Skipping School for the Biggest Journey of Her Life — Laura Benanti On The Sound of Music

News   Skipping School for the Biggest Journey of Her Life — Laura Benanti On The Sound of Music
 
From making her Broadway debut at 18 in the 1998 Broadway revival of The Sound of Music to becoming a viral meme following her performance as Elsa Schraeder on NBC, Laura Benanti recounts her time in the hills.

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Laura Benanti won her Tony Award for that time she played a shy stripper with an overbearing stage mother, but her story is quite the opposite from Louise's in Gypsy, and her mother was far from Patti LuPone's Mama Rose.

"My mom was not a stage mom at all," she said. "I had to fight her tooth and nail to let me audition for that!"

That audition she talks of was for the 1998 Broadway revival of The Sound of Music, a piece that celebrated its 50th anniversary on film last week. Benanti was 17 when she was recommended to audition for the musical's Liesel, and the film just so happened to be one of her favorites.

Laura Benanti
Laura Benanti

However, Liesel wasn't the role she was offered; that went to Sara Zelle. A much bigger part was in store for Benanti — she was asked to understudy Tony Award nominee Rebecca Luker, an actress 18 years her senior, in the role of Maria Rainer (a character Julie Andrews left an iconic stamp on in 1965). "Julie Andrews is my idol, so I watched the movie probably every single year," Benanti said. "I was obsessed with it, so I was very surprised when they asked me to read and sing for Maria because I never… I don't know, I just didn't think I was old enough, but it was an amazing experience."

Benanti had all intentions of attending New York University for musical theatre, but had to drop out a few weeks in because, after all, Broadway was calling.

"[My mother] really wanted me to go to college, and I had gotten into NYU, and in order to do Sound of Music, I had to leave NYU, so that was a bit of a negotiation with my parents," she explained. "But, my mom has always been so supportive of me. She's my teacher. She's an awesome person. Anyone who reads my tweets — #Linda — or watched the Christmas video that we did together knows how magical she is."

At this point, Benanti's journey with The Sound of Music was only just beginning. She understudied Luker for a year before taking over the role fulltime at the age of 19. The actress went on for the first time during Luker's two-week vacation (she never missed a show other than vacation, Benanti said).

"I was terrified," she recalled. "I literally threw up in the wings because I was so nervous, and I had to run down that hill and throw my arms up in that classic Julie Andrews 'The Hills are Alive' pose, and they land on your head, and I couldn't get them down because I was just so nervous, and my body was frozen. I just kept them on my head for the rest of the song… My mom, my dad and my sister came to every single show for the two weeks that she was gone. Every single show.

"I think ignorance is bliss. The last musical I had done was in my high school, and I had took it so seriously then… The courage of youth is a real thing, but Rebecca taught me how to be a leading lady. She was such a wonderful leader of that cast, and she was so generous to me. She could have easily been like, 'Who the hell is this kid?' But she was remarkable. She was a really awesome person. I admired her so much, and I got to learn from her, which was a real blessing. I couldn't have asked for a better person to teach me how to be a leading lady."

Over a dozen years since her time in The Sound of Music on Broadway (now with a handful of credits under her belt, three Tony nominations and a Tony win for Gyspy), Benanti revisited the classic. She was cast in the role of Baroness Elsa Schrader for the musical's live broadcast on NBC in 2013.

"It was fun to explore the show through the lens of an entirely different character, and I had so much empathy for the countess," said Benanti. "When I was trying to see it through her eyes, she's just like a fun, sassy lady, who is in love with this guy — she's not like a mean, bitchy person. She's in love with this guy, she isn't particularly great with kids, but she is trying, and they just had different political beliefs, and then all of a sudden, in comes this adorable blonde girl, and she's like, 'Oh, wow. Also, that? Okay. I get ya. I'll go hang out in the Alps for a little bit with Max and drink some martinis.'"

Benanti's Elsa Schrader was received with high praise from viewers. She made her presence known throughout the live musical event and was given some of the best exit opportunities before NBC cut to commercial. (She credits the epic exits to Catherine Zuber, who gave her "pretty phenomenal clothes" to strut her stuff in.)

Laura Benanti and Richard Chamberlain in <i>The Sound of Music</i>
Laura Benanti and Richard Chamberlain in The Sound of Music

"It was incredible. I had never felt an outpouring of support like that maybe ever, so it was pretty exciting," she explained. "I mean, there was like a whole hashtag #TeamElsa, #GaysForElsa. It was really fun, and #GaysForElsa happened before the broadcast, so I knew who I was playing to. I knew who my audience was and what I was going to be serving them! And then, the fact that families also responded to this character was an added bonus. I expected families to be like, 'I hate her! Why is she being so mean to Carrie Underwood?' But I got something like 8,000 new Twitter followers that night — something crazy."

The icing on Benanti's Sound of Music cake? Meeting Julie Andrews. "I met her a couple of times, and we talked about it, and she was extremely generous to me, which makes me feel happy."

However, Benanti never made it back to NYU. She remembered, "The dean was like, 'Listen, go see if you like it because you may not like it! And, if you don't then you can come back for something else, and if you do like it, and you're good at it, and you get to be on Broadway, then you just saved your parents $40,000 a year.' Every time I would be like, 'Okay, I'm going to go back to school,' I would get another job, so I figured, 'Let me just ride this wave until it's dry, and then I'll go back to school.'"

Although she is ready to conquer a degree in Psychology, let's hope Benanti doesn't apply anytime soon.

(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)

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