An Intimate Conversation with Broadway Star Laura Benanti

The Tony winner talks marriage (and divorce), her Melania Trump impression, cautionary tales of the theater, and her new romantic musical, She Loves Me.

Processed with VSCOcam with s2 preset

There are many reasons why you should know Laura Benanti. Maybe you were lucky enough to catch her Tony-winning performance in Gypsy on Broadway, in 2008. Or maybe you were reeling over her dual role as both mother and aunt to Supergirl, in the recent CBS show Supergirl. It’s even possible she won you over on Twitter (“If Trump wins the election do you think he’s gonna change the American flag to an image of Guy Fieri eating a giant cheeseburger?,” she tweeted to her 81k followers.) Yet another reason to know the 36-year old New Jersey native is for her starring role in the gorgeous musical She Loves Me, currently on Broadway at Studio 54 in a Roundabout Theatre production.

Set in 1930s Budapest, predominantly in a charming perfumery, the show features Benanti as Amalia, a spirited young saleswoman looking for love through lonely hearts mail correspondence. Recently, she has been exchanging bon mots with a man known simply as “dear friend.” Of course, in typical romcom fashion, unbeknownst to Amalia her epistolary love is—spoiler—also her professional nemesis. (If the plot sounds familiar, it’s because 1963 musical is the inspiration behind Nora Ephron’s 1998 film You’ve Got Mail.) The staging is worth the price of admission for one number alone, the gorgeous solo “Vanilla Ice Cream,” in which Benanti’s vocal chords hit an operatic high B-flat.

You have said that Amalia is your dream role. Why? Because it’s not very often as a soprano that you get to be very funny. Usually, in musical theater if you sing operatically or if you sing in a legit style, you’re the heart of the show. You maybe get to be moving and do dramatic stuff, but it’s very rare to be that funny. So for me I feel like it touches upon everything that I love to do, which is to sing in an opera style and be funny, and to also play moving moments.

I never realized there was that prejudice in theater, that the register of your voice determined your role. If you think about it, the belters always get to be sassy and funny, while the soprano is pretty and sweet.

Have you had some belter envy for a while? I have. I mean, I got to work that out in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown [on Broadway in 2011], where I got to belt and be the comedic relief. That was such a joy because I’d never had that experience. So yeah, I’ve definitely had belter envy, so this satisfies that. It soothes the savage beast of envy.

Do you remember when you first discovered She’s So Lovely? I grew up loving musicals. My mom had records of original cast recordings and one of them was She Loves Me. I wore that thing out singing along to Barbara Cook when I was eight years old.

How would you describe Amalia? Amalia is a feisty go-getter at a time when women were not supposed to be feisty go-getters. And I think in order to continue on in that path, she’s had to cover herself a bit in terms of her personality and her dealings with men. She is much pricklier on the outside than she is on the inside. On the inside, she has the heart of someone who weeps at music. But she would never show you that because she’s living in a man’s world. So what’s beautiful about it is you get to see the outer persona which she shows others, but through the letters and her inner journey, the audience gets to see this other side of her, too. They know her true essence.

Between those two sides, is there one you identify with more? One of the reasons I relate so much to this character is I think I am very similar. I think that I come off as, “Nothing bothers me, I don’t care! I’m funny and sassy.” But I’m deeply sensitive. Not only about myself but to others. Not to pat myself on the back, empathy is a quality I’ve cultivated over my life. It came naturally to me as a child. And it was difficult to be that sensitive and I had to learn how to try to not be that sensitive. So to answer your question in a very vague way, I relate to both sides of her equally. I understand why she’s doing what she’s doing because I often will self-protect with humor.

As a sensitive person, has it been hard to deal with the trolls on social media? It doesn’t happen that often, fortunately. I think the people who follow me on Twitter are like-minded in that we come from the same perspective. So it’s more like, “You’re great!” Which feels nice. After my Melania Trump impersonation on [The Late Show with Stephen] Colbert, some people were sending me mean things. And that doesn’t feel great. But at the same time, if I’m going to put myself out there and say and do things that are controversial, I have to understand that not everybody is going to respond to that positively. It’s funny, my dad Sal is a psychotherapist and he always says to me, “If everybody likes you, you’re lying to someone.” I think it’s true. As a person who wants everybody to like her, that’s something I really have to work on. I just have to be myself at all times. Which is hard to be because it’s easy to become a chameleon when you’re around other people and you say what they want you to say instead of being true to yourself.

When did you discover that you had a knack for impersonating Melania Trump? Well my friend Kevin Daly tweeted me: “You should go on SNL as Melania Trump.” And then I looked at a picture of her and was like, “Oh my gosh, we really do look similar.” We have similar face structures, similar cheekbones, similar hair … I could definitely see what he was talking about. There’s sort of an Eastern European quality to us. And I just sort of let it go. Then I believe it was another interview, and [the journalist] brought it up and was like, “Yeah, yeah you should work on that impression.” And the segment producer for Colbert was like, “We want to bring up the Melania thing we saw on Twitter, do you have an impression of her?” And I was like, “I do now.” It was the day before; that night I was practicing my Melania face in bed next to my husband. In the dark. And I was laughing, like, if he turns over at any point, he’s going to think I’ve lost my mind.

You have also tweeted things that suggest you would not be pleased if Donald Trump won the election. But the longevity of your Melania impression is contingent on his campaign. How do you handle that dilemma? I choose the country. You know what I mean? I choose the good of the country over the good of my career.

That is the ultimate patriotic act. You’ve also been dealing with an ongoing illness while playing Amalia. How on earth have you been doing that? It was really hard. Honestly, in retrospect now that I’m well, I don’t know how I did it. I think it was sheer will. And drugs. Not illegal drugs, but prednisone and antibiotics and good technique. My mother [Linda Benanti] is my voice teacher, and I have a teacher named Tessa Lang who is also my teacher in New York. Between the two of them, we got me through. It started with a sinus infection, and then I had an allergic reaction to an antibiotic and I had to go to the emergency room. It sort of burned my esophagus and gave me an ulcer. And what I didn’t understand was ulcers and acid reflux really affect your voice. And then it turned into bronchitis. So I had five weeks of deep, scary illness. I went to the hospital the night before our first preview. So I was in the hospital on a Thursday and in front of an audience singing “Vanilla Ice Cream” on a Friday. We call it doctor footlights. You get on stage and you have to do it, so you do it.

You were on vocal rest for much of that time. Is this the first time your husband [Patrick Brown] has dealt with you on vocal rest? And do you write Post-Its? How do you communicate? I’ve been on vocal rest before when I did Most Happy Fella at City Center. It’s funny, because I make the joke, “He loves when I’m on vocal rest.” But he was like, “I actually really miss you. I miss talking to you.” We have a whiteboard where I write things. Or sometimes I’ll just sit right next to him and text him.

When you got married in November, you posted photos from your wedding on various platforms. You’ve been married before [to Chris Baron of the Spin Doctors and fellow actor Steven Pasquale]; was that something you thought about in advance, how much you really wanted to share this time? Yeah, we did talk about that. And there was a part of me that felt like, “I shouldn’t post anything because that opens me up to people being mean about the fact that this is my third marriage.” And it’s a shame spiral: I’m not allowed to live my life and enjoy my life and be happy. And then I thought, “How ridiculous is that?” People don’t know me, they don’t know my life. They don’t know the reasons why. I entered into those relationships out of love and commitment and for various reasons and heartbreaking reasons, they didn’t work out. Ultimately, my husband was the one to say, “You are allowed to live in joy. You are allowed to be happy for our marriage. You are allowed to express that and celebrate. You don’t have to hide and pretend you have not lived the life that you have lived.” Even in his proposal he said to me, “I never judge you. I never think less of you. I never fault you for your life.” And though that may not sound like the most romantic thing, it was incredibly romantic for me because I felt like I was being seen. It wasn’t my first proposal, but it was his.

Aside from the lovely romantic posts, most of your social media presence has showed a very funny, comedic tone. Is that something you went into those platforms thinking about consciously? I didn’t enter into it that way. I just entered into it thinking, “Oh you just go on there and be yourself.” I didn’t think of it as a tool until I realized, “I have the ability to cut through any red tape and have my voice go directly to the people.” So it wasn’t a conscious decision to be funny, I was just being myself. And weirdly, it gave me permission to be myself in more places in life. I’m very grateful for social media. I think it has shown people my true nature; and through that has come a book deal and I think it certainly contributes to people’s view of me as a person with a sense of humor, which is only helpful in my industry.

What is the book deal? The working title is I Stole Your Boyfriend and Other Monstrous Acts on My Way to Becoming a Human Woman. It’s a book of comedic essays. When I first started writing it, I’d assumed I’d be the heroine of all of these stories. And unfortunately, what I realized was I was sort of the villain in a lot of them, either to myself or to others. By no means is this book prescriptive or a self-help book, but you know what? If a 20-year old girl can read this book and maybe not do some of these things, I’d be very happy for her.

They’re cautionary tales? Cautionary tales and humorous tales of some interesting decision-making. It’s not like I’m sharing the secrets of the universe. Hopefully, in the summer when the show is done, I can devote myself to writing. I think we’re thinking more like a 2017 [release].

This is the first time you’ve been on Broadway in five years; you’ve done a lot of television in the interim. What would be the next theater role that would draw you back? Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, for sure. I don’t even have to think about it. But we need to do it soon before I have to do it in an amphitheater because I’m too old. Julie Andrews is directing it in Australia and I think they’re looking for an 18-year old girl. So I don’t know if that dream is ever going to come true.

If you put it out there… That was how I got Nashville! I was tweeting about how much I love Nashville and then next thing I know, they’re offering me a role on Nashville. If you tweet it, it will come!

Photos: An Intimate Conversation with Broadway Star Laura Benanti

Laura Benanti.

Laura Benanti in She Loves Me. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Zachary Levi and Laura Benanti in She Loves Me. Photo by Joan Marcus.