Imagine being nineteen years old and leading the cast of a Broadway show! That’s exactly what Laura Benanti did. She graduated high school, auditioned for Liesl in the Broadway revival of The Sound of Music and was cast as the understudy for Rebecca Luker. A year later, Rebecca left the company and Laura became Maria, playing opposite Richard Chamberlain. She’s currently singing and dancing her way through eight shows a week in this season’s new musical Swing! which is playing at the St. James Theatre, and she has just been nominated for a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
Laura comes by her talent quite honestly. Her father is actor Martin Vidnovic and her mother, Linda, was a professional performer and is now Laura’s vocal coach. Laura also grew up with her stepfather, Sal Benanti, who is a psychologist. Despite this pedigree, Laura claims she had quite a normal non-showbiz childhood in New Jersey.
Nancy Rosati: I guess my first question is, “How does a girl of nineteen go from high school to Broadway?”
Laura Benanti: Well, I was eighteen really. I was seventeen when I auditioned for Liesl, and they immediately said, “No.”
NR: Why was that? Because you’re tall?
LB: I looked too old. I was about the same height as the girl who did it, and just two years older than her, but my look is much more mature I suppose.
I auditioned for Liesl when I was seventeen. I landed the understudy for Rebecca Luker as Maria at eighteen and then took over when I was nineteen.
LB: For two consecutive weeks during her vacation, but I never went on for her any other time. She was amazing.
NR: That must have been a little frustrating.
LB: No, it was OK. You grow a lot in those years. I didn’t really have a college experience so that was really my time to grow and learn. I wasn’t itching to go on necessarily. For those two weeks it was wonderful, because I was able to really focus myself and do it. But I don’t think I would have been prepared to just do Maria at eighteen.
NR: Were you playing a nun at the time?
LB: Um hmm. I was in the Ensemble. I was always on stage. I had eight shows a week which was great and kind of fulfilled that craving. I really had no desire at that point to go on. I was a little too nervous but I grew into it so that was nice.
NR: I think I read somewhere that you lived in this area when you were little.
LB: I was born in New York and I lived on 54th Street until I was three. I don’t remember it but my biological dad lives here so I would come visit him sometimes. We’re close.
NR: I understand your parents are performers?
LB: My dad is a performer. My mom is my voice teacher - a wonderful voice teacher - and she was a performer. My stepdad, who actually raised me, is a psychotherapist and a health counselor, so I kind of have the best of all worlds.
NR: Were you backstage when you were a little kid?
LB: I was. I was born when my parents were doing Oklahoma! They were doing Oklahoma! in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. My mother and father did Brigadoon. I have these slight memories of people with lots of make-up on taking care of me, basically. My parents would have me in their dressing room and everyone took turns when they weren’t on stage, coming back to make sure I was not getting into trouble. It’s really interesting. I see people now in the business and they’ll say, “I used to babysit you when you were backstage.” People I don’t even remember will come up to me and say, “I remember when you were a little kid.”
It’s funny, because it’s not like I had a show biz childhood at all. I was pretty much secluded in New Jersey. My parents would not let me audition for any professional theater.
NR: Why is that?
LB: I think they wanted me to have a normal childhood. Also, I grew really quickly and I think that they understood that I was twelve but I looked seventeen. If I went in for an audition, they would look at me and say, “No.”
NR: So, Annie wasn’t really an option?
LB: No. I was just way too grown up.
NR: Suppose you did look like a twelve year old. Do you think they would have attempted it?
LB: No. I think that was their excuse, the thing that I would accept. But, I fought them tooth and nail. I wanted to do it so badly, but I’m really glad now. Looking back, and having worked with all of the kids in The Sound of Music, I really appreciate my youth. I really appreciate the time I had to grow and develop and have a creative imagination. When I was little, I would think it would make my imagination grow to be on stage all the time, but actually what you do is regurgitate eight shows a week when you’re a little kid, as opposed to sitting in your room and thinking of all the magical things in the woods, and making stories up and writing about them. It’s a totally different type of intelligence that you use.
NR: You bring up a good point. I’ve spoken to actors who’ve said that you should go right into a performing arts school as soon as possible, but others have said, “No. Wait as long as you can because it’s just as necessary to acquire life experience. You need to know what people in general are like - not just actors.”
LB: I think the most beautiful acting comes from true emotion and true understanding, and how you can affect people in the audience and yourself. You want to be able to listen and to speak truthfully, and if you grow up in a “black box” you’re never going to learn that. I’m a big believer in having normalcy in your life at a young age.
NR: Did you do high school shows?
LB: Yes, which was a lot of fun. It was great because everyone in the town got all excited. I actually won the “Rising Star Award” at Paper Mill.
NR: You won it when you were in high school?
LB: When I was sixteen years old.
NR: They came to your school and saw you perform?
LB: Yeah. They have a really wonderful program at Paper Mill. The “Rising Star Award” is like the Tony Awards for New Jersey. They go all the way up and down New Jersey, from north to south. Hundreds and hundreds of schools submit. It was the first year they did it and I tied with a girl who played Evita.
NR: Which show were you doing at the time?
LB: I did Hello Dolly. I played Dolly. Then I started working at Paper Mill when I was a senior in high school. At that point my parents said basically, “You have a car. We can’t stop you.” So, I worked there. It’s actually through Paper Mill that I got The Sound of Music because the casting director called Paper Mill looking for a Liesl and they submitted me.
NR: That’s wonderful.
LB: Yeah, it’s so amazing to me how things lead into other things.
NR: Absolutely. That’s so true in this business.
LB: It’s unbelievable.
NR: I was watching my daughter’s high school musical last night. I looked at the girl who was the lead, and not to pick on her, but I just can’t see her on Broadway in a lead role a year from now. That’s amazing that you did that.
LB: It’s a huge leap and I have to say I think it was because in my mind I was always ready. And I think, had my parents let me do it as a child, I wouldn’t have been ready, because you spend so much time learning how to be cute or learning to make a face. I just took all of that anger that they wouldn’t let me do it, and all that energy and focused it into my projection of what I wanted. I’ve always had really high, lofty goals and ambitions, and I think that’s why. I think I was ready.
NR: What was your Sound of Music audition like? How many other girls went in for Liesl?
LB: I had a closed audition so I don’t know how many people auditioned. It was definitely nerve-wracking. But ignorance is bliss. I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t know anything about acting at all, so I was just kind of relaxed. I went in to sing and they had a strange look on their faces when they said “Thank you.” I immediately thought that I must have been horrible. When I got home my mom was on the phone with the casting director, who was going on and on saying, “Your daughter’s so wonderful, blah, blah, blah” and my mother said to me, “You did a really good job, honey” and that was that. Then they called me back in eight more times for the Ensemble. Every time it got harder and harder because there were more and more people. So, bottom line was it was really frightening. The last one was the scariest because there were fifty nuns all in one room. Everyone else had been faxed the audition sides for the understudies a week earlier. I had no idea they were ever going to see me for Maria.
NR: No, you wouldn’t think that. What were you, seventeen?
LB: Seventeen and this young Italian girl. You’d never think that. When they said, on a whim, “We’d really like you to read to understudy Rebecca” I was at such a disadvantage. Everyone else had the sides and knew the words of the songs. I didn’t know anything, but I guess they overlooked that and went on faith.