STAGE TO SCREENS: Chatting with Stage and Screen Star Laura Benanti

News   STAGE TO SCREENS: Chatting with Stage and Screen Star Laura Benanti
 
This month we chat with Laura Benanti, who currently may be seen in the controversial FX cable comedy "Starved" and who returns to Broadway this season as the female lead in the new musical The Wedding Singer.

Laura Benanti in
Laura Benanti in "Starved"

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It's true that some elements of Laura Benanti's career, to date, read like a Cinderella story: an 18-year-old high-school graduate makes her Broadway debut in a major revival, then dons the glass slipper by succeeding the star. Within five years, she appears in four more musicals and is twice nominated for a Tony Award. But fairy-tale heroines don't break their necks; Benanti did, while playing Cinderella.

Explains the actress, "It was during [the 2002 revival of] Into the Woods. I was doing a pratfall — the second one, where I ran down the stairs and [fell] onto my belly — and, one night, my legs went up over my head and I heard my neck snap. I had so much adrenaline that I got up and kept going. By the end of the show, I couldn't feel my body. I had herniated two discs. I was misdiagnosed. They told me the discs were herniated to the side. Actually, they were herniated directly into my spinal cord and were cutting off spinal fluid."

Was the accident publicized? "No. I wasn't allowed to talk about it," she claims. "Unfortunately, the producers of the show were really unkind to me. When questioned for comment, they would not say that I had injured myself, but basically said, 'Oh, it's a shame that Laura misses so many shows.' There was a lot of gossip. It was very hurtful; it was really a horrible time."

Benanti continues, "During rehearsals for Nine, my friend, Mary Stuart Masterson [cast as Guido's wife, Luisa], referred me to a doctor. He made the correct diagnosis, and said, 'There is no reason why you should not have been paralyzed.' Two days later [eight months after the injury], I had surgery that saved my life. Three weeks after that, I was doing previews in Nine." Benanti still experiences some neck pain, "and something called myelopathy, which is 30 percent lost feeling, strength and dexterity in my hands and arms and face. "I hate to sound like a Pollyanna," states Benanti, "but in a way [the ordeal] was kind of a blessing. It puts things in perspective. You learn who your friends are; you realize the importance of family. I was 18 when I did Sound of Music. My life started to get very linear; I started to get tunnel vision. [The injury] opened my eyes as to how I wanted to be as a human being."

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"Starved" (FX, Thursdays, 10 PM ET), which focuses on four thirtysomething Brooklynites with various eating disorders, casts Benanti as Billie, a bisexual folk singer-songwriter and recovering bulimic/anorexic. Eric Schaeffer, the show's creator, appears as Sam, a commodities trader addicted to sweets; Sterling K. Brown is Adam, a bulimic cop; and Del Pentecost portrays Dan, who's considering gastric bypass surgery. Reviews were mixed, and there were some concerns that the diseases were being trivialized.

According to Benanti, "It's a difficult subject matter, especially for a comedy. It's not everyone's cup of tea. People magazine gave it four stars; the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times hated it. We had eight days [to do each of the seven half-hour episodes], and it was filmed out of sequence. I'm proud of my work in it; I felt like I did a pretty good job. The reviews for me have been nice. I loved working with Sterling Brown and Del Pentecost. It was a great learning experience."

From small screen to big: Benanti soon will be seen in her first two movies. Both "were so much fun [to make]." In "Social Grace," directed by B.D. Wong, she plays "a small role, a Greek princess who was brought up in English boarding school. She's not a nice person and not particularly bright." Among the cast, which includes several New York actors, is Sarah Rafferty who, notes Benanti, "has become a really close friend."

"Take the Lead" reunites Benanti with Nine star Antonio Banderas. "I play his business partner and love interest. But, with editing, you never know how big a part ends up. I love Antonio! He's a great guy. We have a goofy, brotherly/sisterly relationship. Everyone thinks of Antonio as this sex symbol, but he's really just the cutest boy in the world."

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On July 25, Benanti married Chris Barron, lead singer for the rock group Spin Doctors. She met her Prince Charming who, the bride confides, plays a mean ukulele, "in the elevator of my old apartment building, a couple of years ago. It was right after my surgery. I was on my way to physical therapy. We just chatted, and then he left me a note under my door. At the gym, one of his videos came on. I said, 'Oh, my God, that's the guy from the elevator.' When I asked him about it, he said, 'Well, I don't go around bragging.' That made me like him even more. The rest is history. [Laughs]"

Of Yugoslavian-German-Irish-Native American heritage, she was raised in Kinnelon, NJ, the daughter of Dr. Salvatore Benanti, a psychotherapist, and the former Linda Wonneberger, who's Laura's vocal coach. Younger sister Mariel is a sophomore (and psych major) at Philadelphia's St. Joseph's University. "I love her!" exclaims Laura. "She's wonderful, so bright, and so athletic — the most generous person. I constantly try to be more like her."

During her teens, Benanti performed in school and community productions, including Evita (as Peron's mistress), Into the Woods (Cinderella), Follies (Young Heidi), and Hello, Dolly! (the title role). At New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse, she appeared in Jane Eyre (playing Mary Rivers) and Man of La Mancha (as Antonia).

Robert Johanson, then artistic director of Paper Mill, recommended Benanti for the role of Liesl in the 1998 Broadway revival of The Sound of Music. It was her first Broadway audition. She came across as too mature for a girl "16, going on 17," but was called back several times to be considered for one of the nuns. Then director Susan H. Schulman became aware of her potential.

Quoted in a 2001 New York Times interview, Schulman recollected: "Laura had a kind of emotional transparency — the way she connected to the material, the way she inhabited the lyrics. . . . I turned to the producers, 'I know you think I'm out of my mind, but we've got to read this kid for the lead.' And we did. Gave her some lines, a cold reading. And the same thing happened. The connection was so visceral. It's just there — a gift. Onstage is where she lives." Benanti was signed to understudy Rebecca Luker as Maria (and play the small role of a postulant). Her Broadway debut occurred when she subbed for the star during a two-week vacation.

A year later, she succeeded Luker. At 19, Benanti was an absolutely wonderful Maria, opposite Richard Chamberlain (then 65). As do others, I believe that had she opened in the show, Benanti would have been an overnight sensation. Her Playbill bio began, "Once upon a time, there was a girl who dreamed of being on Broadway. . . "

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Swing, which premiered in December 1999, was her second Broadway show and earned Benanti a first Tony nomination. In the revue, directed and choreographed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett, she sang (among other numbers) a memorable "Cry Me a River."

Susan H. Schulman again directed her in the 2001 Manhattan Theatre Club's production of Time & Again. While in Sound of Music, Benanti had done a workshop of the musical, based on the 1970 Jack Finney novel that had been filmed as "Somewhere in Time" (1980), starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour.

Another of the many other workshops she did was William Finn's musical version of The Royal Family, playing Elaine Stritch's granddaughter. Into the Woods brought Benanti a second Tony nomination.

Next came the 2003 revival of Nine, in which she played Claudia, the lead character's movie-star muse. Director David Leveaux surrounded Antonio Banderas (as Guido) with an ensemble of top-flight actresses. "I was excited about [working with] Antonio," recalls Benanti, "but even more excited about Chita Rivera [who played Guido's producer, Liliane La Fleur]. Isn't she amazing?

"I was a little girl who grew up idolizing musical-theatre stars. Chita's awesome, so warm, and she has a wicked sense of humor. Broadway used to be a community of people who loved each other. Chita embodies all that. She carries it with her, like a beautiful amulet. The lady's a legend!"

Following Nine (in which Benanti was succeeded by Rebecca Luker), she turned down the Broadway revival of Wonderful Town. She had scored a success as Eileen, opposite Donna Murphy, in the Encores! production, but decided to accept a straight role (as Rosamund Plinth) inThe Violet Hour. While in rehearsals for the Richard Greenberg play, she was replaced by Dagmara Dominczyk. "That just wasn't a right fit. It was a bad time. I was run down. We agreed that I would leave. Suddenly, [a tabloid columnist] was writing that I had been fired, which was simply not the case. He also attacked my acting ability and said that I needed acting lessons. That really, really hurt. He's attacked many of my friends, Donna Murphy included. She's a wonderful woman and didn't deserve any of the things he said about her."

In the 2004 Los Angeles Opera production of A Little Night Music, Benanti played Anne ("such a difficult character"). She considers herself lucky "to have been part of that wonderful cast," which included Victor Garber (Fredrik), Judith Ivey (Desiree), Michelle Pawk (Countess Charlotte), Marc Kudisch (Count Carl-Magnus), and Zoe Caldwell (Madame Armfeldt).

"Just standing next to Zoe Caldwell made me a better actress," declares Benanti. And Stephen Sondheim's backstage visit remains a cherished memory: "He said some amazing things that I will keep with me for the rest of my life."

There have been numerous concert appearances, including Something Good: A Broadway Salute to Richard Rodgers on His 100th Birthday (June 28, 2002), in which Benanti sang "In My Own Little Corner" ("Cinderella") and "Something Good" (The Sound of Music). In 2004, she was part of the February Guys and Dolls concert, and the September Actors' Fund benefit concert of Hair.

For the November 2004 National AIDS benefit performance of Pippin, she played Catherine, opposite Michael Arden ("who was fantastic") in the title role. Among the cast were Terrence Mann (Charlemagne), Julia Murney (Fastrada), and Charles Busch (Berthe). Its originator Ben Vereen shared the Leading Player role with others, including Rosie O'Donnell. Says Benanti, "I couldn't believe that Ben Vereen remembered me by name: 'Hi, Laura!'...'Hi, Ben Vereen!'"

She has also appeared at Joe's Pub ("with Gavin Creel") and Feinstein's. To date, her 2005 appearances include Wall-to-Wall Sondheim and a Daytona Beach tribute to Leonard Bernstein in July ("two days before my wedding").

Upcoming are two concerts with Rebecca Luker connections. ("And we're really so different," insists Benanti.) "I'll play Marian in The Music Man for Paul Newman's Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, September 17, and I'll be Lily in The Secret Garden," on December 5, World AIDS Day (for the same group that produced Pippin).

On September 19, Benanti co-stars with Andrew McCarthy in a reading of Neil Simon's Plaza Suite at the High School for the Humanities (351 West 18th Street). It's a benefit for Opening Act, a group that provides free theatre programming for high-school students.

Among Benanti's CDs are cast albums of Swing, Into the Woods and Nine. She may also be heard on "The Maury Yeston Songbook," "The Stephen Schwartz Album," "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught...The Songs of Sondheim & Hammerstein" and "Mozart Was a Kid Like You and Me" (the diary of Anne-Marie Mozart, narrated by Benanti).

Also a songwriter (and guitarist), she's working on a solo CD. "It's kind of up in the air," admits Benanti. "I'm having a hard time; I want to make it special. Musical theatre is my first love. My writing is sort of folk-rock. I get compared to Tori Amos and Joni Mitchell — though I'm not nearly as talented as either. Neither a straight-pop album nor a musical-theatre album seems the way to go. I want to take my music and orchestrate it in a kind of old fashioned style, and take some standards and 'popularize' them — do a true crossover. I'm working on it."

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The day after her wedding, Benanti attended a callback for The Wedding Singer, based on a 1998 movie starring Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler. Afterwards, she relates, "They asked me to wait outside. Then John [Rando, the director] called me back. 'It's so weird,' he said. 'Everyone in the room agrees on the person that they want for the part. We would love you to play Julia.' I cried like a Miss America. It was such a beautiful wedding gift."

Since he's in the business, Chris Barron fortunately understands the demands of his wife's career. "Even though he sings rock and roll," Benanti tells me, "he loves musical theatre — maybe even more than I do. He loves Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein. . ."

Tim Herlihy, who wrote the screenplay of "The Wedding Singer," co-authored the musical's book with lyricist Chad Beguelin. "It's a really, really funny show," believes Benanti. "It's the story of Robbie [Stephen Lynch], a wedding singer who gets left at the altar and then realizes that he loves Julia. But she's engaged. My friend, Jason Antoon, is in it."

Music for The Wedding Singer was composed by Matthew Sklar. "I've known Matt since I was 14. I was working in a summer program at Paper Mill, and he was the conductor. The score is eighties pop-oriented. I'll have to work that side of my voice a little more."

The show opens in January 2006 at Seattle's Fifth Avenue Theatre, prior to a March Broadway premiere. "I look forward to doing the comedy [of the part], and to not wearing a dirndl or a corset [as previous roles required]. With this one, hopefully people will get to see my more humorous, girl-next door side. I'm very excited!"

Here's hoping that, like Cinderella, the genuinely enthusiastic and enthusiastically genuine Laura Benanti lives (professionally and privately) happily ever after.

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Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com, and is the author of the book "Between Takes (Interviews with Hollywood Legends)," to be published next year.

Laura Benanti filming a scene from "Starved"
Laura Benanti filming a scene from "Starved"
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