Interview: Julie Benko on Starring in Theatre Raleigh's JANE EYRE

Performances run May 29, 2024 to June 9, 2024.

By: May. 17, 2024
Interview: Julie Benko on Starring in Theatre Raleigh's JANE EYRE
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We spoke to Julie Benko about starring in Jane Eyre opposite Matt Bogart and directed by Megan McGinnis. Jane Eyre is written by John Caird and Paul Gordon

Jane Eyre brings Charlotte Brontë's great love story comes to life with music. The musical was nominated for five Tony Awards in 2001.

Benko will be joined onstage by previously announced Matt Bogart, who will play the role of Rochester and directed last season's Theatre Raleigh production of Jersey Boys. Bogart is a television, film and Broadway actor with numerous credits, including playing The Four Seasons' bass player Nick Massi in Jersey Boys on Broadway for more than six years.

Bogart also played opposite Nick Jonas, who was Frankie Valli in the live capture film of Jersey Boys Live! His other Broadway credits include Aida, The Civil War, Miss Saigon, Smokey Joe's Café and most recently Paradise Square.

How have you been enjoying your time in Raleigh?

I've enjoyed checking out some of the great restaurants (Sitti and Flying Biscuit so far -- both great!) and last week went to a Durham Bulls game with my cast, which was so much fun! Some gals sitting in our row recognized me and asked, "What are you doing here?!" I told them, "Jane Eyre at Theatre Raleigh! Come see our show!" 

What initially drew you to the role of Jane Eyre, and how did you feel when you were cast?  

There's a reason this story has remained popular for almost 200 years and gets a new screen adaptation every decade or so. It's timeless. I loved the idea of portraying not only a classic heroine but a deeply unconventional one. Jane is a strong, unique, complex, passionate character. But I can't deny how overwhelmed I felt when I saw the script! Jane almost never leaves the stage - we still haven't figured out where I can get a sip of water during Act 1! But, like Jane, I love a challenge. So there's a lot of joy in figuring out how to climb that mountain (or, in our case, those moors). 

How have you been preparing to portray Jane Eyre, and what aspects of her character do you find most compelling?

I've been re-reading the book and watching all the various film and TV adaptations. (So far, the 2006 BBC miniseries starring Ruth Wilson is my favorite for the Jane/Rochester relationship and the acting, but the 1996 Zeffirelli film has my favorite sets and some great scenes.) Jane is a fascinating character because she does everything on her own terms. She's quite serious. (She doesn't have Fanny Brice's sense of humor, that's for sure!) She comes from nothing and spends her childhood enduring trauma after trauma: the loss of her parents, abuse from her extended family, shaming and isolation at school. And yet she builds a good life for herself. She's honest, strong, and whip-smart, with a forthright confidence that belies her youth. She's not perfect; she can be judgmental, moralistic, and prickly. To watch someone with such a strong ethical code fall in love with such an enigmatic, flawed character as Rochester makes for thrilling drama. 

How does the musical adaptation of Jane Eyre enhance the story, and what are some of your favorite musical numbers from the production?

The book was one of the first novels to be written from the first-person point of view, so you are aware of everything that Jane is thinking. That adapts very well to the musical theater form, because the music gives voice to so much of Jane's inner monologue, which is often replaced in film adaptations with long gazes, mournful silences, and odd voiceover interjections. And because Jane's intensity of feeling is so strong, it's a natural fit for Paul Gordon and John Caird's sweeping score.

Can you describe a specific scene or moment in Jane Eyre that you find particularly powerful or moving?

We haven't even staged it yet, but every time I sing through the finale alone in my hotel room I can't stop crying. It's just so moving. When I imagine Rochester singing to the baby about how scared he is to be a parent but he'll keep trying to "be brave enough for love..." Even typing it, I'm getting weepy! 

What has it been like working with Matt Bogart and Megan McGinnis on this production?

The best ever! Megan has great ideas and runs the room with so much clarity, fun, patience, and warmth. And Matt is A-MAZ-ING! Rochester is a tough role: He is mercurial, angry, tortured, and sometimes cruel, yet he must reveal an intense vulnerability so that Jane and the audience fall in love with him. You need a great singer for the musical version, of course, but what you truly need is a great actor. And he's both!

What advice would you give to aspiring actors and performers looking to make their mark on Broadway?

I always dreamed of being on Broadway. But once I got there, I realized it's really not different from doing theater anywhere else.

The budget is larger, of course - you certainly make a nicer salary! - but most of my favorite theatrical experiences have been in smaller regional theaters like this one, where you have more freedom to explore creatively and grow as an artist. So I would advise young actors to focus on doing great work, wherever it is.

And don't wait around for others to cast you in their projects. Be a creator! Write your own material! Nobody does just one thing anymore. I write plays and films, record albums, and am constantly creating new cabarets.

Megan is a full-time actor and directs regularly. Matt Bogart just produced a film, and directs all over the country. The things you will learn from expanding your skill set will make you a better actor, because you start to see material from a different perspective. And, finally: Be kind to everyone. In addition to being the right thing to do, it's just good business. You never know who might call your colleagues for a recommendation down the road!

How do you hope to connect with the audience through your portrayal of Jane Eyre in this production?

I'm especially excited that we are live-capturing this production, since it means that we will get to connect with audiences beyond whoever can fit in the (quite intimate) room with us. This is such a gorgeous piece and I'm ready for the world to discover (or rediscover) it.

What do you think makes Theatre Raleigh's production of Jane Eyre unique, and why should audiences come to see it?

The space is so beautifully intimate that audiences will feel inside the story with us, no matter where they sit. It's also incredible to see what this troupe of 11 actors can do. Almost everyone plays at least two roles (many play more!). It's truly a celebration of The Theatre and of what we can create using our imaginations, language, and music.

There is so much magic in the simplicity and playfulness of this kind of storytelling. Megan McGinnis is doing such a beautiful job of making this classic romance feel exciting, current, poignant, and honest. And John Caird and Paul Gordon are flying in to work on it as well. When do you get to re-develop shows with the authors?! How special is that?! This is going to be an incredible production and I'm so lucky to be a part of it!