DIVA TALK: Chatting with Adrift's Rachel de Benedet Plus a Broadway Backwards Preview

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Adrift's Rachel de Benedet Plus a Broadway Backwards Preview News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Rachel de Benedet in Adrift in Macao.
Rachel de Benedet in Adrift in Macao.

RACHEL DE BENEDET
For her performance as the glamorous Lureena in the Philadelphia Theatre Company's world premiere of Adrift in Macao, Rachel de Benedet won the Barrymore Award for Best Actress. She is currently re-creating that performance for New York audiences in the Primary Stages production of the Christopher Durang-Peter Melnick musical comedy at 59E59 Theaters. De Benedet, who has been seen on Broadway in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Nine and The Sound of Music, has the chance to vamp it up as the shapely blonde who lands a job as a nightclub singer in 1952 Macao, China; about the actress, The New York Times said, "Ms. de Benedet recalls Marlene Dietrich, only with Joan Crawford's brittle rectangular smile from the Warner Brothers years airbrushed into the mix." This musical spoof of 1940s film noir, which co-stars Will Swenson, Orville Mendoza, Michele Ragusa and Alan Campbell, also allows de Benedet the chance to demonstrate her gift for comedy and the power of her vocals with an 11 o'clock number simply titled "So Long." I recently had the pleasure of chatting with de Benedet, who spoke about her latest role on the New York stage, her Broadway debut in Sound of Music and her joy working on the revival of Nine.

Question: How did you get involved with Adrift in Macao originally?
Rachel de Benedet: I actually was in the middle of doing Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and [needed to] have knee surgery, so I left the show for a little bit. And the day before my operation, which was two days after the Tonys, I went in and had this audition, and it was just fireworks! Everyone was just laughing and laughing, and I thought, "Oh my gosh, these people are so easy!" [Laughs.] . . . I had my knee surgery the next morning; then, four days later, I got called in for a callback. My agent said, "Can you do this?" I said, "Well, I will go in. I'll be on crutches, so if they don't mind [and] they know that I'll be on crutches, I'll come in!" I had this inspiration that morning because I had to wear flat sandals, of course, since I'd just had surgery. I'm auditioning for these vampy film noir characters, who have to wear heels, so I wore this skin-tight dress with my crutches and my flat shoes, and I carried a pair of forties velvet platform shoes in. I hobbled in with my crutches, and I sat them down in front of me on the floor, and I said, "This is what I would be wearing if I could." And the whole room laughed, and I swear that that is what got me the job! [Laughs.] That sort of absurdity was so Christopher Durang, that they all went, "Oh, she gets this material — she's right for this." And probably some of the Vicodin that was still floating around in my system could have helped a little bit, too.

Question: How is your knee now?
de Benedet: It's good. It still has little aches and pains. . . . especially when you're performing eight shows a week.

Question: How much has the show changed from Philadelphia to now?
de Benedet: There are a couple of big changes. They added a prologue to the show, which is great. It really sets up the world that we're in, and it kind of introduces all of the different characters with no words — they come on, and there's music that identifies each character and the situation. And then we go straight into my first scene and number, and I think that's a big improvement. Then we have a song that has been replaced by a monologue, and that's a big change, and I think it's easier to follow.

Question: The monologue is for which character?
de Benedet: That's for Mitch, played by Alan Campbell now. It was a great song and a fun number, but it was giving a lot of exposition and was hard to follow. Christopher Durang had this inspiration. Sheryl Kaller, our director, said that she needed one of those real film noir detective moments where they tell a story in that low voice with a saxophone in the background, so that's what they [created]. Christopher Durang wrote this kind of a film noir setup for Mike Hammer, and it's underscored with fantastic saxophone. And, of course, it has Christopher Durang flavor to it, so it's not straight. [Laughs.] Other than that there are just little tiny additions and subtractions and some new choreography. And new cast members — four of the seven are new from Philadelphia. It's only Michele Ragusa, myself and Orville Mendoza, [who] are back from Philly. Question: What's it been like working with a new cast?
de Benedet: It's been good. They're amazingly talented people, as were the first cast. They're very different than the people who played [the roles] before, so . . . it's truly been re-creating the show. There's very little, for me, that I go, "Okay, this is what I do here. This is what I did last time, and that's how I deliver this line," because within the new framework of the characters and the balance between the characters, it doesn't work the same way.

Question: Does that make it more interesting?
de Benedet: Sure, yeah, absolutely. It is almost like doing a new show, plus the space is different, so a lot of our blocking has changed.

Question: Was the Philadelphia space bigger or smaller?
de Benedet: It was wider — the stage was wider, and the house was wider. I love the fact that we have compacted this show because out of that kind of friction, comes comedy. But it has meant that Sheryl has had to restage a lot of things because they just don't look the same. Philadelphia was an old, traditional proscenium in a very old house that suited the show very well, but this is a beautiful space, brand new.

Question: Did you have the performance space on the second level in Philadelphia?
de Benedet: No, we did not have that. The band was up above us in Philadelphia, but we didn't ever go up on any sort of platforms. . . It's so fun, the creative use of space. When you don't have any more lateral room, you go vertical, right? [Laughs.]

Question: Were you a fan of film noir…
de Benedet: Sure. I love it. I had never seen the movie that this is very, very loosely based on, called "Macao." It's a serious B-movie. [Laughs.] It switched directors midstream — it has Jane Russell and Robert Mitchum, and it takes place in Macao… This is very loosely based on that, like I said, but the character of Lureena does show up on the docks by herself, and she's a nightclub singer and she just gets a job [laughs], which is really fun. So, I had never seen that one until partway through our run in Philly, and then I watched it and went, "Oh, alright, I see where all this sort of germinated from." I especially loved the Bogey and Bacall [movies] and "Casablanca," which I'm not sure was technically film noir, but that whole era. I used to do a lot of Agatha Christie murder mysteries — I've done probably eight of them. I used to live outside of Boulder in Colorado and worked in Denver, and people would say, "Gosh, you always do these things. Do you really love them?" And I'd say, "You know, it's the closest [that] I will ever get to being in an old black-and-white movie." Maybe [Adrift] is closer, although this is such a parody, but I love that era, and I love the clothes and all of that.

Question: How would you describe the character of Lureena?
de Benedet: Christopher Durang described her as a "good egg." She's not a femme fatale. The women in film noir tend to be either the dangerous, nefarious women or the sort of true blue "stand-by-your-man" kind of girls. Lureena is a wised-up gal who's been around. I think of her as a survivor. One of the things that I think is great about Jane Russell — I mean she wasn't the world's greatest actress — [but] she has this quality where you never worry about her. She shows up in Macao in the movie, she shows up all by herself and you think, "Well, this might not be fun for her, but she's not going to be in danger." I think that's important with Lureena. I think you have to know that she's going to be okay. It helps probably that I'm really tall, and [it feels] like I might be able to take some of the guys on the stage. [Laughs.] But I think of her as a survivor. She's been through all of these men and these situations, going from town to town. In the prologue for me now, when I show up on the docks, what I'm thinking as Lureena is, "Well, looks pretty much like the last one. Here we go again, so what do I do now? Find a rickshaw, find a taxi, get to town somehow."

Question: What's it been like working with the creators — with Christopher Durang and Peter Melnick?
de Benedet: It's fantastic. It's unusual to have the creators as on hand as they have been the whole time. All of the way through Philadelphia, Christopher Durang was there almost all the time, and now he's here all the time. I feel very fortunate that I've developed a relationship with him where I can go to him and ask him about specific wordage or if I feel something, maybe, I could change [a word]. Sometimes he says yes, and sometimes he says no because he's very particular. He chooses his words carefully — they're in his own voice. Speaking of his own voice, when we were in Philadelphia, the actor playing Rick Shaw lost his voice completely one day. The only person that they could think of who could possibly go on, because we didn't have any understudies, was Durang. So they called him, and he had been at a benefit the night before, and all he had with him was a tuxedo. So he said, "Well, I'll come in, I'll wear my tuxedo, and I'll carry the script." I will never forget that first scene with him when we're having the whole interchange, hearing the lines in his voice as I knew they would sound. It was really surprising in that they sounded exactly like I knew they would sound. When I read them initially, I was sort of reading them — from having read lots of Durang plays in my life — I kind of had created this voice of how his cadence would go. It was exactly the same!

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for your character?
de Benedet: Well, my big 11-o'clock-number is probably the most satisfying thing for me to do in the show. That song was written on my voice. . . . There was another song in place of that at the New York Stage & Film Workshop. When I showed up, they would not even play me the song that was in that spot because they didn't want me to get attached to it. It's a beautiful song, I guess, but it's a sort of sad song, as opposed to being a "I'm pissed-off and angry and done with the situation" song. [Laughs.]

About five days into rehearsal, Peter came up to me, and he had been watching me in rehearsal and he said, "I have an idea for a song. Durang has written a lyric for you. What are your best notes?" And, he came in the next morning with this song, and I sang through it and was like, "Oh my God! It's amazing to have something tailored to your voice like this, and to what your bringing to the character." It was written for my Lureena, so that was cool. Other favorite moments — I have so many of them. The existential moment is one of my favorite moments — the lines, "Oh, you're so existential." In a scene with Mitch, we're sort of sitting at the bar and talking, and he's saying, "The world is a sewer." And I say at that moment, "Oh, you're so existential," and he says, "So…what?" I say, "You know, so existential. You know, someone who… gosh, I guess I don't really know the meaning . . ." That whole sequence is one of my favorites. It's also a puzzle to kind of work your way back and forth. Throughout the whole show, for me, [it is] a balancing act between the film noir, the parody, and the Durang-isms. As Durang would say, in order to play his material, there's a lot of emotional truth that has to go on in every moment, but you have to be able to switch gears really, really quickly. Then you add the parody in on top of that, so there's a lot of different elements.

Question: Do you like being in a show without an intermission?
de Benedet: Well, we get to go home earlier. [Laughs.] It's funny, I tend to think of it as having a first act and a second act. I don't know why, but I tend to refer to things in the second act. And I'm not sure exactly where the division is, where the intermission comes in my mind, but somehow it does.

Question: At some point, it's now the second act.
de Benedet: Yeah, exactly! I don't know why. I am onstage almost the entire show. I have a break right after my first two scenes and song. I leave, and then I'm off for a few minutes, but then I'm back on, and I really don't leave the stage very much.

Question: What's the backstage space like? Is there much room?
de Benedet: No, it's tiny. We have this juggling act that goes on during the prologue at the beginning of the show, where we have to stand sort of flat in the doorways so that one person can get past you, so you can get on and get around and not be in the way of the luggage that's coming on, and the props and the costume changes — it's pretty choreographed! Not the whole show, but the prologue.

Question: Going back a bit, where were you born and raised?
de Benedet: I was born in Newton, Kansas, and raised in North Newton, Kansas.

Question: When did you start performing?
de Benedet: I started singing as soon as I started talking. My father was the head of the drama department at Bethel College, a liberal arts college in Kansas, as an acting teacher/directing teacher. He was a professional actor at the Dallas Theatre Center before I was born.

Question: What is his name?
de Benedet: His name is Arlo Kasper, and my mother is a classical voice teacher…

Question: So it was definitely in the genes.
de Benedet: [Laughs.] I just grew up around it. I was born the weekend of a run of Inherit the Wind. The stage was my playground — I was around all the time. Singing is a big part of my cultural background. I was raised Mennonite, and music is a big part [of the culture]. I don't know any Mennonites who are tone deaf. [Laughs.] We all sing and read music and harmonize and all that stuff from the time we're very small. My first time onstage probably was my ballet recital when I was six years old [when] we lived in Germany.

Question: How long were you there for?
de Benedet: Two years. My father was on the running crew, the backstage crew at [a German] opera house for two years, and my mother was studying voice, and I started school in Germany, in German public school.

Question: When do you think you knew that it would be your career?
de Benedet: That's an interesting question because I always did it, and I started modeling professionally when I was 15, and I moved away from home for a while and worked around modeling. Then I had my first knee surgery. [Laughs.] I tore everything in my knee when I was on a ski trip in high school. I was supposed to come here on a summer modeling adventure the summer after my senior year in high school, and I was on crutches for six months, so that was obviously skunked. I ended up going to college that fall and decided when I entered college that I was pre-law. I was studying history and English and poli-sci and all that stuff. I was doing well and enjoying it, but at the same time, I was always in the Fine Arts building.

I remember taking a make-up exam — my chemistry professor had allowed me to do a make-up exam for a midterm because I had opened a show the night before the midterm was supposed to be scheduled. So he gave me this break and said, "You can come in and make it up the next day and have a little time to study." I remember sitting all alone in the chem lab, and suddenly it hit me. This is in my sophomore year, [and] I [thought], "There is a reason that I spend all of my time in the Fine Arts building. That's what I do, and I might as well just face that fact." I think because it had been my parents' arena, especially at the college. My dad was the main professor in the theatre department, my mom was the primary voice teacher, and they were both my professors in those areas, so I was like, "I'm not gonna do that for a career. . . That's just what my family does. I'm gonna do my own thing." And finally I just realized, "Okay, let's face facts." And then I went to school in London in the fall for my junior year at the British-American Drama Academy, and spent a year in the conservatory atmosphere. I really value the fact that I went to a liberal arts school because I feel like I have a well-rounded education, but it was also very valuable to me to get that conservatory atmosphere as well.

Question: Were your parents supportive once you decided that's what you wanted to pursue?
de Benedet: Yeah. There was a moment when I was a senior that my mom came to me and she said, "Normally when people are getting performance degrees, I recommend that they get some sort of teaching degree to fall back on. What do you think?" She was trying to test the waters to see if that was something I was even interested in, and I was like, "No, that's not what I'm gonna do." [Laughs.] My degree was a Fine Arts divisional major, so I dealt with all of the visual arts as well as music and drama.

Question: When did you first come to New York?
de Benedet: I did two seasons [at the Music Theatre of Wichita in Kansas] getting my Equity membership candidacy points, then came directly after my second season there. I was here for eight months, and I was working. I worked at Theater Under the Stars in Houston and Paper Mill and places like that and then went on a tour. I left about eight months after I moved here, went on a bus-and-truck tour of Me and My Girl for a year, and then did another tour and then met my now ex-husband and moved to Colorado. I lived for about seven years in Colorado, and I would work in Seattle and TUTS in Houston and Sacramento Music Circus a lot while I lived in Denver. And, then in 1998, I came back here and was here for two weeks and got a Broadway show. [Laughs.] That was Sound of Music.

Question: Was that your Broadway debut?
de Benedet: That was my Broadway debut. I always tell people that I never in my life believed that I would make my Broadway debut without a stitch of make-up on my face because I was third nun from the left. [Laughs.] . . . You couldn't even wear concealer or anything. . . . I used to come to work and take off my make-up. Considering the kinds of roles that I usually play, it was amazing to me that that's how I made my Broadway debut. But then I soon took over as Elsa, the Baroness part, and then got to go on — by pure chance [director] Susan Schulman was in the audience that night — and she cast me in the national tour. I played Elsa in the first national with Richard Chamberlain. Question: What was the touring experience like?
de Benedet: It was good. I liked it. It was a good tour, and it was a good group of people. It had been ten years since I had toured before, so it was fun. I was still based out of Colorado technically at that point, so I'd kind of go back and forth. I liked it — I like touring. My boyfriend's on tour right now, and I'm kind of living that through him.

Question: What's he touring with?
de Benedet: He's touring with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels ironically, considering I did Dirty Rotten Scoundrels from the workshop on to the end, and now he's on tour with it.

Question: Do you have a favorite Broadway experience so far?
de Benedet: They're all different, [but] Nine was an exceptional time in my life. The process of Nine was eight weeks that I will never forget. It had a whole aura around it because Antonio Banderas was in it and Melanie Griffith was around, and Chita Rivera and Jane Krakowski [were also in the cast]. So there was all of this glamour around it, and yet it became this really tightly-woven group of women, and I don't have that experience very often. There were all of these powerful women in that cast, not just the celebrities. . . . They said that when you walked into the room, they could tell if you were a Nine girl or not. There was just a quality about you. I think — from what I can discern of the people they hired — very strong personalities and strong temperaments. There were a lot of Aries women in that show, and it was great! [Laughs.]

Question: Did everyone get along?
de Benedet: Yeah, and that was the miracle. This whole group of incredibly strong women and strong egos, and the talent level in that show was incredible, and somehow [director] David Leveaux and [choreographer] Jonathan Butterell [kept everything together.] . . . One of the most amazing things — and I think this was pretty genius on Jonathan Butterell's part — the first hour of every day was a physical warm-up, and we would stand up and do standing massages. Jonathan would guide us through these massages, and we became very — I don't want to sound weird — but we became very intimate with each other because we had touched each other's bodies. I remember a day when I was paired with Chita, and I'm rubbing her feet, and all of a sudden it hit me: "I am massaging Chita Rivera's feet, yet they're just feet." It kind of broke through the barriers that we all have, especially women. I think we present ourselves to each other in a certain way: "This is who I am, and this is the kind of place that I have within this pecking order," and it broke down all of that to where we were all just women who kind of circled around both David Leveaux and Antonio. It was fascinating. About two weeks into rehearsal, a bunch of us went out for a drink afterwards. I remember riding the subway home afterwards and getting teary, thinking, "I don't want this to end. This is the most amazing time of my life."

[Through March 4 Adrift in Macao plays 59E59 Theaters, located in Manhattan at 59 East 59th Street. For tickets call (212) 279-4200.]

BROADWAY BACKWARDS
More than two-dozen theatre favorites — including Tony winners Betty Buckley and Gary Beach — will be part of Broadway Backwards 2, the Feb. 26 concert to benefit the New York Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center.

Hosted by Seth Rudetsky, the 8 PM performance at 37 Arts will feature direction by Robert Bartley and musical direction by Mark Janas. In addition to Buckley and Beach, the starry evening — where men will sing tunes originally performed by women, and vice versa — will also boast performances by Lauren Kennedy, Len Cariou, Rosie O'Donnell, Constantine Maroulis, Kate Reinders, Charles Busch, Richard Kind, Liz Callaway, Tony Roberts, Jose Llana, Ken Alan, Brad Anderson, Paul Castree, Anika Larsen, Michael McElroy, Tony Yazbeck, Ana Gasteyer, Tituss Burgess, Nina Hennessey, Megan Jacoby, Kate Pazakis, Jason Michael Snow and jazz legend Marilyn May.

O'Donnell, who will join Anika Larsen for a performance of Grease's "Summer Nights," recently said, "This is a great event, and it supports a great cause. The Center is a critical part of the LGBT community and the fabric of New York City culture." And, event creator and director Bartley added, "The rehearsals have been amazing — these great stars of stage and screen are so generous with their talent and time. Watching Broadway's original Sweeney Todd and Grizabella let loose and sing these gender-reversed songs is a sight to behold!"

I also recently learned a few of the other treats that concertgoers can expect to hear at the one-night-only event: Broadway veterans Len Cariou and Tony Roberts will lend their voices to Chicago's "Class," while "American Idol" finalist and Jacques Brel star Constantine Maroulis will wrap his soaring tenor around Andrew Lloyd Webber's "I Don't Know How to Love Him." Charles Busch will belt out Hello, Dolly!'s "Before the Parade Passes By," and three of the male stars of A Chorus Line will offer a song usually performed in that Tony-winning musical by three women. Also, expect Richard Kind to sing a tune from Mel Brooks' Tony-winning Producers score.

37 Arts is located in Manhattan at 450 West 37th Street. Tickets, priced $35-$5,000, are available by visiting Ticketmaster.com or by calling (212) 307-4100. For more information visit www.gaycenter.org.

DIVA TIDBITS
"Barbara Cook: No One Is Alone," Tony winner Cook's tenth recording on the DRG Records label, is scheduled to arrive in stores May 10. The 13-track studio recording will feature tunes that Cook recently performed at Carnegie Hall, including "Something's Coming," "Never Never Land," "Surrey With a Fringe On Top," "Long Before I Knew You"/"I Fall in Love Too Easily," "Nobody Else But Me," "Some Other Time," "No One Is Alone," "You're What I Need," "One More Kiss"/"Goodbye for Now," "I Wish I Could Forget You," "Lover Come Back to Me," "No More" and "Make Our Garden Grow." The celebrated singing actress will be accompanied on piano by musical director Eric Stern.

Broadway favorites and Chicago natives Liz Callaway and Malcolm Gets will head the cast of the Actors' Fund of America's upcoming benefit concert of Working, which will be held in Chicago at the Harris Theatre. The March 5 benefit will also feature the talents of Chicago actors Thom Cox, Sean Fortunato, Kate Fry, Brian Herriott, Heidi Kettenring, Ericka Mac, Julian Martinez, Kymberly Mellon, Bruch Reed, Barbara Robertson, Guy Van Swearingen, Greg Vinkler and Cassie Wooley. The concert, which will benefit the Actors' Fund as well as Chicago's Season of Concern, will begin at 7:30 PM. The Harris Center is located at 205 East Randolph Drive in Chicago, IL. Tickets, priced $50-$500, are available by calling (312) 334-7777. Visit www.actorsfund.org for more information.

Gerard Salvador, a cast member of Broadway's Mamma Mia!, is co-producing a March 5 benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Entitled Friends with Benefits, the one-night-only event will be held at the Metropolitan Room in Manhattan. Show time is 9:30 PM. Those scheduled to lend their talents to the evening include Wicked's Kristy Cates and Marty Thomas, Mamma Mia!'s Leah Hocking and Andy Kelso, Rent's Anika Larsen, Mary Poppins' Megan Osterhaus and Les Misérables' Doug Kreeger. Steven Ray Watkins will be the musical director. Salvador will co-host the benefit with MAC Award winner Amy Wolk. The Metropolitan Room is located in Manhattan at 34 West 22nd Street. There is a $15 cover charge and a two-drink minimum; call (212) 206-0440 for reservations.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.