By Steve Schonberg, editor-in-chief (@CntrOnTheAisle)
SEE BELOW FOR HOW TO GET A PEEK INSIDE OF “WE LOVE HER,” STARRING LAURA BENANTI, JEREMY JORDAN, MELISSA BENOIST, MICHAEL URIE, ALEXANDRA SILBER, JULIA MURNEY & MORE, LIVE FROM FEINSTEIN’S/54 BELOW
I created Center On The Aisle (#COTA) in 2014 with the simple mission of helping connect theater fans with stars and shows they’ll love. Growing up, I would read each Playbill during intermission, cover-to-cover, wanting to know more than the “Who’s Who” could tell me about these unbelievable talents who offer part of their soul to entertain and inspire us. It’s been incredible to accomplish this with #COTA, and an honor to share it with fellow fans through feature stories and reviews written by myself and our team of writers. It’s been amazing too, as interest in #COTA has grown, to extend that mission through outlets like NBC and The Huffington Post, and to see my byline among the thousand or so Playbills in my collection.
It’s also been an honor to give to these talents in return with the “Our Leading Lady” Award, now in its second year.
If you told a teenage version of me that #COTA would exist and that he would ever have the opportunity to honor this star a week after she won her first Tony award, he wouldn’t have believed you. Now, to think that we’re doing it with a show at Feinstein’s/54 Below, featuring some of Broadway’s top talents to honor the incredible Laura Benanti, he’d tell you the honest truth: he’s living a dream.
I’ve said this before: what has always mesmerized me about great stars isn’t just what they do on stage. It’s that they’re just like us. They live their lives – with the good and the bad – but then they show up eight times a week to transform into characters who transport us to a magical and emotional place. That, in my mind, is what makes them truly super-human.
So, by bringing their stories to life on #COTA and celebrating their work, I’ve gotten to know and befriend artists like Laura, and can say that not only is it an honor to recognize her for her incredible career and contributions to our industry, but for the person she is offstage, too.
In the movie of Laura’s life, she could be the ultimate diva. This Tony award-winning star is one of Broadway’s most in-demand leading ladies. She has an amazing fan base, and is one of our best ambassadors, straddling a career between theater and TV—but she’s transparent about the fact that her heart lives on Broadway.
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT LAURA’S LOVE OF BROADWAY, READ STEVE’S LATEST INTERVIEW WITH HER ON WHOSAY.
But, ask anyone who knows Laura, and they’ll say that a diva she is not. She’s giving and kind, which is part of her personal mantra. She’s open about her spirituality, which Laura connects to primarily through Buddhism, and because of it, she’s learned to seek happiness for others over herself.
Laura illustrates this sentiment in something she recently shared, “Sometimes I have bad days. We all do. But instead of focusing on myself, and what I need to be happy—possibly acting in a selfish way—I surround myself with friends and take the time to be thankful for what I have. I meditate and see it as an important part of my daily routine. I do it focusing on gratitude, and honestly that every person in my life presents me with a gift. They give me a chance to focus on patience, love, empathy and kindness. But, in my spiritual journey, it’s important to me to go beyond those people who are part of my direct experience, and meditate on hoping for true happiness, kindness and freedom for all beings.”
But, don’t think for one second that Laura’s floating around outside of Studio 54, where she’s headlining the nomination-laden revival of She Loves Me, in a spiritual haze. She’s one of the “realest” people you’ll ever meet. For instance, I’ll never forget getting secret texts when she was at a Buddhist retreat last summer, where she was supposed to be free from her phone and had even made a public declaration on Twitter that she was taking a short break from chatting with her “Tweeps.” I felt honored that Broadway’s queen of social media had taken a break but was keeping in touch with me. I’m quite sure I wasn’t the only one, but being made to feel special is part of Laura’s magic offstage, too.
She has an unparalleled ability to connect with people, be it one-on-one or in a room of thousands because she’s uniquely attuned to emotion. She goes beyond herself to empathize with others, including those she’s brought to life in the characters she portrays on stage.
Others can attest to how Lady Benanti holds court in her dressing room after each performance. Laura graciously accepts compliments from her guests but doesn’t bait them for more. Instead, she uses the time to check in and connect—clearly appreciative for her guests’ time, coming to see the show, and thankful for their presence in her life.
“You experience a freeing feeling when you’re not always obsessed with your own happiness,” Laura shared. “I have bad days and am human. So looking for my happiness is my default, too. But it’s my priority to try and focus on others and as a result, I see how indirectly we all benefit. It’s amazing not to be so consumed in yourself.”
Consider that for a moment. This star who is once again stunning audiences, earning every available nomination possible, including another Tony Award nomination from the American Theatre Wing, isn’t focused on her own happiness. She isn’t seeking more; she’s earning it while seeking happiness for others. That’s a beautiful lesson and a beautiful person who we can all learn it from.
This mindset is infused in her relationships, so when I proposed we do a show to honor her career, “We Love Her: A Celebration of Laura Benanti” at Feinstein’s/54 Below, it’s not surprising that almost all the stars I asked immediately said “yes!” (emphasis on the “!”). The rest said how much they wanted to join us and sent their love for Laura, but were otherwise committed or out of town. Not one of them dodged the request.
Within a day, we had a line-up that now includes Jeremy Jordan, Michael Urie, Alexandra Silber, The Skivvies, Julia Murney, Eric Anderson, Jessica Rush, and more. We secured celebrated composer and lyricist, Georgia Stitt, to serve as music director. Even the club, which books many headliners and a dozen shows or more a week, was impressed and the concert sold out within hours after going on sale.
The response isn’t really that surprising, as I already knew Laura to be a giving and kind person who inspires her colleagues, fans, industry, and friends. She is exactly the kind of person who deserves a show filled with stars who excitedly say, “yes!” to celebrating her with a night like this.
But, while I have the opportunity to give her this gift of a show and the award that she was eagerly selected for by members of our #COTA team, she’s given me a gift in return. Consider again that teenage me sitting in the theater, wanting to know more about the stars who were making such an impression in my life. Now, fast forward to today, to working with this Tony Award-winner and celebrated performer, putting together “We Love Her: A Celebration of Laura Benanti.”
At each step, I’ve consulted with Laura, from the set list to how the show should flow. She’s made herself beyond accessible for it, with multiple texts or emails flying each day, sharing ideas.
At one point she said on the phone, “I hope I’m not micro-managing,” because she had sent me back suggestions to a copy of the set list. “Are you kidding?” I said. “I’m totally theater-geeking out, just having the chance to collaborate with you, like this.” A self-proclaimed “musical theater nerd” herself, I think she appreciated it.
Because the show sold out so quickly, though, there are a lot of fellow “theater geeks” and “nerds” who weren’t able to get tickets. We were excited by the response but realized we wanted even more people than those who could get into Feinstein’s/54 Below to join in the celebration, especially since Laura is also so appreciative of her fans.
For me, too, I thought back once again to why I founded #COTA, to connect theater fans with stars and shows they’ll love, and so we’ve decided to help all of Laura’s fans connect through social media and view pieces of “We Love Her” LIVE on Facebook.
REMEMBER TO REFRESH YOUR FACEBOOK FEED DURING THE SHOW!
It’s incredible to live this dream, and through it bring fellow fans closer to the stars and show they love with feature stories and reviews, in collaboration with my team at Center On The Aisle.
It’s also an honor to celebrate Laura Benanti, “Our Leading Lady.” Will you join us? I hope you’ll say, “yes!”