Just a year ago, if you looked at the bio for Laura Benanti in the Playbill for The Sound of Music, you'd have seen this: "(Ensemble / understudy Maria). 1997 graduate, Kinnelon High School. B'way debut! Regional: Jane Eyre, Man of La Mancha, Paper Mill Playhouse. Studies voice with mom. Love to family and friends." Benanti, daughter of Broadway performer Martin Vidnovic (Baby, King David), put her college plans on hold to take the Sound of Music ensemble role. Talk about a fairy tale; in just a few short months, Benanti -- who is all of 19 years old -- went from understudying Rebecca Luker in the lead role to taking over the part -- opposite Richard Chamberlain no less. Now Benanti's current bio begins, "Once upon a time, there was a girl who dreamed of being on Broadway. One day angels Susan Schulman, Michael Rafter, Michael Lichtefeld, Richard Frankel and the Viertels granted her wish."
PBOL: Did having a father in the business strongly influence your decision to become a musical actress?
Laura Benanti: Well, I never lived with my father. We don't have that kind of relationship. I love my biological father very much and respect him, and his attitude is "whatever you want to do, go with it," but we never really talked about it as such. My mother and my stepfather raised me and were very supportive -- my mother [Linda Benanti, formerly Linda Wonneberger] is my voice teacher, and she met [Vidnovic] while they were doing Brigadoon. For awhile, I vacillated over many careers, from organic farmer to teacher. My imagination is so broad, I wanted to do millions of things. But when these opportunities came along, that was it.
PBOL: Since you're not only relatively new to the field and in training, but also thrown into the big time, you must be getting advice from a dozen different friends/teachers/colleagues every day. How do you know whom to listen to?
LB: It's not about whether advice is "best" or "worst," but about what works for me. I've learned that if I over-analyze a scene, it's from my head and not my heart. It has to come from my heart, because that's when it's most honest. That's when people can go "Hey, I felt that, too." My challenge as a performer is not to allow myself to become swept up in emotions. On stage and in real life I can easily cry, easily laugh. My emotions are heightened. I've been working on that with Larry Singer [of Michael Howard Studios] since I was 17, but I'm beginning to learn it also on my own. The minute you step over the line and start thinking into it, the audience doesn't have to feel. The audience can just watch you break down, rather than have the excitement of wondering what [Maria's] action will be. So you must remain active in everything, because I have a tendency to go the other way.
PBOL: Considering that you've just begun your professional career, you must have hundreds of "dream roles" on your wish list. Can you tell us what they are?
LB: Believe it or not, I'm working on one now. I'm doing a workshop of Time and Again, which has been my favorite novel since...well, since I was even younger than I am now. We're starting a two-month workshop on April 19, and they're very excited about It. Brian D'Arcy James is involved in it as well. I hear the goal is rehearsals in December for an opening this time next year. Wherever it goes, I'd like to go with it. I'm also influenced by almost everything I see. Like when I saw Electra I said, "Okay, that's my dream role. Plus I'd like to do The Importance of Being Earnest, Shakespeare plays. I'd really love to do straight plays; it's my "dream road," I guess -- a genre I'd like to move into.
PBOL: But first comes the continuing run of The Sound of Music. Will you be staying with it? Touring?
LB: I'm certainly staying with the show, but I wasn't really given the option to tour with it. The same producers are involved on Time and Again, and they've got me on that project. There've been so many rumors about our current run, especially since Richard [Chamberlain] leaves in July for the tour. I do know they're looking into other Captains, in which case, they'll want to keep the show open until December. PBOL: You often speak fondly of your co-star. Is Richard Chamberlain one of your favorite people in the theatre world?
LB: Absolutely. He's treated me with a kindness I never thought anyone would treat me. When I first came on, I thought, "I'm 19, and he's who he is," but it was never like that. And I'm not just saying that because he might read this -- he doesn't even have a computer! He's pretty much amazing. I'd have to say Jay Binder [the casting agent] is also among my favorite all-time people. He took such a chance on me when I came on for Liesl. He stood by me. Almost everything I've done in my career so far has been through Jay.
PBOL: Tell us the strangest, most embarrassing moment you've had on stage to date.
LB: Well, my shoelaces are constantly coming untied during "Do Re Mi," so I look like I'm tripping up there. But the strangest thing didn't happen to me. It was when my friend Dash [Dashiell Eaves, playing Rolf at the time] dropped his bike into the pit. He was riding his bike on the stage for the scene and got off, but he apparently didn't put the kickstand down enough. The bike started rolling... Dash was stunned and he just watched it. Everyone on stage did. Jan [Maxwell] was making all these little noises we heard offstage, but we didn't know what was going on. One guy in the pit threw his arms up and caught it, so nobody was hurt. I remember Dash coming back and saying, "I am so fired!"
PBOL: As Maria in The Sound of Music, you get to sing the title song, "I Have Confidence," "Something Good" and, of course, "My Favorite Things." As a musical-theatre person, what are a few of your favorite songs?
LB: To listen to? Absolutely the entire score of Passion. It makes me sob. The whole score is heartbreaking, because it's about that eternal question, "will someone see me as not just a face or body but as me?" Also, I played young Heidi in Follies. "One More Kiss" gets me every time I sing it. I have a very strong relationship with the past. My imagination tends to go back in time, so to sing that brings me full circle. And I have to say Skip Kennon [lyrics-music for Time & Again].. his music is just... so moving on so many levels. It can be chilling and exciting -- and absolutely breaks your heart. When you don't have the words to speak anymore, then you sing. There's something so incredibly beautiful about that.
-- By David Lefkowitz