Laura Benanti was just 17 years old when she was cast in her first Broadway musical -- 1998’s revival of “The Sound of Music.” Back then, Benanti understudied the role of Maria to Rebecca Luker -- though she went on to play Maria full-time when Luker departed the show.
Now, Benanti’s back in “The Sound of Music.” Though this time, the production is a little different. NBC is doing a live telecast of the stage play at 8 p.m. Thursday. It’s a callback to similar productions in the 1950s, like "Cinderella" starring Julie Andrews and "Peter Pan" starring Mary Martin. Benanti won’t be playing Maria this time -- that role goes to country superstar Carrie Underwood. Rather, she’ll portray Elsa Schrader, a role shortened in the 1965 film but restored to its original glory here.
This is all on top of what’s been a busy year for the Tony-winning actress. After the cancellation of her NBC show “Go On,” Benanti took on guest roles in “Elementary,” “Royal Pains,” and “Law & Order: SVU.” She also released her first album, “In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention,” which features a combination of pop songs, classic standards, theater favorites and original numbers, to rave reviews. And next year, she’s got at least two big gigs booked: A City Center Encores! production of “The Most Happy Fella,” alongside Cheyenne Jackson, and a recurring role on the sixth season of “Nurse Jackie.”
With all that in play, Benanti took some time to chat with In the Wings to discuss what it’s been like returning to “The Sound of Music.”
NBC4NY: Your career has been in theater and television, so doing “The Sound of Music Live” feels like the perfect hybrid for you.
Benanti: They cast the show well, with people who go back and forth in theater and television, like Christian Borle and Audra McDonald. There’s an innate understanding between all of us that you wouldn’t necessarily have if you’ve only done theater or only done television. And I think people like Audra McDonald have shown that you can be fluid with it. It doesn’t have to be definitive. For me, that’s the goal. That’s the dream: to be taken seriously in all of those mediums. It gives so much more versatility in how you live your life.
NBC4NY: What has the rehearsal process been like?
Benanti: For weeks before we got to set and started camera blocking, we were just in the studio rehearsing as if it were a stage show. There’s something about doing theater where it’s almost as if you’re going into war together. You become each other’s family. We had a little bit of that on “Go On,” but it’s just different when you’re viewed live. Opening night, your adrenaline is pumping like crazy. And you don’t have that same adrenaline on television. So this project has allowed our cast to bond in the way you bond in the theater. We’re all ready to go live.
NBC4NY: “The Sound of Music” is such a treasured piece. Did you have the same love for the show when you first came into it?
Benanti: Honestly, I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know those songs. I can’t remember even learning them -- it’s like I was born knowing them, weirdly. I wanted to be Julie Andrews, growing up. She was my idol. And I love the movie. I love it so much. Which is why I’m glad we’re not remaking the movie, because no one can remake that film. But I do think it’ll be nice to have the stage play preserved.
NBC4NY: The stage play is very different from the film.
Benanti: Very different. I had only ever looked at the show through the eyes of the character of Maria because that’s the character I played. So to now be looking at the show through the lens of Elsa Schrader has been a challenge. But very fun. My character sings two songs that were cut from the film, “No Way to Stop It” and “How Can Love Survive.” And I’ve done a lot of revivals. The trick for me is to approach it like it’s never been played before. Like it’s a brand new character. Though if I’m being honest, I’m stealing a little bit from Jan Maxwell, who played Elsa when I was Maria. But it’s thievery with love!
NBC4NY: You just released your first solo album, recorded live at 54 Below. Were you at all nervous to put out an album?
Benanti: At the beginning of any project, I always think it’s going to be an abject failure. Always! Within two weeks of rehearsal on a show I fear I’m going to be fired because I’m terrible. Putting this CD together, I assumed it was going to be a huge failure and the end of my career. It’s all very healthy. But Todd Almond (who, among other things, served as the show’s musical director and arranger) is one of my dearest friends, and he’s such an accomplished musician and composer and his arrangements are so beautiful. Once we had all the songs and started really digging into them, I started to feel like a normal person again.
NBC4NY: Your banter with the audience captured on the album was pretty amazing, including a chance encounter with a gynecologist…
Benanti: That was the funniest thing that has ever happened to me in my entire life. I mean, to say to a person, “Am I making you shy by insinuating that you can see up my skirt” and then that person be a gynecologist? Oh my god. You can’t write that stuff.
Below: Watch a 19 year old Laura Benanti discuss getting the role of Maria on Broadway in the 1998 revival of "The Sound of Music," from the award-winning short film produced by Rick McKay and Jamie deRoy: