DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Gypsy Tony Winner Laura Benanti

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10 May 2013

Laura Benanti
Laura Benanti
Photo by Robert Trachtenberg/NBC

News, views and reviews about the women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Laura Benanti
Laura Benanti, the acclaimed actress blessed with one of the purest voices in the musical theatre, will be sharing that beautiful sound with audiences at 54 Below May 20-25. The gifted artist, the first actress to win a Tony for playing the title role in Gypsy (opposite the Rose of two-time Tony winner Patti LuPone), has titled her new show, which will be recorded live for Broadway Records, In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention. It's a busy time for Benanti, who co-stars in the NBC series "Go On" and will be seen in the world premiere of Andrew Lippa's new oratorio I Am Harvey Milk next month with the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus. Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of chatting with the down-to-earth, straight-forward Benanti, who spoke about her upcoming cabaret engagement, her Gypsy Tony win and her husband, actor Steven Pasquale; that brief interview follows.

Question: Tell me about your upcoming show at 54 Below.
Laura Benanti: It's called In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention. Todd Almond is my music director and arranger. It’s my first time performing with Todd and my first time performing with the band, so I’m really excited about that.

Question: How large is the band?
Benanti: It’s four pieces. The concert is basically classic musical theatre songs and then some pop songs, some songs that Todd wrote, and a couple songs that I’ve written — and then just little silly stories in between.

Question: Tell me a bit more about that title.
Benanti: [Laughs.] Well, the evening is very relaxed and silly, so I wanted a name that would sort of reflect the vibe of the evening, and that seemed like the best one. Because, really, who on earth does a one-person show? Let’s be honest – it’s a person who really needs a lot of attention [laughs].

Benanti at the April 29 New York Pops gala.
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Question: How did you go about putting your show together? Did you choose all the songs or did you and Todd work together?
Benanti Todd and I chose the songs together. He came in with a few, and I came in with a few. Then, from there, we just tried to put them in an order that makes sense with the little bit of storytelling that we’re doing.

Question: Is this your first time at 54 Below?
Benanti: It is my first time. I’m really excited.

Question: You’ve played other clubs – how does playing in a smaller, more intimate space like 54 Below compare to…
Benanti: I prefer a smaller space because the vibe that I like to create with the show is the feeling that people are coming into my living room and we’re all just hanging out, so it doesn’t feel quite as formal as cabaret can sometimes feel. There’s something about the smallness of the space that feels really cozy and intimate, and I prefer that to the great big hall feeling. That feels a little removed to me.

Question: You’re also part of the premiere of the Harvey Milk concerts in San Francisco.
Benanti: Yes, I am - with Andrew [Lippa].

Question: How did you get involved with that?
Benanti: Lippa just asked me if I would do it, and I said, “Yes!” [Laughs.] It was very simple.

Question: Have you heard the piece yet?
Benanti: Yes, the piece is beautiful. It’s a little bit complicated to explain the person that I play. I feel like I don’t want to talk about it too much because I’m still figuring it out, and I would hate to speak out of turn.

Question: Is it a through-sung piece?
Benanti: Yes.

Benanti in Gypsy.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Is there talk of doing Harvey Milk elsewhere?
Benanti: I believe so. I believe this is the premiere and that they want to take it to as many other places as they can, which I’m sure they will.

Question: Do you know when you will hear whether "Go On" has been picked up for another season?
Benanti: Anytime between literally right now and a week from today!

Question: What has that experience been like?
Benanti: Being on the show has been great. It’s been a really fun, different experience for me. I miss New York and I miss theatre, but I feel really grateful to be on a show with such a talented cast and such a wonderful ensemble. It’s been a real education.

Question: In what way would you say?
Benanti: I’ve learned how to become more comfortable in front of the camera. It’s a totally different skill. Acting for camera is really different than acting for stage, and it took me a while to become comfortable in front of the camera. So I feel like I honed that skill, and then I just also learned about the different form of energy. Sometimes we have 16 or 18-hour days, so a lot of your time and energy gets put into waiting around. So how do you best take care of yourself in that scenario? I can’t remember who said it, but they said, “They don’t pay me to act, they pay me to wait.” And, that’s how I feel. It can be tedious at times. It’s not that same rush that you get from live theatre. So it’s been educational learning how to maintain myself in that circumstance.

Question: Have you gotten to see much theatre? Are you back in the city?
Benanti: I am back in the city. I saw Here Lies Love, which I am obsessed with. It’s so good - it’s amazing! I saw The Big Knife, which I loved. But I've yet to see really any other theatre, so I’m excited. I can’t wait to see Matilda and Kinky Boots. There’s lots of stuff I’d love to see.

Question: Do you and your husband ever talk about doing a musical together?
Benanti: We do. We've often talked about it. We want to do Brigadoon, but I think somebody has the rights to it, and they want the two main characters to be dancers, so that definitely counts us out!

Question: And, he’s doing Far From Heaven and Bridges of Madison County?
Benanti: Yes he is, exactly.

Benanti and Steven Pasquale at opening night of The Big Knife.
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Question: Any parts for you in there?
Benanti: No, I think Kelli O’Hara’s got it covered! [Laughs.]

Question: Have you seen Pippin yet? I remember when you did the concert version of that show, and you were great.
Benanti: I haven’t seen it yet. I really, really want to. I’m very excited.

Question: Do you have any stage projects in the works, or do you have to wait until you hear about the sitcom?
Benanti: I have to wait until I hear, which is, you know, a bummer, but it’s ok.

Question: And, since it’s Tony time, I wonder what is your memory of winning the Tony for Gypsy?
Benanti: Oh gosh, it was one of the greatest moments of my life. It felt like the culmination of all the hard work and energy, and hoping, and praying, and wishing that I had put into this craft since I was a little girl. And to be recognized by my peers and people I admire so much in that way, it was extraordinary. My family was there, and Steve was there, so it was a perfect evening.

Question: Are you still in touch with Patti [LuPone] or Boyd [Gaines]?
Benanti: Yes, I just had lunch with Patti a couple days ago! She’s doing a voiceover in my show that’s very funny.

Question: How old were you when you started performing?
Benanti: My parents felt very strongly that I not become a professional performer; they wanted me to have a normal childhood. So when I was 13, I started doing community theatre. Then, when I was 16, I won the Rising Star Award at Paper Mill Playhouse, and I got my Equity card at Paper Mill when I was 17. And then I was 18 when I did The Sound of Music [on Broadway, succeeding Rebecca Luker], so professionally I didn’t start until I was 16 or 17.

Benanti and Matthew Perry on "Go On."
photo by Vivian Zink/NBC

Question: Are you happy that your parents made that decision, to allow you have a normal childhood?
Benanti: I think so. Those years were so creative for me. I was so full of creativity because I was the director and producer and star and writer in my own mind. I got to imagine what I wanted my life to be and put on shows in my backyard. I wasn’t a little, tiny grown-up coming to work everyday, eight shows a week — not to denigrate that because that is a choice that a lot of people make. But I’m glad that my parents allowed me to live a simpler, more innocent life than that.

Question: I know you mentioned Brigadoon, but are there any other classic roles you’d love to play?
Benanti: I mean, I’ve always wanted to play Eliza Dolittle, but we have to get on that because I’m not getting any younger [laughs]!

Question: I think that would be a great role for you.
Benanti: I’ve always wanted to play that role. You know, I’ve also always wanted to play Fosca in Passion since I was a kid, which is…weird. Very weird of me! And then other than that, I try not to plan my life too far in advance because the expectations always spoil the view.

[Tickets are priced $50-$60; 11 PM shows have a $35 cover. There is a $30 food/beverage minimum. 54 Below is located at 254 W. 54th Street. Tickets and additional information are available at 54Below.com.]

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