothing we could do about it. All you do is take what you can from the experience and then go on to the next one. Yeah, but that's easier said than done, of course.
Those are all the questions I have for you today unless there is anything else you want to share about your show at The Umbrella Arts Center that you're specifically excited about?
I just always love sort of going into different new cities and experiencing a different audience. It's a new show every single time because it's a conversation. You know, it's not just me talking at people or singing at people. I don't want it to be that. I want it to feel like we're in a conversation. It's honestly my favorite thing that I do because it enables me to break the fourth wall and be comedic and. You know, things that I've written. Not things that have been written for me. And then I get to inhabit the character once I go into the song. So it's everything I love to do. Connect with people. You know, be funny. And then bring people into a different space through character and song. So I think I want the audience to know how much I love it, because I'm always happy to be in a space where I know people are enjoying what they do and are there with a happy heart.
That makes me so happy to hear. Thank you so much, it has been incredible talking with you today!
It’s my pleasure!
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