By Steve Schonberg, #COTA editor in chief (@CntrOnTheAisle)
Recently, Laura Benanti, 36, threatened the world on CBS’ “Supergirl” as the title character’s conflicted aunt, General Astra, and played Supergirl’s mother too, Alura Zor-El, in a surprise plot twist. She previously co-starred as Sadie Stone on ABC’s “Nashville,” and has had featured roles on Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” and USA’s “Royal Pains,” among others. But, what many TV fans are still surprised to learn is that Benanti is, first and foremost, one of Broadway’s great leading ladies. Now, she’s returned to reinforce her dominance there, starring in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of the Bock & Harnick musical, She Loves Me.
Whether fans have come to know Benanti by way of Broadway or TV, though, her accolades seem to accumulate non-stop. But, like all of us, Benanti’s had setbacks. Its been emotional for her, but she’s worked hard to address her challenges and is now enjoying a more rewarding path forward. “I feel like I have grown tremendously as a person,” she said. “I am more proud of the person I am now… I feel more fulfilled.”
“Broadway’s my first love, my childhood dream,” the star, who originally hails from New Jersey, said of her return to the stage in She Loves Me. Known offstage for her unique blend of beauty-meets-quirky style, it’s incredible to think of a young Laura Benanti — like so many “fan girls” — living close to New York City, working tirelessly to travel the nearby, yet long road to Broadway. Offstage, she was quickly getting noticed, with antics like dressing as the ugly, diseased and moribund Fosca from Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s musical, Passion, for Halloween. She also cried publically on the school bus when her classmates said they didn’t know the work of legendary singer and actress, Rosemary Clooney.
Fast forward 25 years or so, and Benanti is now one Broadway’s most sought-after talents, having starred in shows like Nine, Into the Woods and The Sound of Music (which she revisited in 2013 as Elsa, for the NBC production of “The Sound of Music, Live!”). She won a Tony award for her portrayal of Gypsy Rose Lee in the 2008 revival of Gypsy, opposite Patti LuPone, and most recently headlined shows at both New York City Center and Lincoln Center. She also co-starred with Derek Hough in last year’s “New York Spring Spectacular” at Radio City Music Hall.
Exclusive Laura Benanti playlist, curated by Center On The Aisle (#COTA):
“It honestly feels like going home after being on a long trip where you had fun, but now you’re ready,” she added, about her time on TV but returning to Broadway for the revival of She Loves Me at Studio 54, part of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s 50th anniversary season.
“Oh, that’s crazy that you don’t want to be on television so you can do something on Broadway,” Benanti repeated of some fans’ reaction to her giving up a recurring role on “Nashville” last year for She Loves Me, anticipating scheduling conflicts. “But to me, that’s my priority.” “[This is] such a little jewel box of a musical,” she said of the show, written by the same collaborators who created Fiddler on the Roof. “I’ve wanted to play this role for a long time.”
In the show, Benanti plays Amalia, opposite Zachary Levi (Georg), as two feuding perfume clerks. Outside of work, they’re each in love with their anonymous pen pals, and in the spirit of truly classic comedy, it’s revealed that they’ve actually been writing to one another. The musical from 1963 is an adaptation of the play, Parfumerie by Miklos Laszlo, and it has enjoyed other iterations since, including the hit film, “You’ve Got Mail,” starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Benanti and Levi are joined by another stage-to-screen crossover star, Jane Krakowski, and a cast of fellow Broadway veterans.
But, like her portrayal of Cinderella in the 2002 revival of Into the Woods, life hasn’t always been a fairytale from the school bus in New Jersey to the theater on West 54th Street, where she’s once again living out her Broadway dreams.
Before her larger success on “Nashville” and “Supergirl,” Benanti made other attempts at parlaying her recognized star presence from the stage to TV. These included NBC’s “The Playboy Club” (2011) led by Benanti, that was cancelled after just three episodes, and the NBC sitcom, “Go On” (2012), co-starring Benanti and “Friends” alum, Matthew Perry. “Go On” received positive reviews and lasted a full season before being cancelled. While it offered Benanti a leading role though, it may not have provided her with material to best showcase her sharp comedic talents.
She experienced heartbreak too, getting married twice since 2005, first to Chris Barron, founder of the Spin Doctors, and then Steven Pasquale, fellow stage and TV performer, both ending in divorce.
Benanti’s story though is sadly not unique in the entertainment industry where projects often don’t succeed long-term, and the demands on performers can make relationships especially difficult. But, these experiences are still personal to her, yet incredibly relatable, and the results are inspiring, too.
“I certainly feel like the past five years have been deep growing years for me,” Benanti said candidly. “It began with growing pains, and the sadness of expectations crumbling. Because really that’s what it is…” But, she wasn’t deterred. “Was I brokenhearted by some things personally and professionally? For sure. But, that also opened my heart a little bit more. It made me more empathetic. It made me look at myself more and where I’m culpable, because, at the end of the day when you have consistent, tremendous disappointments, you are the common denominator there,” she added.
“I had to look to see where my culpability was in that. Because I’m not a victim by any means. I made choices, and I don’t want to see myself like that.”
But now Benanti’s enjoying new success in areas that previously proved challenging, and has shown to be among a handful of ambassadors who can bridge their worlds for fans, between stage and screen. She’s become a hit on social media, with 85,000 followers on Twitter, and 40,000 on Instagram. On these platforms, she reaches fans with comedic videos and one-liners, and uses them to promote her projects, like the release of her recent single, “I Like Musicals.”
She’s also opened her heart and taken the plunge, again – marrying boyfriend, Patrick Brown in November. Her first marriage outside of the entertainment industry, Benanti says in a peaceful, loving tone, “He’s the best guy.”
“For me, sort of turning around my attitude, and not allowing myself to perceive me as a victim, or to feel like I can never win, or to feel like my heart is still broken by various things. That it will never be whole again. All of that personal journey was so important to me” Benanti shared. “I feel really safe in my life right now. Which is a really, really nice feeling to have,” she added. “I feel really safe with my husband. I feel really grounded and loved and cared for and understood and valued and seen and adored. Which is a lovely feeling.”
“I feel all of those things towards him in return… It’s like a safe place from which I can then go and explore the vast universe.”
She Loves Me, starring Laura Benanti, runs through June 12 at Studio 54.