Laura Benanti Soars To Broadway & Beyond

Laura Benanti jumped from Paper Mill Playhouse to the Great White Way. Now the Tony winner from Kinnelon is adding TV roles and comedy to her growing résumé.

Laura Benanti earned Broadway kudos as a singer and actress. Now audiences are seeing her comic side. “She’s a goofball like Lucille Ball,” says Patrick Parker of Paper Mill Playhouse.
Laura Benanti earned Broadway kudos as a singer and actress. Now audiences are seeing her comic side. “She’s a goofball like Lucille Ball,” says Patrick Parker of Paper Mill Playhouse.
Photo courtesy of Laura Duncan

Don’t try to put Laura Benanti in a box. The singer/actress from Kinnelon has starred in Broadway musicals—earning five Tony nominations, winning once—and been featured on numerous television shows. She’s even created a recurring character based on First Lady Melania Trump for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.

“I don’t like being pigeonholed, just for my own sense of creativity and mental freedom and agility,” says the ebullient 38-year-old. “I really like doing a wide variety of things.”

One of those things is her solo show, Tales From the Soprano Isle, an evening of singing and storytelling. It comes to South Orange Performing Arts Center on March 10. She’s also currently appearing in The Detour on TBS, a comedy about a dysfunctional family, produced by comedians Samantha Bee and Jason Jones. The show’s third season premiered January 23.

All this comes on the heels of her latest Broadway stint, along with Amy Schumer, Keegan-Michael Key and Jeremy Shamos, in Steve Martin’s absurdist comedy, Meteor Shower, a limited-run production that ended in January.

Benanti’s passion for performing started young.

“She was theatrical from the get-go,” says her mother, Linda, a veteran vocal coach, who in her performing days appeared frequently in regional theater. Linda recalls her daughter as a 2-year-old, hamming it up on a sled in the family’s apartment. “She would get up on that sled and go, ‘Preeesenting!’ and start her routine.”

Benanti grew up listening to her mother’s voice lessons, first in a New York apartment, and from about age eight, in the family’s Kinnelon house with stepdad, Sal Benanti. “When she was a baby, she’d fall asleep under the piano, so some of it got in there very early by osmosis,” says Linda, who gave up her acting career to care for Laura and her half sister, Marielle.

As Laura got older, she took her own turn at the piano with her mother, who became her vocal coach. Linda still lives and teaches in Kinnelon.

Benanti, left, with her mother and vocal coach, Linda. Lately, the two talents have been sharing the stage in a cabaret show.

Benanti, left, with her mother and vocal coach, Linda. Lately, the two talents have been sharing the stage in a cabaret show. Photo courtesy of Alexa Brown

“I was always weird, but I was really driven,” says Benanti about her high-school self. “I was always the kid who was listening to musicals.” Naturally, she took to the boards at Kinnelon High School, appearing as Golde in Fiddler on the Roof, Fiona in Brigadoon, and Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! for which she won Paper Mill Playhouse’s first-ever Rising Star Award as a junior in 1996.

“It was a really big deal, and it was the start of my career,” says Benanti. “I owe pretty much everything to Paper Mill Playhouse.”

The role of Dolly Levi is written for an alto, but Benanti is a soprano, so she sang the part up an octave. “Everybody sat up and took notice because, even at 16 years old, her voice was such an exquisite instrument,” says Patrick Parker, Paper Mill’s associate artistic director.

Benanti didn’t participate in her high school senior-year play because she was cast in a Paper Mill drama, Jane Eyre, alongside Millburn native and future film star Anne Hathaway.

Next, Paper Mill asked Benanti to play Antonia in Man of La Mancha. Not wanting to miss prom and graduation, she declined. But when the actress who was cast in her stead left a few weeks into the show, Paper Mill approached Benanti again. This time, she signed on. The role allowed Benanti to join the Actors’ Equity Association, establishing her as a professional with perks like access to Equity-only auditions.

In 1997, Benanti was two weeks into her freshman year at New York University when she was offered a role in a Broadway revival of The Sound of Music as an understudy for Rebecca Luker, who played Maria. Conflicted, Benanti called Parker. “I told her, ‘My darling, you just got a job that most people don’t get even after college. You can always go back to school, but my advice is to take the job,’” says Parker. “She didn’t need college,” he adds. “She’s earned a PhD. in experience because she’s never stopped working.”

In time, Luker left the production. Benanti took over as the lead. She was just 19.

Benanti earned her first Tony nomination for Swing! in 2000 and added another for Into the Woods in 2002. In 2008, she won the Tony for her featured role as Louise in the 2008 revival of the musical Gypsy, in which she starred opposite Patti LuPone, who also won that year for her lead role as Mama Rose. Benanti was subsequently nominated for a Tony for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (2011) and She Loves Me (2016).

Her Broadway success owes much to her powerful voice and command of the stage, but Benanti’s talents stretch beyond belting out high notes. Over the past five years, Benanti has landed parts in hit TV shows, including Supergirl, Nashville and Nurse Jackie. In her current role in The Detour, Benanti plays Edie, an agent for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service who takes her job way too seriously.

Perhaps Benanti’s most visible role is what she describes on Twitter as “Faux-FLOTUS.” During an appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert in March 2016, Colbert held up two photos side by side, one of Melania Trump and one of Benanti. Benanti mimicked the future First Lady by squinting her eyes and pouting her lips as she joked, “I’m going to have a second career as an impersonator.”

Four months later, Benanti’s jest turned into a reality. After Melania’s infamous Republican National Convention speech, Colbert’s producers asked Benanti to work on her impression for a segment on the show. She had a few hours to master Melania’s gestures and accent. The initial bit was an instant hit; it now has 9.6 million views on YouTube. Since the first parody, Benanti has done others on themes such as locker-room talk (following the leaked Access Hollywood tape) and a response to Michael Wolff’s bombshell book, Fire and Fury.

“She’s such a rare bird in this business,” says Paper Mill’s Parker. “Her soprano voice is her bread and butter, but she’s also truly, deeply funny. She laughs at herself and makes everyone else laugh. You wouldn’t expect it, but she’s a goofball like Lucille Ball.”

How did the Broadway star develop her humorous side?

“I’ve cultivated my humor by watching my mother,” says Benanti. “She taught me to look at the world with a smile and a laugh.” But, she says, being funny doesn’t come naturally. “I work on it.”

Now, Benanti and her mother are sharing the stage. Last May, they did their first duet cabaret show, The Story Goes On, at Feinstein’s/54 Below in New York City. It was Linda’s first performance in 35 years. “Had I not been teaching all these years, I don’t know that my chops would have been ready for that,” says Linda. Their show stops in Washington, D.C., on March 9 and in Port Washington, New York, on April 14.

Benanti says performing alongside her mother is her new favorite thing. “She’s so remarkably talented and so gifted as a singer and as an actor that it was always heartbreaking to me that she was no longer performing.”

Beside their performing talents, Linda and Laura now have motherhood in common.

Benanti’s daughter, Ella Rose, who turned one in February, is already a music lover. Every morning, she toddles over to the turntable in the family’s uptown Manhattan apartment and taps on it until Benanti cues up some music. True to her Jersey bloodlines, Ella Rose is a Frank Sinatra fan.

Ella Rose is Benanti’s new priority, along with her husband, Patrick Brown, who works for Prompt, a startup that helps students with their college admissions essays. “But I also love my job,” says Benanti. “As women, we’re often told we can be one thing at a time, and I don’t think that’s true. My mother stopped doing what she loved to raise me, and I didn’t need her to.”

Benanti acknowledges she might be “more famous” if she focused on just one aspect of her career. “People tend to crown people who are easily identifiable as one thing,” she says. “But my goal was never to be famous, my goal was to be a working actor, and that’s what I am, and it’s a joy.”

Click here to leave a comment

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.