Update Interview with Laura Benanti
I first met Laura Benanti in 2000. She was 20 years old and already playing her second major lead in a Broadway show (Swing!, which followed The Sound of Music). She was bursting with talent and enthusiasm, a beautiful girl whose childhood dreams had come true, and she was eager to share that joy with me. We sat on the floor of her dressing room in the St. James Theatre, while she chatted about her love of the theater, and confessed her blissful ignorance of the inner workings of show business.
A year after Swing, Laura played Cinderella in the revival of Into the Woods. She received a Tony nomination for her portrayal, but she was also seriously injured during one of her pratfalls. It wasn't until nine months after the accident that she was diagnosed with a broken neck. Asked by the production not to mention her injuries publicly, Laura found herself in the uncomfortable position of missing performances, but unable to explain her reasons. She had neck surgery three weeks before beginning previews of Nine, once again missing some initial performances during her recovery, but finally able to stabilize her neck and remove the lingering threat of paralysis.
Six years after our first interview, Laura is starring as Julia Sullivan in The Wedding Singer, and I was greeted at the stage door of the Hirschfeld Theatre by a grown woman - still stunningly beautiful, and still warm and friendly, but now fully aware of her role as a performer and my role as a member of the press. With a theater career most actors would envy, Laura has learned many lessons since we first met, and it is obvious that much of her newly acquired knowledge did not come easily.
Nancy Rosati: The last time we spoke was six years ago and you've done so much since then.
Laura Benanti: I've been pretty lucky.
NR: Back then we were talking about how you were so naÔve. James Lapine called you and you didn't know who he was. That must be hard for you to imagine now.
LB: It's pretty funny. I was naÔve and really innocent, but in a way that was such a blessing. There are times now where I wish that I still was that way. The joy is so pure and you don't realize how much of a business it is when you're younger. Now I know what a business it is. I understand there are people you can trust and people you can't trust. Although it's better to know that, it's also kind of sad. That's been a big learning experience.
NR: You've done so much in the past six years. You did Wonderful Town at City Center ...
LB: And Into the Woods, A Winter's Tale at Williamstown, A Little Night Music at the L.A. Opera, a TV show.
NR: Tell me about how you were injured in Into the Woods, and how you're doing now.
LB: I broke my neck. I'm okay now. There's a little scar in the front. It's always sore. I have fused vertebrae which means I have less movement and less mobility. I was misdiagnosed initially so I have arthritis and bone spurs. I went nine months with a mistreatment. Then I finally had surgery and now I'm okay.
It was very dangerous. I could have ended up paralyzed. I was very lucky that I was never jostled on the street. It was literally at a point that if someone pushed me too hard I could have ended up paralyzed.
NR: Did you keep doing the show after you were hurt?
LB: I took off for a little bit. I did physical therapy and then I tried to go back, but I just couldn't do it.
NR: I remember you got a lot of grief by people saying that you don't show up. How did that make you feel?
LB: It was really hurtful. I had a serious injury and there was absolutely no way I could have done the show. I tried to. I tried to go back and do it but I physically couldn't. My feeling was that it was unfair to the audience. If I'm out there limping and barely able to move my head, it's a hundred dollars to see a show. That's not fair.
Then I got the surgery three weeks before the first preview of Nine. I missed some shows because I had just gotten neck surgery.
NR: Recovering from surgery is tough. How were you able to do a show only three weeks later?
LB: It was awful. It was sheer will because I knew people ... . some people ... The people who knew me understood, and that's always the way it is. Then the people who want to rip you down said whatever they said, so I just wanted to push through. But there were days ... Not only did I have neck pain, but they had to shove a tube down my throat. They went in through the front of my neck so my cords were incredibly swollen from just having neck surgery. There were days in Nine when I couldn't talk. I was so swollen in my neck and my throat that I couldn't talk. What are you going to do then? I'm not going to go out there and talk "Unusual Way." And you know what? I did the best that I could. I missed very little considering that I had just had a major life-altering surgery.
NR: Tell me about working with Antonio Banderas again in your film Take the Lead.
LB: It was really fun. It involved very long hours, but he and I are very good friends. We shot one day until four in the morning and it was just hilarious. It was just like hanging out with your pal and joking around. We shot in Toronto and it was really fun. He's such a wonderful person, and so is his wife and his whole family. He's a real person - he doesn't care about any of the crap.
NR: Then you did a TV show called Starved [a comedy about a support group for people with eating disorders].
LB: It didn't get picked up. It was a difficult show to take on. I think a lot of it was fantastic. Eric Schaeffer (writer/director) is a very creative mind. But I think it was a hard thing for some people to wrap their heads around, and I don't particularly blame them. For me it was a good experience. I got a lot of camera experience, which was something I just hadn't had. I got to play a role that's so different than what I usually play. I got to play a really damaged human being, which was very interesting. It was nice in a way to do something else. So, it didn't get picked up, but it was a good experience.
LB: It's a great group of people. The thing I keep saying about it is that most love stories are so ethereal. People are up on a pedestal like Romeo and Juliet and you think it's so amazing, but this is a show about your neighbors, and they deserve love too. Having a show that celebrates what the majority of people do - get married and have children and raise them, and be loving to each other - is wonderful. So often, that's not necessarily celebrated. It's looked down upon because it's not fancy enough. The point of this show is that everybody deserves love. Sometimes the love that you have is right in front of you.
I love the fact that it's about the people I grew up with - good people being good because they should, finding each other and loving each other. The bad guys lose, the good guys win. I don't think there's enough of that. Some people might say it's too silly, but I think that if you look at the Depression and World War II, great comedies came out of that time. The fact that there's something light and fun and sweet on Broadway right now that's accessible to many people, I think it's a blessing.
NR: And the show got a Tony nomination for Best Musical.
LB: It's very exciting! Hopefully it will run for a long, long time. It's a show that everybody can relate to on some level. There are some bad words in it - I wouldn't bring little kids. Sometimes I look out and I see little, little kids. I'm sure it goes over their heads to an extent. But it's a sweet, happy show, and there's nothing wrong with that.
NR: Is your neck doing okay in this one?
LB: It's okay. It still gets sore but it's better than it was. I just keep on keeping on. A friend of mine said something interesting to me: "They don't call it 'show fairness' they call it 'show business.' " It's not brain surgery, it's dress up. This is about making people happy. This is about making people feel. It's not saving people's lives. When people get so caught up in it [on message boards], and so whacky about it, and so small-minded, it makes me wonder. That's the part of the business, as I've gotten older, that has frustrated me - where I feel like you have the Donna Murphys of the world and the Marin Mazzies and the Bernadette Peters, who are lovely, kind, dynamic, amazing women, and then you have Joe Schmo saying some ridiculous thing about them that's not true on the Internet. I want to say, "You don't know her. You don't know me. Don't talk about me. You don't know what a lovely, lovely person Donna Murphy is. You don't know her private struggles, and if you do, keep them to yourself."
NR: Now that you've learned so much more about this career, is there anything you would have done differently?
LB: Yes. I would have said, "That pratfall is too hard for me. I'm not strong enough." But I was 20 and I wanted everybody to like me. I wanted to be a team player and I wanted to do my job. Then I was told, "Don't talk about your injury. If people ask you, be quiet about it." Now I would say, "I'm hurting. I'm literally in a halo." I would be more verbal about it instead of trying to hide it and let people say stuff about me. I would take things less personally and try to please fewer people, which is what I'm doing now. Quite frankly, if everybody loves you, you are lying to someone. I would rather be genuine, live my life and do good work, have my family and have my friends, than run around like a chicken with its head cut off trying to make everybody think that I am what they want me to be. The truth is we're all just people trying to make a living and trying to make people happy. I really wish that people remembered kindness more.
And I would stick up for myself more. I would try to please people less, and I would be more safe and not do things that I'm scared to do just because I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings, or I don't want to show them that I can't. If I can't do something, if I can't catch myself on my forearms every day, eight shows a week, then I can't do it. I really did break my neck - it's not just a metaphor to me. I really did break my neck trying to please people and I'm not going to do it anymore.
I got a bunch of calls when the Tony nominations came out. People were saying, "I'm sorry. I can't believe you weren't nominated." I told them, "I didn't take this job because of a Tony nomination." This is not the job you take to get a Tony nomination. I took this job to have fun, to show people that I don't always have to be the girl on the pedestal, that elusive, ethereal lady. I took this job to show that I can be the girl next door, and because it was different. I know how to play the dark lady, so I was stretching myself, and I absolutely did not expect it. It wasn't till I got all the phone calls that I thought, "Is this a big deal? Should I be upset?" I called my mom and she said, "No, honey, you should not be upset. It's not a big deal. Your show got nominated; that's the point. You didn't take this job for that. That's what you take Into the Woods for. That's what you take Man of La Mancha for."
I'm going to be fine. I think the next show I do will be more along the lines of those shows, but I love this now. It's super fun and I get to come to work with people that I love, every single day. I get to have a blast, which I didn't always get to do. It was so amazing singing the Into the Woods music, and Nine as well, but it was dramatic and every night I went home emotionally exhausted. Now I leave smiling. I have little girls coming up to me saying, "I had so much fun at the play! I loved it!" To me, that's the point - to have a long and varied career, and not just do things out of fear so that people will like me.
There are so many lovely people in this industry. From my experience, the higher up in the food chain you go, the nicer they are. They know. They'll say, "You should hear the things people said about me." They understand that life is larger than trying to scratch everybody off of the wall. My thought is, once you get up there, then help the next person over the wall and we'll all get there, instead of this bizarre one-handed clawing at each other. I don't understand that at all. But the Kelli O'Haras of the world, Erin Dilly, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Julia Murney, Amy Spanger - those are classy, classy ladies. There are so many lovely, beautiful and talented women who deserve seven million Tonys and seven thousand brilliant roles.
So that's that. Onward and upward. Musical theater is not dead and it's not going to die, but we all have to do our part and I plan on doing mine. Hopefully everybody else does theirs, and I think a big, huge part of that is creating a community based in respect, love, honestly, and support as opposed to what tends to happen.
The Wedding Singer continues at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.