In her 2008 Tony-Award winning performance as stripper Gypsy Rose Lee in the classic musical Gypsy, Laura Benanti turned the song "Let Me Entertain You" into an act of absolute seduction. At last year's Tony Awards she channeled Elaine Stritch in a comedic tribute to Broadway stars who haven't been as lucky with their television roles. But when she takes the stage at Catalina Bar and Grill this week, she might be playing her toughest role yet: herself.
"I like that people get to know you separately from the roles you've played," she says. "You get to step out from behind those characters and communicate with the audience. Then you get to step back into the character of the songs. In some ways I feel more comfortable being myself than being on stage in a character. I want people to feel like they are coming into my home. I want people to see me, warts and all."
The show came about after Benanti was booked at New York's 54 Below in May of 2013. These two L.A. appearances will celebrate the recording of those concerts, In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention. "I was nervous at first, but I stuck pretty closely to plan. Not that I've written anything, but I have bullet points and stuck rather rigidly to them." She then admits, "I think I've gotten looser. A lot of what you hear on the album is improvisation."
The show, which features a mix of showtunes and popular music, also includes original material by Benanti. "‘The Ukulele Song' is pretty self-explanatory. That came about when I was at my parents' house in New Jersey; I had this tune in my head and the song came out. ‘New Mexico' is a song I wrote as a little girl and Todd Almond brilliantly [arranged]it. My 9-year-old self could not be more thrilled that a song that I wrote when I was a child is now on an album. I find it profoundly moving."
In Gypsy, the role of Mama Rose was played by Patti LuPone (who also won a Tony Award.) In 2010 they appeared together again in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. What did Benanti learn from LuPone? "She made me a better actor. She is always present, always in the moment. She taught me that you can't anticipate anything; it takes the fun out of it. You have to trust yourself to be in your own body."
No doubt that advice came in handy during the recent Sound of Music Live when, as baroness Elsa Schrader, Benanti had her dress stepped on. She laughs before beginning. "I thought before the broadcast that something will go wrong but I'm sure it won't have to do with me. I was surprised when it did. I was so invested in this other human being and not thinking of myself. In retrospect it was good. I want people to remember this is live. There's no going back. This is theater brought to your home."
Topping Benanti's list of dream theater projects is playing Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. "The clock is ticking. I better do this now. I'm not getting any younger." She also admits to wanting to play "every Sondheim role" including Desiree in A Little Night Music and Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. "To me his music is musical theatre. It cuts straight to the core. There's no extraneous expression. I relate to almost every single song in a very deep way. He has a tremendous ability to look into the heart and soul of humanity." As her nine-year-old self realized, “a girl’s gotta do, what a girl’s gotta do…sometimes.”