InDepth InterView UpDate: Laura Benanti Talks THE SOUND OF MUSIC Live On NBC
Today we are catching up with a previous participant in this column who has an incredibly exciting new endeavor on the horizon coming to TV screens live around the country later this week - acting as one of the stars of NBC's live presentation of Rodgers & Hammerstein's classic family-friendly musical THE SOUND OF MUSIC, Tony Award winner Laura Benanti.
In this candid conversation, Benanti and I discuss her characterization of Elsa Schraeder, the elegant baroness vying for the companionship of Captain Von Trapp, as well as the dynamic and historically rich story itself and what Benanti in particular will be bringing to her unique interpretation of the role come the live show on Thursday night. Benanti also recalls having starred in the most recent Broadway revival of the popular musical in her Broadway debut over a decade ago and how that will figure into how she views and approaches the proceedings, as well - now, of course, in a whole new role. Plus, Benanti comments on her astonishing assortment of accomplished co-stars, including fellow Tony Award winner Christian Borle as Max and True Blood heartthrob Stephen Moyer as Captain Von Trapp as well as country music superstar Carrie Underwood as Maria. Additionally, Benanti sheds some light on the political and dramatic undercurrents of the piece, fleshed out more fully in the stage version, which also provides her character with the opportunity to sing (as well it should )- thus, a sneak peek analysis of "No Way To Stop It" and "How Can Love Survive?", too. All of that, thoughts on the movie versus the stage version, a behind the scenes look at the process at this unprecedented television event and much more in this catch-up conversation with one of Broadway's best.
More information on THE SOUND OF MUSIC at 8 PM on December 5 on NBC is available at the official site here.
Somersaulting All Around The Sky
PC: How do you view Elsa Schraeder as a character? Do you see her as divisive?
LB: Yeah, I do. I mean, I think the show is designed so that you sort of root against her and for Maria, but the thing that I like about the stage production in particular is that the character of Elsa gets fleshed out a little bit more. She's more of a complete human being. So, one of the things we have talked about with this version that we are doing is not playing her like a villain - we're playing her like a person.
PC: A very valid interpretation.
LB: I mean, she's a grown-up woman; she's a business woman at a time when that was rare; she's a widow; she's very cultured; she's really sort of lovely and I think that they actually would have had a really nice life together, but he was just meant to be with somebody else, you know?
PC: Circumstances have prevented their union, unfortunately.
LB: They did. But, yeah, to answer your question, I don't really see her as a villain or as a bitch or anything like that - I actually think that she can be very funny!
PC: How so?
LB: Well, I am trying to glean all of the humor from her that I possibly can - and, I am trying to make her my own; you know, I don't want to just be a carbon-copy of what some other people have done in the past.
PC: A lot of the Baroness scenes people may dislike her for because of the film are not in the stage show, anyway.
LB: Right. Exactly.
PC: Are you particularly excited you will be introducing two songs many in the audience may not be familiar with because they were omitted from the film?
LB: I am! We are doing "No Way To Stop It" and "How Can Love Survive?" - we are doing them both. So, I am very excited to introduce the TV viewers to those songs because I think they are great songs.
PC: They've never been filmed, as a matter of fact - the show as it exists onstage will now be preserved, too.
LB: Yes. It will. It's very exciting.
PC: How do you compare this production and the stage version in general to the iconic film version and Julie Andrews in it?
LB: Well, the film is iconic and Julie Andrews is my idol - it is sort of a perfect film. But, it doesn't delve into the darkness of the Anschluss the way that the stage play does - this deals a lot more with the darker themes of the Germans taking over Austria, and, obviously, we know what happened next: one of the greatest atrocities in history. So, the stage play is a little bit darker than the film, which I like.
PC: "No Way To Stop It" deals with the passive acceptance of many people at the time. Do you see nefarious shades to Max, in particular - especially insofar as Christian Borle will play him?
LB: No, I don't think there is anything villainous about Max at all - it's just that nobody anticipated what the Nazi regime would become. "No Way To Stop It" is basically about saying, "Just keep your head down and this is all going to blow over." You know, "Don't get involved; don't get in the middle; don't do anything you don't want to do - wait it on out." So, really, Max is actually a hero of the piece because he helps the Von Trapps escape and he ends up getting in a lot of trouble for that. So, I am happy that Christian Borle will be playing Max - he is such an absolute genius and working with him is such an honor. And, he is so funny and delightful and just hits all of the notes that you would imagine Max would hit, but there is also a depth to him just because Christian is so supremely intelligent as an actor.
PC: You're getting on well, I take it!
LB: I don't want to spoil it for you, but the final moment we see him is... [Pause. Sighs.] quite moving. So...
PC: How do you view the antipathy of the characters towards the growing Nazi influence? Do you think these characters had a responsibility to do something to stop it, especially as people of some influence like the Captain, Max and Elsa?
LB: I think that people who are very rich often live in a bubble and they often don't see what's happening around them and they are very comfortable remaining comfortable. So, I don't think they are in any way being devious or being malicious, but I do think they are trying to preserve their quality of life.
PC: An instructive point - maintenance.
LB: Yeah, I mean, I think if either one of them - Elsa or Max - knew that ultimately genocide is where it would all lead, I seriously doubt they would be singing that song.
PC: Definitely not.
LB: It's only with hindsight that we understand what is going to happen, but they have no idea, of course. So, hopefully, they won't be vilified by the audience in that way - I don't think they will; I think people will understand.
PC: You and Christian are such likable and amiable personalities that it will be easy to relate to you, no doubt.
LB: Oh, that's so nice of you to say. Thank you.
PC: So, will you be cutting a rug at the big house party with your other co-star, Stephen Moyer?
LB: Well, we don't really have any dancing or anything like that, but we do have some good moments together, I can tell you that.
PC: A kiss, perhaps?
LB: [Laughs.] Well, we have to be very careful about how much we divulge about all of this because we want people to tune in to watch it...
PC: How do you see their relationship in general?
LB: Well, Stephen and I have been working a lot on the dynamics between the two of them and I think that they have a very clear connection. I don't think that it is as interesting for the story of Maria and the Captain if it is already this foregone conclusion that they are going to end up together. I mean, everybody who knows the movie and knows the play and knows the real story knows what is going to happen, but I think it's fun and much more interesting to tell the story if the Captain and Elsa have a dynamic that is just lovely, rather than...
PC: Rather than?
LB: You know, rather than having some type of awful relationship where the audience is like, "Ugh, we don't want to see that! We don't like them together." So, we are trying to make it a little more difficult for the audience, in a good way. Stephen is wonderful, though - working with him has been really, really great. As you may know, he did a lot of theatre in London and he just did CHICAGO at the Hollywood Bowl - he's the real deal and he's a really wonderful actor.
PC: Have you researched the real-life princess she was somewhat based on and women like Elsa in particular or just basically look at the overall history of the period?
LB: We looked a lot at the Anschluss and World War II - absolutely. But, I am basically approaching this character like I do all of my characters: through the lens of my own perspective. So, I am not basing her on anyone in particular or a historical figure who may have existed or anything like that - I come from my own perspective; I come from my own feeling. That's how I am approaching this particular character, at least.
PC: Having already recorded the soundtrack, have you gotten to take a listen to it yet?
LB: I haven't - but, I have heard from the people doing it that it all sounds really good!
PC: Was it enjoyable to record it with David Chase and company in the recording studio?
LB: Oh, yeah - David is wonderful. And, you know, you can never tell how something sounds from the booth or anything, but he said it sounded good, so I believe him.
PC: Have you gotten a chance to rehearse much with Carrie Underwood given your limited interaction in the show?
LB: We have, but, as you know, we only have a couple of lines together. She's lovely.
PC: Having played Maria, did you offer her any pointers?
LB: [Laughs.] No! I would never deign to do something like that - you know, go up to her and say, "Hey! I have some advice for you!" I mean, she's a really hard worker and she is a lovely, lovely person with a beautiful voice. She doesn't need my help.
PC: Have you dusted off your old scripts as an insurance policy just in case you have to step in?
LB: [Laughs.] No! No! Not at all. I would never wish that upon her - I think she is going to be wonderful. I really do.
PC: When you first were involved with the project, did you find it particularly amusing that you were being contacted to do it given your prior association with the show?
LB: I did. It really felt like a full-circle moment to me.
PC: Was the film the first way you experienced THE SOUND OF MUSIC yourself?
LB: Yes. I had definitely seen the film first. I don't even remember the first time I saw it, actually - it must have always been a part of my consciousness. I was probably a teeny, tiny baby the first time I saw it.
PC: What is your personal favorite song in the score?
LB: My favorite moment? Hmm. [Pause. Thinks.] I think "Lonely Goatherd" probably - that is just such a fun song.
PC: THE SOUND OF MUSIC has had a lively social media life. What do you think of using social media to promote events like this?
LB: Oh, I think it's great - just as long as there are no spoilers! You know, you don't want to Tweet or Instagram or Facebook about certain things, but, in general, I think it's great - it's a whole New Medium to get people to participate and watch stuff with, so I think it's great.
PC: So, speaking of Twitter: did your doorman really recently ask you the dreaded question, "Are you famous?"
LB: Yeah! He did! He actually asked me that and I said, "Why are you asking me that?" And, he was like, "Some people in the building were asking me, 'Do you know who that is?' and I said, 'No'." [Big Laugh].
PC: Hilarious! Lastly, do you ever sing any Rodgers & Hammerstein in your live shows - such as the one recently pristinely preserved at 54 Below (extensively discussed here)?
LB: Yes, I have, actually - I sometimes used to sing "Something Good" as an encore in my live show and I would also sing "The Sound Of Music" sometimes, too; in my show LET ME ENTERTAIN YOU. Of course, I'm sure I'll sing more of their stuff in the future - they're so iconic.
PC: Is there another Rodgers & Hammerstein role you want to play someday soon or was Maria the one you always wanted most?
LB: Yeah, I think that Maria was probably always the one I wanted to play - but, there are so many great parts in their shows! I'd like to try to my hat on a few of them, I think.
PC: Anna in THE KING & I, perhaps? I would love to see you do that myself.
LB: Oh, yes! I would love that, as well. Definitely.
PC: We all cannot wait for THE SOUND OF MUSIC live - you are sensational, Laura. Thank you so much for this today.
LB: Thank you! Thank you again, Pat! I hope you like it - and everyone else does, too! Bye.