DIVA TALK: Chatting with Gypsy's Laura Benanti Plus News of Egan and McDonald

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Gypsy's Laura Benanti Plus News of Egan and McDonald News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Gypsy co-stars (top, l.-r.) Laura Benanti, Patti LuPone and Boyd Gaines.
Gypsy co-stars (top, l.-r.) Laura Benanti, Patti LuPone and Boyd Gaines. Photo by Joan Marcus

LAURA BENANTI
When I first heard producers were looking for an actress to play the title role in the upcoming City Center Encores! production of Gypsy — starring Tony and Olivier Award winner Patti LuPone as Rose — Laura Benanti was at the very top of my wish list. Okay, I admit, Benanti is often at the top of my wish list: This past season alone, I thought she would have made a perfect Mary Poppins in the musical of the same name or an ideal Cosette in the revival of Les Misérables. But I couldn't be happier that the singing actress, who boasts one of the most beautiful sopranos in the theatre today, will be sharing the stage with one of this diva lover's all-time favorite gals, La LuPone. Coincidentally, one of the most memorable Benanti performances was another City Center engagement, when she played a radiant Eileen Sherwood opposite Donna Murphy's Ruth in the pre-Broadway Wonderful Town. Benanti, who was most recently on The Great White Way in The Wedding Singer, also delivered a glorious version of "Unusual Way" in the Tony-winning revival of Nine and was one of the few reasons to see the 2002 revival of Into the Woods, in which she received her second Tony nomination for her flawless performance as Cinderella. Last week I had the chance to chat with the intelligent Benanti, who spoke about her current role in Gypsy (July 9-29 at City Center), her forthcoming TV series and her impending marriage to fellow actor Steven Pasquale.

Question: How did this role come about for you?
Laura Benanti: They called with interest, I auditioned, and I got it! [Laughs.]

Question: What was the audition process like? Was Arthur Laurents involved?
Benanti: Arthur was involved, yes. I basically had one audition, and I went in and read and sang for him, and he was amazing. He's such a brilliant man.

Question: Had you ever been in a production of Gypsy before?
Benanti: Never. I never have. I've always wanted to because there's really not many characters for women my age that span that amount of time and emotional arc. It's so often we're stuck in ingénue land where you just get to be cute, and in this you get to be so many things.

Question: Have you ever seen a production of Gypsy?
Benanti: I saw the movie with Bette Midler, but that's it. Question: But never onstage. . .
Benanti: No, but I'm glad about it, because I've done so many revivals. Even The Wedding Singer [was] something that everybody has seen before. I really, strongly believe that you have to make each character your own. If you spend too much time watching somebody else, you're going to become a mimic. And some people want you to be a mimic, [but] that's not why I became an actress.

Question: How would you describe the character of Louise?
Benanti: Well, Louise is the eldest daughter of Rose, and she's completely ignored. She doesn't have this special talent that her little sister has. All she wants is for her mom to love her and notice her. So, she unfortunately gets pushed and pulled by Rose in every direction that she doesn't want to go in. She has no interest in show business. She just wants to be with her family. The first part of the show — really the first act of the show — is her just trying to get her mother's attention. And then, sadly, her mother's attention is turned to her, but in a way that she never wanted or expected.

The second act is really her in her adolescence, kind of figuring out who she wants to be. And then when her mom says, "My daughter can strip," it's just the utmost betrayal. Can you imagine your mother saying, "You know what? My kid can do it. My kid can strip." That moment is like, "Wow, you don't love me at all." And then what's so interesting is that she finds the attention that she's been seeking from her mother from the audience. She gets the love and the attention and the respect that she really deserves and desires. She gets it from these men in the audience. So she truly becomes this character that she has created. She goes from this very sweet, ignored girl to this in-command sexual creature. The scene where — I'm sure everyone knows it backwards and forwards — we're doing it very differently, the scene in the dressing room. It really is a showdown. It really is woman to woman. I'm not a kid anymore, and the apple does not fall far from the tree — you aren't the only person who has a temper. We really get to see her become this character that she's created. That really is a safe haven for her. It's a place where she gets everything that she needs, really without needing anybody else directly.

Question: One of my favorite moments for Louise is in the first act when she joins in in Tulsa's dance.
Benanti: That's so sweet. It's so moving and then so heartbreaking. Basically we see in "If Momma Was Married" these two sisters, who never knew each other before, we see them joined together. There's that love. And then we see Louise joined together with Tulsa, there's that love, and then both of them leave, together. So it's the utmost betrayal, such a high to a low.

Question: Will you be working with a real lamb in "Little Lamb?"
Benanti: No, I'm working with a puppet. [Laughs.]

Question: Which is probably just as well. I remember seeing it at Paper Mill, when Debbie Gibson did it, and the lamb trying to eat her hair throughout the scene and the audience laughing hysterically.
Benanti: Oh, my God, yeah. I don't really care to be upstaged by a farm animal.

Question: Tell me a little bit about working with Arthur Laurents. How specific is he in his direction?
Benanti: Oh, my gosh, the most specific. What's interesting is he really is from another time, in terms of the Golden Age of musical theatre. He is the Golden Age of musical theatre. What's really been amazing is to see what it's like to have a captain of a ship. He and Patti are steering this ship, and I have such faith in the two of them. But he is extremely specific about what he wants and what he does not want. We spent a tremendous amount of time around the table just reading [the script] and doing emotional work, so that when we got on our feet, that wasn't in question. Then we just figure out where we're going, not why we're going there. So he's really specific and fantastic.

Question: Is there anything he's told you about the character that's been particularly helpful?
Benanti: Yes. He said to me, "One of the reasons why I cast you is that I don't want an insipid little ingénue." He said, "I want someone who can become Gypsy Rose Lee so that the last scene is truly a battle." He's given me a lot of excellent advice. In the beginning he was like, "Don't try to play young. Just be the character." It was the best advice that I ever got because then you drop all the affectation, which only looks coy, and just be the character. Then everything else will come. It's all in the words — it's so well-written.

Question: Has he spoken at all about working with other Gypsy casts, since he's directed it before?
Benanti: Not really. I think he's really trying to be specific to us.

Question: Do you find the strip sequence at all intimidating?
Benanti: Oh, my gosh. We just rehearsed it. It's just so specific, and we're redesigning it completely for me — which I'm sure some people will be so livid about, and some people will think is really interesting. It's totally intimidating, first of all, to be that in command and that specific and, then, that naked. [Laughs.] At the very end, I strip down to, basically, a bathing suit. That's fine if you're at the Jersey Shore, [but another thing] when you're onstage. Yeah, I'm definitely intimidated, but I'm in really good hands, so I'm not that worried.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for Louise?
Benanti: My favorite moment, I think, is the first strip. It's the transition when she's onstage and the first bit is "I can't believe I'm here. What am I going to do?" And then we see the beginnings of Gypsy Rose Lee. It's the most difficult, and it's my most favorite.

Question: Have you had the chance to read Gypsy Rose Lee's memoir?
Benanti: I did read it.

Question: Anything you learned from that [book] that has been helpful?
Benanti: Yeah, a lot that has been helpful. Basically [with] all the actresses who have played . . . a lot of times she's a very skinny, almost boyish looking person. What's really interesting is that she was not. She was kind of a big girl. Her grandpa called her "Plug," and basically they referred to her as "the big one." You know, "Look at the big one on the end." But her sister was tiny and adorable. So that was really interesting for me and gave me a lot of freedom in terms of feeling like, "Well, I'm not typically what people might think of." I'm tall, and… so that gave me a freedom.

Question: Tell me a bit about working with Patti.
Benanti: Patti is one of — maybe the most generous person I've ever worked with. She's so smart and so committed and so kind and generous onstage and funny! Everything is a positive, everything is from a positive place. She's just an amazing person, and watching her is truly a master class in acting.

Question: Before you started working on your scenes with her, were you a bit intimidated?
Benanti: Yeah. She's so brilliant, and I've idolized her for so many years. I did not want to, you know, stink up the joint. But she's so helpful and warm. She has a healthy enough sense of self that she can afford to say to you, "You're so great," which, unfortunately, I think so many insecure performers can't do. So she's just amazing and so wonderful to every single person in the room.

Question: What is it like playing that final scene with her in the dressing room?
Benanti: It's a little bit terrifying. It really is because it's real. I liken it to a bottle of soda that's been shaken up and then the cap pops off. It's like it won't stop fizzing forever and ever and ever. It's very difficult to figure out the right balance of letting it out and holding it in for me. It's tough, but it's pretty exciting when it goes well. Question: Is there any word of recording this production?
Benanti: I haven't heard anything, so I'm not really sure. I hope they do, I would love that.

Question: You're also part of a new TV series this fall.
Benanti: Yes, for ABC. It's called "Eli Stone."

Question: Tell me about the show and the character you're playing.
Benanti: Well, it's Greg Berlanti and Mark Guggenheim [who] are writing it, and they're both so amazing. My character is the character of Beth. She is the mom of a little boy with autism. In the first episode I go to the main character Eli to ask him to take my case against this big drug company that I believe their vaccine created autism in my child. And then, from there, Eli and Beth develop a friendship.

Question: Had you done a pilot of the show?
Benanti: Yes, we did the pilot, and then the pilot got picked up. Now I go on the 30th of July, the day after we close [Gypsy], to go to work there.

Question: So it just worked out.
Benanti: Yes, definitely. I didn't think I was going to be able to do [Gypsy] for awhile because I didn't think we would be able to work it out. But we did.

Question: You're also working on a new CD.
Benanti: Yes, Steve [Pasquale] and I are. Well, more than a CD, we're trying to put together an act that we can do together and, hopefully with it, will come a CD. We're trying to do the act first and see how it goes and see if there's any interest in making a CD.

Question: What type of songs will you be doing for the act?
Benanti: Basically standards. I think both of us feel like we were born in the wrong time period, so we just wanted to do music that we love and that has touched us over the years — and that tends to be the American songbook, standards, and trying to find a little bit of our take on it. It'll be a lot of duets.

Question: Will there be theatre songs?
Benanti: A few. Basically in the Golden Age, so much of popular music was theatre music.

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works? It sounds like you're pretty busy as it is. . .
Benanti: I'm pretty busy! [Laughs.] [Steven and I are] getting married.

Question: Congratulations. When's the wedding?
Benanti: It's in the fall.

[Tickets for Gypsy — directed by Arthur Laurents and starring Patti LuPone, Boyd Gaines and Laura Benanti — are available at the City Center box office (West 55th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues). Tickets, priced $25-$110, are also available by calling (212) 581-1212 or by visiting www.nycitycenter.org.]

DIVA TIDBITS
The short-lived Broadway musical Chess will be presented Sept. 17 at the Ford Amphitheatre. A portion of the proceeds from the evening, which will pay tribute to the late director/choreographer Jim Alexander, will benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Produced and directed by Brian Michael Purcell, the one-night-only event will feature the talents of Susan Egan (as Svetlana), Kevin Earley (as Anatoly), Cindy Robinson (as Florence), Thomas Griffith (as Molokov), Tom Schmidt (as Walter) and Matthew Morrison (as the Arbiter). The company will be backed by a 24-piece orchestra. The creative team will also include choreographer A.C. Ciulla and music director Dan Redfeld. Ticket information will be announced at a later date. The Ford Amphitheatre is located at 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East in Hollywood, CA.

Four-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, who is currently back on Broadway in the Tony-nominated revival of 110 in the Shade, has found her next television project. The acclaimed actress, according to TVGuide.com, has joined the cast of "Private Practice," the spin-off of the popular ABC-TV program "Grey's Anatomy." McDonald has replaced Merrin Dungey in the role of Dr. Naomi Bennet. Bennet is the confidante to Dr. Montgomery, the character played by Kate Walsh. "Private Practice" will air Wednesdays this fall at 9 PM ET.

Casting is now complete for the upcoming production of Peter Pan at the St. Louis Muny, the nation's oldest and largest outdoor theatre. Directed by Gary John LaRosa with choreography by Liza Gennaro, the family favorite musical will play the famed theatre July 16-22. The cast will feature Robert Westenberg as both Mr. Darling and Captain Hook with Francis Jue in the title role. They will be joined onstage by Heidi Dean as Wendy Darling and Wendy (Grown-Up), Christian Probst as John Darling, Spencer Milford as Michael Darling, Shannon O'Bryan as Liza and Tiger Lilly, Kari Ely as Mrs. Darling and James Anthony as Smee. Tickets are available by calling (314) 361-1900, ext. 550; for more information visit www.muny.org.

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