BWW Interviews: Laura Benanti Talks Theatre Under the Stars' 2014 'Broadway Empire' Gala and Career
On Saturday, April 26, Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) is inviting Houstonians to enter the era of bootleggers, flappers, and gangsters as they transform The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts into a Prohibition-era speakeasy. All of this is being done for their annual fundraising gala. This year's theme is "Broadway Empire," a play on HBO's Boardwalk Empire. Headlining the evening's entertainment is Broadway phenomenon and Tony Award winning musical theatre actress Laura Benanti. Recently, I chatted with Laura Benanti about her impressive career and the much-anticipated gala.
BWW: How did you first get into theater?
Laura Benanti: How did I first get into theater? Oh, maybe that's something you can Google. [Laughs] My mother was and is my voice teacher. My father, Marty (Martin Vidnovic), is an actor. I always wanted to be an actor.
I won the Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Award for playing Dolly Levi in my high school production of HELLO, DOLLY! I got my equity card there. Then, Jay Binder, a casting director in New York, asked Paper Mill if they knew anybody they thought would be right for Liesl in the (1998) revival of THE SOUND OF MUSIC. They recommended me. I went in and ended up as the understudy to Maria at the age of 17.
BWW: When did you know you wanted to perform professionally?
Laura Benanti: I've always known I wanted to be an actor. There was never a point in my life when I didn't know.
BWW: Your theatre credits are extensive and impressive. What has been your favorite credit so far?
Laura Benanti: I think GYPSY was probably my favorite experience for multiple reasons. I also really enjoyed myself in WOMEN ON THE VERGE (OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN). I usually don't get to play comedic characters, so it was a real treat for me to get to play the clown.
BWW: Yeah, and you got to sing the hilarious "Model Behavior" in that show.
Laura Benanti: Yeah. That was a great song to get to sing.
BWW: You won the Tony Award for your portrayal of Louise in the 2008 Broadway Revival of GYPSY. What was that experience like?
Laura Benanti: Winning the Tony was incredibly exciting. It's wonderful to be recognized by my peers and the people who I've admired my whole career. So it was great.
Also, working on GYPSY was a transformative experience for me. It forever changed me and made me a better actor. It made me a better collaborator. I have life-long friendships from it, and I got to work with and learn from the legendary Arthur Laurents. That's pretty lucky.
BWW: In Houston, you'll be performing at TUTS' "Broadway Empire" Gala on April 26. What are you most looking forward to about performing in Houston?
Laura Benanti: I've never been to Houston, so I'm looking forward to seeing what Houston is like. And, I love any opportunity to sing-to do my concerts in front of people. It'll be nice to take that to Texas.
BWW: Through your Twitter account, your fans have come to know your hilarious sense of humor. Can audiences expect to see this side of you at the Gala?
Laura Benanti: Yeah, definitely! I have a very particular brand of humor, and I don't change it. I mean, I change it a little bit. It's not like I'm an idiot. But, I tend to be myself wherever I go. Sometimes it gets me into trouble, and sometimes it's fun. But, here, I've performed for audiences I thought were going to be really stuffy and not get me, and in the first couple of songs, you could tell they were thinking, "What the hell is this?" Then, by the end, they were on their feet and telling me how much fun it was. I think, at our core, we all just want to have a good time, so if I can help facilitate that in any way, I'm happy to.
BWW: What else can Houston audiences expect from your performance on April 26?
Laura Benanti: You know, we'll get to talking and having a good time. I want people to feel like they've come into my living room, and we're just hanging out. It's not a stuffy affair. I think that theatre and cabaret can sort of seem archaic to people because it doesn't feel like it's moved along with the times, so my goal is to help the momentum of live performance into the next generation. So, it'll be light and fun. People will have some drinks, and it'll be great.
BWW: You'll be hosting the 59th Annual Drama Desk Awards this year. What excites you the most about this incredible honor and opportunity?
Laura Benanti: It excited me that they thought I could do it. It's funny and gratifying to me that they feel that I could meet the challenge of that opportunity. I'm excited because all the videos I do online and all of that stuff is self-generated and written by me, so I'm excited to get to trap the theatre community for approximately two and half hours and get to make them watch me.
BWW: Are there any dream roles you hope to play?
Laura Benanti: I have always said that I wanted to play Eliza Doolittle in MY FAIR LADY, but I'm not getting any younger. Other than that, anything Stephen Sondheim. I want to sing Stephen Sondheim, literally, on my deathbed. I'm going to sing from PASSION. It will be really creepy for everybody.
BWW: It's a great score though, so everyone will be wonderfully entertained.
Laura Benanti: Exactly! Those nurses are going to be like, "Wow, this is sad, but wow!" Then I'll charge them all $125 each.
BWW: There you go! [Laughs] Awesome. So, what advice do you offer to others hoping to make a career in performing?
Laura Benanti: God, this is always the trickiest question in the world. [Pauses] My advice would be to work hard. I know that sounds trite, but it's really true. You have to work hard. Educate yourself. You need to know your craft, whether it is musical theatre, theatre, movies, television, or whatever you want your specialty to be.
And, live a healthy lifestyle, and understand that most of this job is rejection. If you can't imagine a life where people say "no" to you a lot, this is not the job for you. But, understand that the rejection is never personal unless they specifically say, "Laura Benanti, I hate you. This is personal." It's normally about something that is totally outside of your control, so you have to control what you can, which is your health, your mind, your spirit, your body, and your craft. Then, let the rest go; it is out of your control.
It's not too late to reserve your seat for the 2014 TUTS "Broadway Empire" Gala, and to see the Houston, Texas premiere of the sensational Laura Benanti. Sponsorship levels start at $1,000. For more information about the gala, the sponsorship levels and all the womderful rewards you get in return for your charitable donations, please click here or call Ashly Alberto at (713) 558-2656.