Tony Award Winner Laura Benanti to Grace The Barns at Wolf Trap
October 27, 2021 @ 10:00am
A few weeks before she’s set to grace the stage at Wolf Trap, I caught Laura Benanti for a twenty-minute informal interview about her life, work, and the past two years in Covid. Running on nerves and espresso, I call her by the wrong name (Lauren) thirty seconds into our interview — not ideal when speaking to a Tony award-winning actress — and brace myself for a validly sour response.
Through the phone, I can hear her gentle smile. “It’s no problem,” she reassures me quietly. I hurriedly explain that I’m a green interviewer, much more used to the writing side of it, and she lets me finish before saying;
“You’re doing great. I’m not offended. Start again.”
Benanti is every bit the down-to-earth, chilled-out superstar she comes across as in her many, many media appearances. She laughs when I mention her daughter Ella, who Benanti has called “the mayor of our four-block radius [in Harlem].” With their Covid induced move out to the suburbs, Benanti assures me that Ella is still the charmer she was in NYC. “She’s like the mayor of New Jersey now.” The return home wasn’t without its drawbacks for Benanti, who talks about promising herself she would never move back to the Garden State. I find out quickly that she grew up only a few miles away from where my mother did, as someone who often shares the same runaway sentiment. But like many of the once unimaginable changes the past two years have brought, Benanti sees a silver lining.
“My daughter is so happy here,” Benanti gushes. Her priorities as a parent — even one in show business — are abundantly clear.
Her upcoming show at Wolf Trap is vaccine checked, like most in-person events in the DMV area, and while she’s thankful that she can both work and keep her family safe, Benanti is aware of the strain that comes with holding a group of strangers to anything.
“It’s tricky because now it’s like asking them to hold the same values as you,” she says. “I think we’re more divided than ever. But I really am very grateful to the audience members who will be attending and understand we need to keep each other safe.”
Benanti has ample experience with political divisions. A versatile performer, she made several guest appearances on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert as former first lady Melania Trump. It’s not something she expected to do, but watching her tight-lipped smoldering impressions, her comedic ability is clear as day. Both seeing her performances and speaking to her, I feel her almost magnetic draw, something that is echoed in the comments section of every single YouTube video she features in. “She’s lovely,” one reads, “She really brightens up the room,” says another. Page after page of people trying to explain her charisma. I’m struck by the fact that for someone who has spent their whole life embodying others, Benanti is very real. And being able to perform as herself, she tells me, is just as fulfilling as playing the lead.
“As I’m getting older, I am trying to do more and more of that in an effort to have my legacy be not only performing other people’s words but also mine.”
Despite not believing herself to be a talented songwriter (I’d beg to differ), she takes advantage of the opportunity to sing her own words. Her “Ukulele Song” is chock full of side-splitting, self-deprecating anecdotes that are almost painful to be able to relate to. It feels as if you’re in on the joke, listening to this effortlessly talented and beautiful actress sing lines like “Have you ever noticed when you’re pooped on by a bird/people look right at that turd/and they say the most absurd things/it’s lucky/I just think it’s yucky.”
With birds on the brain, Benanti tells me that keeping her work diverse is one of her top priorities. “I really don’t want to be pigeonholed as one thing.”
Being able to jump between comedic impressions, Broadway shows, and starring roles on TV shows like Paramount Plus’s “Younger” allows her to embrace performance in all its forms. It’s all about being open to growing, a sentiment she echoes several times over.
Playing Quinn on “Younger” was just as much a growing experience for Benanti, who laughs when I ask her about playing the “bitchy woman” archetype.
She quips, “I really don’t think that she would be considered as much of a villain if she weren’t a woman.”
But playing a woman who stands up for herself — sometimes to a fault — taught Benanti about boundary setting.
“I’m a person that likes to learn and grow. Direct is the way that I am trying to be in the world now. And if someone thinks that is me being a bitch, that’s none of my business and not my problem.”
Even in her most established role as a singer, Benanti looks to challenge herself, exploring genres from country to jazz and everything in between. At Wolf Trap she’ll be performing songs from her 2020 self-titled album, one that Benanti says she wants to be a journey spanning over nearly 100 musics and artists from Michel Legrand to Selena Gomez. She plans on performing some of her better-known theatrical hits as well, songs that people might associate with her like “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “Vanilla Ice Cream.” She’s breathlessly thankful to return to performing, and even more so to return to The Barns.
“I have a particular gratitude,” Benanti muses.
And for what exactly the answers are endless. For performing, for having an audience, for singing again in one of her favorite venues — it feels most apt to assume she’s going for all of the above.
To experience Laura Benanti’s musical journey featuring songs and humorous anecdotes visit wolftrap.org. Shows will be held on Saturday, October 30 at 3 and 8 p.m. with tickets ranging $42-$47. The Barns at Wolf Trap: 1635 Trap Rd. Vienna, VA; wolftrap.org//wolf_trap
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