Laura Benanti :: Getting the Right Kind of Attention
Tony Award-winning actress/singer Laura Benanti ("Gypsy" 2008) is one of those Jacks of the entertainment industry who is a Master at all of them. Over the past 15 years of singing and acting, she has racked up quite a resume of work on television ("Eli Stone," "The Playboy Club," "Law & Order: SVU," "Go On," "Royal Pains," "Nurse Jackie"); film ("Take The Lead," "Falling for Grace," "Meskada"); and theater ("The Sound of Music," "Swing!," "Into the Woods," "Nine," "The Wedding Singer," "Gypsy," "In The Next Room," "Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them," "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown"). And, as if all that work wasn’t enough, Benanti recently released a live album of her live stage show "In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention" on Broadway Records this past September.
Just as multifaceted as her career in entertainment, "In Constant Search....." displays the versatility in her live concert performances as it takes you through "a smart, funny, tuneful evening," says The Washington Post. Benanti engages her audience with humor, her voice and stellar songs. Stand out selections on the album are her reprisals of songs from two of her Broadway roles, "Unusual Way" (from "Nine") and "Model Behavior" (from "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown."
But the arrangement that is causing audiences to take a different listen at Benanti his her performance of the mash up of pop stars Ellie Goulding’s "Starry Eyed" and Lana Del Rey’s "Video Games." The New York Daily News calls the tune "sultry" and "infectious catchy." Making a live album can be tricky because of so many uncontrolled variables that studio recording can so easily correct. "I think there’s something special in doing a sort of Broadway centric or classics based centric album that is live because there is no auto-tuning that goes into that. It is what it is", Benanti says. The CD made USA Today Playlist "Pick of the Week."
While promoting "In Constant Search for the Right Kind of Attention," Laura still found time to take on a couple of additional projects like filming her recurring role for the next season of "Nurse Jackie" starring Edie Falco, and rehearsing for the one night only live stage performance of "The Sound of Music" co-starring Grammy-winner Carrie Underwood, "True Blood’s" Steven Moyer, and 5-time Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald to air on NBC Dec. 5. Benanti’s schedule shows her to be one of the hardest working entertainers out there and it doesn’t seem to slowing down. She already has many projects planned for 2014 including starring in the New York Center Encores! Production of "The Most Happy Fella" opposite Shuler Hensley and Cheyenne Jackson, and spring and summer concerts with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington DC and the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.
While rehearsing for "The Sound of Music," I had a chance to squeeze in some time with Laura to talk about, well, everything. Of course I must have been temporarily insane to think that 20 minutes would be enough time talk about everything, but we managed to hit the highlights of a career that has the legs to keep running for years and years.
Very busy lately
BeBe: You’ve got so much going on, girl, I don’t even know where to start with you. With James Brown out of the picture, may he rest in peace, you are now the hardest working person in show business.
Laura Benanti: Well, I’ve been very busy lately, yes!
BeBe: Yes, you have, and that includes releasing your first solo ’In Constant Search for the Right Kind of Attention: Live at 54 Below’ in September this year. What I found most intriguing about the release is that you chose to release your first album in a live recoding format. Many artists take many years before releasing a live album, if ever. So, I’m wondering why you did a live album your first time out since live recording is unpredictable and pretty raw?
Laura Benanti: To be honest Broadway Records approached me about recording my live show. So, it wasn’t something I necessarily set out to to. It wasn’t some brilliant thought on my part. But what I do like about it is I’m a live performer. We’re in an age where everyone is auto-tuned within an inch of their lives. I sing live as do all Broadway performers. So, I think there’s something special in doing a sort of Broadway-centric or classics based centric album that is live because there is no auto-tuning that goes into that. It is what it is. There’s no hiding.
Like being there
BeBe: Plus in the recording studio, you can’t be funny or engaging with your audience.
Laura Benanti: That’s exactly right! Well, I believe Broadway and live performances can be prohibitively expensive, and also if you don’t live near New York, how you gonna get there? My goal is to perpetuate the live art, the theater art. For me, It feels like if you live in Idaho and you’ve seen me on YouTube, well now, you can own my album and feel like you were there.
BeBe: I’ve seen you on television in sitcom and drama roles, but I think from this album I got a real sense of who you are based on the dialogue you have with the audience. Does the title of the album ’In Constant Search for the Right Kind of Attention’ have anything to with you feeling isolated from your friends as a child because of your interest in theater at an early age?
Laura Benanti: I have to be honest and tell you that the title came from Matthew Perry, whom I worked with on the ’Go On’ series. But, that isolation stuff is all true.
BeBe: On the songs that you do on the live album, I think most people would expect a Tony-winning performer to do Broadway tunes and standards. But, the ones that I gravitated to and took the most notice were the pop songs that you worked with. You do Joni Mitchell’s ’He Comes for Conversation’ very well. However, the one that stands out and the most impressive is the mash-up of Ellie Goulding’s ’Starry Eyed’ with Lana Del Rey’s ’Video Games.’ Now that is hot! Whose idea was that to put those two songs together as a mash-up?
Laura Benanti: It was Todd Almond, who’s the album’s music director and a brilliant composer. He arranged and orchestrated all the songs. It was his take on the two songs. I just think it’s brilliant! Todd Almond is a genius.
BeBe: Had you had any experience hearing or performing the songs separately before?
Laura Benanti: Hearing them, yes. Performing them, no.
BeBe: You’ve done so much successfully on television with recurring roles on ’Royal Pains’ and ’Nurse Jackie,’ and co-starring on the Matthew Perry (’Friends’) sitcom ’Go On.’ There was a very short-lived 3 episode show however, ’The Playboy Club,’ that landed you on the cover of Playboy Magazine. How did you explain to your parents you were going to be in Playboy, and on the cover no less?
Laura Benanti: Well, I told them I wasn’t going to be naked. They knew it was strictly to promote the series ’The Playboy Club.’ If it were for any other reason, I would never do that. It was not my finest hour.
Revisiting ’The Sound of Music’
BeBe: Now, let’s talk a bit about the NBC sitcom you did with Matthew Perry, ’Go On,’ which ended this past May. The role you played was kind of a therapy group leader, Lauren Bennett, who not only has a similar name as yours, but also does a lot of different things as you do in your career. You do the entertainment gambit... recording artist, Broadway stage star, TV actress, film actress. Did you draw upon any of your real life career experiences in playing Lauren?
Laura Benanti: No, not really. I think Lauren thinks of herself as a bit of a Jack of all trades, but a master of none. I think there’s a real sense of insecurity and Lauren is consistently trying to find herself. For me, what I drew on more was that feeling we sometimes all have where we feel like we’re charlatans trying to convince people that we really know what we’re doing. As actors and human beings, we feel that way a lot.
BeBe: Currently you are rehearsing for a show that you are revisiting after many years. A show that was the beginnings for the Broadway’s Laura Benanti. You will be doing a live television version of ’The Sound of Music’ with Carrie Underwood on NBC on Dec. 5.
Laura Benanti: Yes. ’The Sound of Music’ was my first job ever on Broadway when I was 18-19 years old (playing Maria opposite Richard Chamberlain). It is very interesting to be looking at this piece through a completely different lens. I had only ever investigated the show through the eyes of Maria.
BeBe: In this live TV version you are playing Elsa Schrader, the sophisticated fiancee to Baron Von Trapp. In this version Maria is played by Carrie Underwood. How was it to work with her?
Laura Benanti: She is simply fabulous. I have had the great opportunity to work with some tremendous people beginning with Richard Chamberlain, and then Esther Williams, Patti LuPone, John McMartin, Chita Rivera, Mary Stuart Masterson, Jane Krakowski, Antonio Banderas, and now, I’m working with Edie Falco on ’Nurse Jackie’ who is remarkable. I’m constantly surprised to be in the same vicinity as them. After awhile you realize we are in such a celebrity obsessed culture, but celebrities are just human beings that just happen to have a fancy public job.
BeBe: Because your career is so multifaceted, have you thought at some time you will have to choose one area of your career to focus on?
Laura Benanti: No, I’ve been extremely blessed that I’ve been able to go back and forth between television comedy and drama, musical theater and straight theater (non-musical), Broadway and off-Broadway. I feel I’ve been given tremendous opportunities in all aspects of this entertainment industry. I did feel pigeonholed in the beginning of my career because, for whatever reason, there used to be this weird stigma that musical performers weren’t good actors. So, I feel I had to overcome a completely inaccurate stereotype that some people don’t get the opportunity to overcome. I did make a concerted effort and a decision after ’Gypsy’ to pursue straight theater plays so that I could be seen as an actor. I wanted to be taken seriously as an actor and I wanted to hone my craft as an actor. That was a smart thing to do. It took me out of the realm of the people who only do musicals. It is terrible that there is this horrible stigma about musical performers. But I think the shows like ’Glee,’ and people like Audra McDonald, Kristin Chenoweth, Matthew Morrison and Lea Michelle have opened up doors for all of us in the Broadway community.
BeBe: Even more, you doing some contemporary pop music on your album discounts another stereotype that Broadway performers can only do show tunes.
Laura Benanti: My goal was to be able to achieve that without having to be screaming my face off. I’m so tired of everybody belting in such an unhealthy way all the time. I don’t enjoy listening to it, and I worry about people’s voices. These young kids who listen to it or watch ’The Voice’ or ’American Idol’ are picking up bad habits.
BeBe: Well, Laura Benanti, people are picking up good habits by listening and watching you perform. I’d say you have found the right kind of attention.
Laura Benanti co-stars along with Carrie Underwood, Steven Moyer and Audra McDonald in the LIVE television special of "The Sound of Music" on NBC Dec. 5. www.NBC.com.
Benanti’s debut solo album ’In Constant Search for the Right Kind of Attention’ on Broadway Records is now available on iTunes.
For updates on where Laura Benanti’s multifaceted career is taking her, follow her on her official website
As an actress, BeBe was introduced to film with a lead role in the independent film "Under One Sun" with her character dealing with religious, racial and gender issues. Additionally, she appeared in the campy musical "Devious, Inc" (Australian Film Festival, San Francisco Short Film Fest) also adding additional vocals to the musical soundtrack. Both of these performances led to her selection for a lead role in Aisha Media’s next short film series, "Con-tin.u.um" to be released in 2012.