After five years of focusing on TV, Laura Benanti (“Supergirl,” “Nashville,” “Nurse Jackie”), the fan-favorite actress with a burgeoning digital presence and a Tony Award for her 2008 performance as Louise in “Gypsy,” is back on Broadway in “She Loves Me,” Harnick and Bock’s 1963 jewel-box musical. The Roundabout Theater Company revival, in which Benanti plays the part that gave Barbara Cook her signature tune, has earned some good buzz on the way to its March 17 opening night. She talked to Variety about what got her back on the boards.
“Nashville” and “Supergirl” (on which you play Supergirl’s mother and her twin sister) have given you some meaty roles recently. What made you decide to pivot back to theater now?
I’ve been protecting this time slot for over a year and a half. Before I ever did “Nashville” or anything like that, I knew that I was going to be doing this job. Which is why I didn’t stay on with “Nashville,” and why I didn’t stay on with “Supergirl.”
What was so important to you about “She Loves Me”?
All I ever wanted to be growing up was Barbara Cook. I didn’t want to be a TV star or a movie star. I just wanted to come to the theater eight times a week and work with super-talented people and hear an audience laugh and have my heart beat at the same time as like 1,000 other peoples’ hearts. For me, it was a no-brainer. No, I’m not going to be a series regular on these fantastic television shows, so that instead I can come do a limited run of this precious musical. Because I feel like it’s for my soul, you know?
Do you find your TV work influencing your stage work at all?
TV utilizes a different part of your brain and a different part of your craft, so it did make me become a better actor onstage. It’s so about being real. Sometimes with theater, and in particular musical theater, you can get a tiny bit presentational, because when you hear the audience laugh you can be like, “Ooh, I’m gonna do it even biggah next time!” TV sort of grounds you in the truth, because you don’t have immediate feedback. You’re more living in the present moment.
You recently wrote and recorded the song “I Like Musicals,” with proceeds going to VH1’s music education foundation Save the Music. What inspired that?
I was thinking about how much I love my life, and how grateful I am. And then I was thinking, I wish I could go back in time and tell the frizzy-haired, acne, braces, hardly any friends, loving-musicals-and-not-having-anyone-to-talk-to-about-it-other-than-my-mom version of me — I wish I could go back in time and be like, “It’s all gonna be great.” I sing the song from the place of my loser-y high school self, in efforts to reach other people who might be feeling the same way now.
You’re active on Twitter and Instagram. Was getting into that a conscious decision to raise your profile?
When I started, it wasn’t conscious at all. At first it was like, “Oh, this is fun,” and then all of a sudden I realized, “Oh, wait a minute, I can have an unfiltered voice to people who might have a preconceived notion about me.” The thing I kept hearing was “I didn’t know you were funny!” I think because I played a lot of roles that were serious, a lot of ingenue roles, and being a soprano, people assume you’re sort of stuffy because you’re not a quirky belter. I don’t like when people tweet means sh— at me. Nobody likes that. But sometimes I do, because I get to say funny things back to them, like “You seem like a real peach, if peaches were made of a—holes.” And I’ve found it to be helpful in my career. There are writers and comedians who follow me who otherwise wouldn’t know who I was. And it got me a book deal. Literally my editor came to me because of my tweets.
What’s your book about?
It’s called “I Stole Your Boyfriend and Other Monstrous Acts on the Way to Becoming a Human Woman.” It’s about being a supernerd as a kid, and then finding my Broadway dream at the age of 18, and then being like, “Now what I do? I guess date everyone. And I should probably also marry them.” It’s a cautionary tale to young women who might seek the approval from others that they otherwise might find in themselves. It’s not a self-help book, but it’s a tiny bit of a self-help book. It’s for my people: ladies and gays.
What’s next after “She Loves Me”?
I would love to do a New York-shot, New York-based late night variety TV show, for ladies and gays and any man who wants to come too. Thirty minutes, once a week. Sometimes the opening monologue would be a song. It’s something I’m actively trying to make happen right now. I think there’s a market for it. Maybe not on CBS, but with all of the streaming networks that we have, I do think there’s room for it. Sort of like “Ellen” meets Amy Schumer meets Carol Burnett.