When Carrie Underwood does her iconic Maria von Trapp on the mountaintop twirl on Thursday night’s live NBC broadcast of The Sound of Music, Laura Benanti will do her best not to rush in from the wings and start belting about the hills being alive herself.
“Could you imagine?” the actress tells me. “That would be hilarious: ‘Actress Goes Crazy in Live Telecast, Never Works Again.’”
The Tony-winning Broadway-turned-TV star is starring as Baroness Elsa Schraeder opposite Underwood in the ambitious broadcast, a live, one-night-only staging of the cherished musical. You’re going to love her in it. We promise. And that the scene-stealing supporting role could be somewhat of a breakout moment for Benanti is a bit of an absurd circumstance for several reasons, the least of which is that 16 years ago Benanti was already playing the lead role—Maria!—on Broadway…when she was only 18 years old.
Benanti should be a household name by now. She isn’t. It’s bullshit. Pardon the language, but it’s appropriate in this situation. First, because the luminous actress is so freaking good in everything she does (if you tuned in to more than one episode of The Playboy Club, she was probably the reason why) she should be adored by all. Second, because Benanti is nothing if not unfiltered—so why shouldn’t we be, too?
Of course, just because she may not be a household name doesn’t mean she’s not known. When Benanti saunters on screen Wednesday night to make her entrance as Elsa—and Benanti always saunters—you’ll likely have one of those “where do I know her from?” moments. Allow us to help you.
You might know her from last season’s Matthew Perry sitcom Go On, where she played the female lead, a counselor helping Perry deal with his wife’s death. Or there’s The Playboy Club, on which she played veteran Bunny Carol-Lynne Cunningham, the character featured in those gorgeous promo ads that were everywhere. If you’re a regular viewer of Law & Order: SVU or Royal Pains, you’ve seen her as a recurring character. Or maybe you’re one of the 6 million people who watched her tearfully—and adorably—accept a Tony award for her performance as Gypsy Rose Lee in Gypsy in 2008.
And still maybe, just maybe, you’ve seen her impressive range of brilliant work over the years on the Great White Way, from her time as a teenage Maria to playing Cinderella in Into the Woods, Claudia in Nine, or Candela in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. (You’d be wise to click all those links.) She also has a live album, In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention, currently out—Matthew Perry even came up with the title.
Though it’s criminal that none of Benanti’s film and TV star-is-born moments have yet to birth more mainstream recognition, it’s fitting that the latest opportunity comes in the form of a musical that quite literally changed her life. “It really was the thing that decided my fate, in terms of what I would do for a living,” Benanti says of playing Maria at such a young age. She was 17 when she first auditioned, 18 when she first went on during star Rebecca Luker’s vacation, and 19 when she took over the role full time.
What does a teenager think about starring on Broadway as the character that every little girl grows up wanting to be, not to mention being held against the indelible portrayal of Julie Andrews?
'Let’s be honest. I’m playing for the gay audience here, which is pretty much what I do in every role.'
“I think when you’re young, at least for me, I was completely fearless,” Benanti says. “I came from a tiny town where everybody rooted for me. It never even occurred to me that people would root against you or not have your best interest at heart.” Does it feel the same way now that she’s making a return trip to stage Austria? “Now, 16 years later—which makes me want to jump out of a window—it’s really interesting to investigate the show through a character who I never thought I would play.”
Elsa Schraeder is a tricky role, requiring a daffy elegance, endearing arrogance, and enough nuance to make her a love-to-hate-but-really-love character. Benanti has two tricks for how she plans to pull it off. One: “Stealing shamelessly from Jan Maxwell, who was Elsa when I did it.” And two: “Let’s be honest. I’m playing for the gay audience here, which is pretty much what I do in every role.”
Still, when someone learns the Broadway ropes at such a young age, it’s hard to shake the muscle memory of a show the way they originally learned it. “I’ll start to hear the beginning of a song and I’ll start to be like, ‘Oh my god I missed my cue!…oh wait, that’s not me.’”
And she’s more than happy to hand those cues over to Underwood, whose casting as Maria was initially met with a cacophonous chorus of “huhs,” “seriouslys,” “oh god nos,” and “WTFs.” The backlash, to a certain extent, is understandable: Maria is Julie Andrews; they’re letting a country star perform it!? The backlash is also, to a large extent, ludicrous.
“Look, tomorrow if I decided that I was going to be a country star, I’m sure all country music fans would be like, ‘Ah, no. I don’t think so,’” Benanti says. “Because it’s not something that they’re used to.”
For the record, Benanti also says Underwood could not be working harder, and will be a “wonderful” Maria: “You know, look. Some bitches are always going to be bitches. So that’s that. But if you come in open minded and wanting her to succeed, which I hope people are, I think they’re going to be happy with what they see.”
And Benanti is all about lessons in patience. Though she burst on the Broadway scene at such a young age, her career is still filled with those lessons. “People being like, ‘This is it, this is going to be the show makes you a big household name”—that has happened to me multiple times,” she says. She’s also learned the painful lesson that, increasingly, people just don’t have much of that particular virtue anymore.
Take Go On, a series that was canceled after its first season, by many counts, undeservedly. After a rocky first run of episodes, the series, about a grief support group, became surprisingly optimistic, with a supporting cast of odd lunatics becoming lovable lunatics and the writing settling into an appealingly quirky tone. In other words, it got good. But it was too late, as critics and audiences had already written it off once the show failed to dazzle them from the outset. And it was a shame.
“It takes time for anything to reveal itself,” Benanti says, grieving Go On’s early death (how ironic). “If you look at the first season of Seinfeld, what the shit was that? If that was happening today, they’d be like, ‘Canceled! Goodbye.’” It takes time for great things to develop—hello, if you’re just hearing about the talented Benanti just now. The scary thought is what will happen if you don’t let them.
“We’re just going to get a bunch of crap all the time,” Benanti says. “Reality TV is great, but it can’t be the only thing. It’d be like eating chocolate cake 24 hours a day. It’s delicious. Like for dessert. Once in a while. But if you start to eat chocolate cake all the time, you’re going to get sick. I feel like as a nation we’re becoming diabetic, figuratively and literally. I feel like we’ve lost a sense of true culture.”
Now is when you need to do three things. One: reread that brilliant monologue. Two: watch Benanti make light of her canceled TV shows at the Tony Awards (clip above and here) for proof that not only is she not bitter, but she has a wonderful sense of humor about it all. And three: watch her delightful performance as Elsa Thursday night on NBC. We haven’t seen it yet, but we know it’s going to be delightful. Because Benanti is never not so.
Then you will realize why Laura Benanti is quickly about to become, like raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, one of your favorite things.