BWW Interview: Laura Benanti Talks Making Her London Concert Debut
Tony Award-winning Laura Benanti's work includes She Loves Me, Gypsy, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and, currently, playing her dream role: Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. This month, she also makes her London theatre debut with a concert at Cadogan Hall.
Have you been thinking about coming to London for a while?
Yes, I've always wanted to perform in London, but never had the opportunity before now. It's so exciting that it's finally happening.
What can we expect from your concert?
I have a show that I do all over the country in the States. I'll be doing the majority of that show - but it's never been recorded, so it should be new to the UK. Obviously there's musical theatre, a lot of songs I've sung in shows, but also other artists like Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos, Harry Chapin...
Plus I've added in a couple of things very specifically for the UK. Todd Almond and I have written a song just for this concert and for English audiences. We'll also be announcing an amazing special guest very soon... [Update: Laura has since announced she'll be joined by Bianca Del Rio!]
Do you find it easier or harder to just be yourself in a performance?
I think I would have found it scary in my twenties, when I didn't know who I was - the person I am now, I've put a lot of work into her! So, I feel relaxed being myself, and I really like audiences to feel like you're just in my living room, hanging out, and I'm singing to you and telling you stories - I make it as familial as possible. Plus these are songs I've been singing along to for years, so that's really fun.
We've got to know you as an incredible comedian too, with bits like your Melania Trump impression! Do enjoy showing that side of yourself?
It's been a solid ten years of working really hard to show people I'm funny - now, people have definitely gotten the memo! Cabaret is one of my absolute favourite things to do, because it's a mix of everything: I get to embody all these characters while singing the songs, and then talk directly to the audience, be improvisational, tell silly stories, and just connect with people. It's a delightful experience.
I also loved your recent Broadway season video, particularly the Tootsie gag...
I really enjoyed doing that one. The shows are great, we don't want to make fun, but just staring into the camera - it does question that idea of women having it easier than men!
Congratulations on My Fair Lady - what's it like to finally play Eliza?
It's literally been my dream role since I was four years old - I actively remember it before I went to kindergarten. When I first heard about the revival, my daughter Ella was only four months old. They were bringing in everybody to audition and I couldn't even get it together to make it to the audition, so I knew there was no way I could do the show eight times a week.
Then the chance came around again, and Ella's older, so we can manage it. It really feels like it was meant to be. Though I'm absolutely exhausted, doing the show and filming and concerts and being a mom. But it's the best kind of exhausted - I wouldn't change a thing.
Are you going to be showing off your British accent over here?
I do have to do my British accent in one song. So...please be kind!
Now that you've finally landed your dream role, what's the next dream show or collaborator?
It's so funny, I've played so many of my dream roles: Amalia in She Loves Me, Gypsy, Most Happy Fella, and then most of all My Fair Lady - the ultimate dream.
There are so many people I'd love to work with. Patti LuPone, who I adore so much - I'd do anything with Patti. I've love to work with Cynthia Erivo, Kelli O'Hara, Kristin Chenoweth, Audra McDonald... I guess there's a pattern here - lots of ladies!
But it's rare you get to work with other women, and actually the older I get, the more I appreciate my incredible female friendships. I wish I'd known in my early twenties what I know now - that your relationships with the women in your life are the most important outside of your family. I spent too much time focussed on boys.
Does it annoy you that the media often invents conflict between women?
Yes, women are always being pitted against one another. I think it comes from the fact that women are so powerful - we bring life into this world, we endure physical pain once a month, we can survive anything. If we all banded together and realised how much power we had, we'd take over the world! Right now, politically, it's a giant garbage fire in both of our countries, but the good thing is that it's awoken the activists in so many people.
It's easy to look at the period of time you're in and think it's the worst it's ever been - like we have this demagogue trying to pit Americans against the free press and government agencies, which feels really scary. But it's made many of us realise we shouldn't have been complacent during the Obama administration, thinking that was a utopia. My friends of colour are now saying "Right, of course it wasn't!". So it's making us fight for what we believe in.
You're fantastic at positively engaging with people on social media - is that important to you, as a public figure?
Definitely. I have a platform - it's just 100,000 or so, but I like to make a positive difference if I can. Social media can become like a highlight reel, with people curating their lives to look impossibly perfect. For young people, that's a really detrimental message to send.
And the mommy blogs, featuring moms with perfect blowouts and sepia-toned photos, saying "I love breastfeeding!", "I love every second!". I initially thought, "I must be a monster, because I'm struggling".
I decided to just tell the truth about how I'm feeling, and maybe one other person will feel the same way - and it turns out thousands of people do. So, I set up the Instagram Mamas For Mamas with Kate Mangiameli. Women can be so cruel to each other, all out of fear - you want your choice to be the right choice. Mamas For Mamas is about just being supportive of everyone.
I also started Safety Net as a safe space for kids who feel misunderstood by their peers. It's not about bullied vs bullies, making bullies feel guilty - lots of bullies are good kids who are also in pain. So, it's help if you're being treated cruelly, but also saying to the bully you can start again tomorrow; it's a fresh start every minute. I've been on both sides - I've been bullied, and I've been engaged in toxic behaviour behind someone's back to fit in.
Social media can be dangerous; so long as I'm on it, I want to provide a safe space, encourage people to be who they are and know they have kindred spirits out there. That's the truth: it's commonality, not 'the other' - there's more people like us than not.
Do you have any plans to explore London or see shows while you're here?
I'm taking the red-eye on Friday night, and rehearsing with the band on Saturday - I won't have had a chance to play with them before. Then it's the show on Sunday, and then I have one day to sightsee! My sister and her new husband will be there for the beginning of their honeymoon, and my husband's coming too, so hopefully some good family time, when I'm not rehearsing or crashing out! I can't wait to perform in London - this is another dream experience come true.
Laura Benanti: Live in London is at Cadogan Hall on 30 June
My Fair Lady continues at Lincoln Center Theater until 7 July
Photo credit: Joan Marcus