After two high-profile forays into network television (The Playboy Club and Go On), Laura Benanti is back where Broadway fans want her: in New York City, juggling projects on stage and screen. First up is a “full circle” experience in The Sound of Music, the show that launched Benanti’s Broadway career when she was a teenage Maria opposite a Captain more than 40 years older, Richard Chamberlain. Now the Tony-winning actress is getting set to play Maria’s romantic rival, Baroness Elsa Schrader, in NBC’s December 5 live telecast of the show. Meanwhile, Benanti is filming a top-secret arc on Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, promoting her live CD In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention and looking forward to playing Rosabella in The Most Happy Fella at Encores! next April. On a rehearsal break from The Sound of Music, the lovely Broadway fave chatted with Broadway.com about her busy, busy life.
Everybody is wondering what the telecast of The Sound of Music is going to be like.
It’s going to be great. There won’t be an audience, which I think is smart; it’s a televised version of the stage play.
Do you think you’ll be nervous? After all, you’ve stripped on stage in Gypsy and performed the hardest patter song ever in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
That’s in front of thousands of people, and this is millions of people, so yeah, I’ll be nervous! But I’ve learned that fear and excitement are just different sides of the same coin. When I reframe it to excitement rather than nervousness, everything becomes a lot more fun.
Has Carrie Underwood asked you and Audra [McDonald, who plays the Mother Abbess] for advice?
No, and I would not expect her to. She is in very good hands with [director] Rob [Ashford] and she has a good acting coach and a wonderful voice teacher. She doesn’t need my help. I’m just there to support her, as we all are. [Click here for Benanti’s comments on the casting of Underwood as Maria and why the country music star “is going to prove the haters wrong.”]
Why is the Baroness a good part for you?
I think she’s funny; I think she’s moving; I think she’s sexy and smart. She’s a businesswoman who operates in a man’s world. I’m hoping to shed new light onto this character. I don’t want her to be arch, or a stereotype—I want her to be a human being. I love her, and I’m really excited about playing her.
And you get to sing two songs, which was not the case in the movie.
Yes, with Christian Borle, as Max, and Stephen Moyer, who plays the Captain and is absolutely wonderful. Everybody knows him from True Blood, but he was a musical theater guy in England. [Click here for Broadway.com’s exclusive audio preview of Benanti, Borle and Moyer singing “There’s No Way to Stop It.”]
People who have become fans of yours from TV may never have heard you sing!
Oh my gosh, I can’t tell you how many people tweet me after watching Elementary or Go On or SVU and say, “I didn’t know you could sing.” It makes me laugh so hard. But I also feel like “mission accomplished,” because I spent a long time trying to prove to people that even though I am a singer, I am also an actress.
You’ve been away from the New York stage for three years. Are you excited about doing The Most Happy Fella at Encores! next spring?
I cannot wait. I have been wanting to play that role for quite some time and I’m so happy to be doing it with Shuler [Hensley as grape farmer Tony Esposito] and Cheyenne [Jackson as foreman Joe, Tony's rival for Rosabella's affection].
So, we haven’t lost you to TV—or to L.A.?
Absolutely not. TV is really fun, and it funds my theater habit. But I’ll always do theater. It’s my first love, and the thing I love the most. Not to be a jerk, but I hate L.A. My family is in New York, and I’m an east coast girl through and through. Luckily, more and more television shows are coming here, so there’s a lot of opportunity to work.
Let’s talk about your 54 Below live album, which is so charming. I especially enjoyed your fresh take on “The Street Where You Live.”
Well, my dear friend Todd Almond is a brilliant composer, arranger and music director. For people who can’t get to the city, or for people in places where I don’t do my show, this album truly is like being there. It’s 75 minutes of me singing songs and telling stories. The arrangements are fresh and exciting, and I think the stories are pretty funny. It makes me happy when young people tweet me and talk about how much they love the album. I believe in live performance, and I’m happy that my album helps keep theater alive in this very digital age. I’m really proud of it.
One of my favorite tracks is a song you wrote called “New Mexico.”
I wrote that when I was about 11 years old. I used to write a lot when I was a little girl; I don’t know if it’s because of what I do for a living now, but I lost a bit of the inspiration to write. I’m surrounded by brilliant composers, so nothing I could write is going to be nearly as good as what they do.
You’ve talked about wanting to play Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, and Clive Davis is supposedly producing it on Broadway. Has he been in touch with you?
I think they’ll end up with somebody really famous for the Broadway production, but I’m hoping that I will get to do it somewhere else. Actually, that’s a conversation that is happening right now.
Really? Where might you do it?
Somewhere in the Midwest. You know, I don’t want to be famous because I’m pretty sensitive, and famous people get scrutinized in a way that I don’t know if I could handle. But sometimes I do feel frustration, because I think, “I’m more right for that part than the person they got, but that person is famous.” I understand the need to do that because of business, but it’s disappointing.
Your work on TV may change that.
Who knows? TV is like winning the lottery. A Modern Family doesn’t come along very often. And when you read a pilot, it’s almost impossible to know what’s going to be a big hit and what’s not going to make it. It’s a good lesson in detachment!
We love you on Twitter. What do you enjoy about it?
I like being silly. I think of it as an opportunity for people to see my personality beyond what they may think from the characters I play. I like the idea of having to come up with something clever in 140 characters or less. It feels like a game.
How does it feel to be entering a new phase in your personal life? [Benanti announced the end of her marriage to actor Steven Pasquale in July.]
Not great. It sure was disappointing, I’ll tell you that much. The first month was really not a good situation for me. It was tough. But I have a wonderful family and incredible friends. I’m getting there.
Do you find it amazing that you’ve been a Broadway headliner for more than 15 years?
When people call me a "Broadway veteran" it makes me laugh, because I’m 34 years old. But I’ve been in eight Broadway shows and a bunch of off-Broadway shows. I’ve had the great pleasure of working in all different aspects of this industry.
It’s something to be proud of.
Thank you. I’m trying to learn that you can be proud of yourself and not be a jerk or an egomaniac. So, yeah—when I read my resume, I feel like, “Wow, I’ve done a lot.” And it feels nice.