Starring as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady on Broadway, the award-winning actor talks to Howard Sherman about playing her childhood dream role, lampooning Melania Trump on The Late Show, what she would do if she ran the theatre industry, and what to expect when she makes her London stage debut in concert at Cadogan Hall in June
Ever since Laura Benanti was young, she has refused to watch the film version of My Fair Lady. Now starring as Eliza Doolittle herself on Broadway, the acclaimed performer reveals why: it’s all down to her love of Julie Andrews. When she learned, aged five, that Audrey Hepburn had taken the role Andrews had played on Broadway and the West End during the 1950s, Benanti “took a hard pass” on seeing the film.
She continues: “I was furious that Julie Andrews was not tapped for the movie, and had a very, very deep schadenfreude when I learned that she won the Oscar for Mary Poppins the same year that My Fair Lady happened.” Benanti will still not watch the film. “I want Julie Andrews to know this more than anything about me.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
I shovelled manure into bags and brought those bags to people’s cars.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Jane Eyre at Paper Mill Playhouse.
What is your next job?
I’m not allowed to talk about it yet.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
I wish someone had told me just to be myself. We are so obsessed with ‘types’. There is only one you. Be that.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
What is your best advice for auditions?
Know that the people auditioning you actually want you to be the solution. They’re rooting for you. They’re not coming in to judge you and be horrible to you. Also, if you don’t get it, most of the time it is in no way personal at all.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I don’t say the name of ‘the Scottish play’, and I don’t whistle in the theatre. In terms of rituals, I want to keep them to myself.
Benanti, much like Andrews in her day, was a theatrical prodigy, making her Broadway debut at age 18 in the 1998 revival of The Sound of Music, playing a postulant and understudying the lead role of Maria, a part she would take over and play opposite Richard Chamberlain. She had already appeared in roles at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, in productions of Jane Eyre (with Anne Hathaway as her understudy) and Man of La Mancha, but would have started even sooner had she been allowed.
She really wanted an agent and wanted to audition for professional theatre but her parents said she had to be 18, she says. “I’m really glad they did that because I put on some fantastic performances in my bedroom. I really think it planted seeds of creativity that you’re not going to get if you are doing the same thing eight times a week when you’re a child.”
‘I wanted Eliza Doolittle’s story to be less about a man who moulds a girl and more about a woman who moulds herself’
Having starred on Broadway in revivals of Into the Woods, Gypsy, Nine and She Loves Me, as well as premieres of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Swing, and In the Next Room, Benanti is now playing her childhood dream role eight times a week. She replaced Lauren Ambrose in the Lincoln Centre Theater production of My Fair Lady in October and has extended her run until July.
She considers what she brings to a role now. “Look, I’m 39 years old,” she says. “I don’t think I quite play that on stage. Let’s imagine that on stage she’s 32. So there is a life experience that I bring. I wanted to successfully convey the flower girl, the transition, and the person she winds up being. Similarly to Gypsy, where you don’t just want to go from A to Z. You have to hit all the letters in between, or it’s not as satisfying.”
Benanti wants to show her Eliza as someone who was always working to improve herself despite the occasional cruelty of her mentor. “I really wanted to show the effort and the accomplishment, so that it’s less about a man who moulds a girl and more about a woman who moulds herself.”
Director Bartlett Sher’s revival has been spoken of as a production for the #TimesUp era, with a more aware and equal Eliza. And it is something that resonates with Benanti, who says she has faced sexual harassment in her career.
“When I was 18 years old, I had all these mentors who were grown men. Now I look back and realise they weren’t interested in my brain,” she says. “When I was 19 years old, a very, very powerful person took me to lunch to talk about my career. He then offered to put me up in an apartment if I would be his mistress. I was 19 years old and he was in his late 50s.”
It was the day before cell phones so Benanti excused herself to go to the bathroom and called her mother on a payphone. “She was like: ‘Leave. You just have to leave.’ But I didn’t. Because I was young and scared. So I just sort of skirted the issue and said: ‘No, I’m not interested in that,’ but laughed at other inappropriate comments, because I thought I had to. It’s not even something that crossed my mind that I could shift.”
And it never crossed her mind as a young performer to challenge a choreographer who referred to her in demeaning terms. “I didn’t think I was allowed to do that,” she says. Though she adds: “My generation had it so much better than my mother’s. It’s definitely getting better. I think now there’s this sense of some men thinking: ‘Well, what do we say?’ And we’re like: ‘How about just don’t say anything that’s going to make somebody feel uncomfortable? How about that?’. The change that I see is that it’s now a conversation where it didn’t used to be.”
‘As a child, I used to put on some fantastic performances in my bedroom. I really think it planted seeds of creativity’
While 11 Broadway shows in 21 years is an enviable record for any actor, Benanti’s greatest fame may come not from the stage, but from her recurring appearances as Melania Trump in sketches on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, an impersonation Benanti says was whipped up with about five hours’ notice.
“Most people probably know me best as Melania,” Benanti says. “That is a very weird thing for me. On the one hand, it’s done such a great thing in terms of solidifying me as a comedic actor. That’s been very helpful. But I also don’t want it to be the first line of my obituary.”
Asked whether the lampooning of the First Lady on television has been a form of political expression, Benanti replies: “I’m not shy about my political opinion, certainly. For me, other than trying to be informative on social media, which doesn’t help really, it’s the only recourse I have – to make light of and shine the spotlight on the more ridiculous things that happen in our current administration. That and the album [Singing You Home] that Mary Mitchell Campbell and I did to reunite families separated at the border.”
Responding to a prompt asking about the moments or people who have brought her the most joy, and with more than two decades to draw from, Benanti doesn’t miss a beat. “Patti LuPone,” she says. “Because Patti LuPone as just a human being living on this earth gives me so much pleasure. She makes me laugh so hard. I also just marvel at her ability, and her professionalism and her commitment. She’s amazing.” She adds her delight at working with Chita Rivera and Rosemary Harris.
Benanti will make her first London stage appearance in June, in concert at Cadogan Hall with her music director Todd Almond. She says the concert will be primarily made up of the songs with which she’s most associated, in the style she refers to as “her laid-back vibe”. But will she do something special for her UK debut? With a straight face, Benanti says: “I will do the entire show with a British accent, so they can prepare themselves for that. I will also be eating beans on toast.”
Asked in parting what she would do if she personally ran the entire theatre industry herself, she replies: “If I could wave a magic wand, ticket prices would be affordable so that people could bring their families, and it doesn’t become theatre for a rich audience. It can be more theatre for the masses. Also, actors would be able to truly make a living from their craft,
Off-Broadway and on Broadway. Yeah, that.”
Born: 1979, New York
Training: Vocal training with her mother, Linda Benanti
Landmark productions: The Sound of Music, Broadway (1998); Swing, Broadway (1999); Gypsy, Broadway (2008);Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (2010);She Loves Me, Broadway (2016); My Fair Lady, Broadway (2018)
Awards: Tony and Drama Desk awards for best featured actress in a musical for Gypsy (2008); Drama Desk Award for outstanding featured actress in a musical for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (2011)
Agent: United Talent Agency
Laura Benanti is performing at Cadogan Hall on June 30