Our Fair Lady!
Words William J Connolly
All we wanted was for a room somewhere in London with Laura Benanti singing songs in it. After all, she spends most of her days on The Great White Way singing about London in a rather impressive British accent – so having her here at Cadogan Hall feels like a homecoming of sorts.
For like the three of you that haven’t been near the internet in like forever, the Broadway leading lady is currently being showered with five-star reviews as Eliza Doolittle in the classic My Fair Lady – get the opening joke now, huh? And while it remains one of the most iconic stories and characters seen on stage, for Laura, it's more than just a role – it’s a dream come true. Eliza is somebody she’s wanted to play since she was a child.
“It’s magical and this has been my dream part since I was four years old,” Laura smiles as we chat direct from NYC, her adorable daughter Ella in the background. “If you look back at any interview I’ve ever done, I talk about how I want to do My Fair Lady.”
A proud working mum, outspoken LGBTQ advocate and Broadway leading lady; here we speak to Laura about working with Patti LuPone in Gypsy; her art being influenced by the political situation in America, and if her daughter Ella will finally let mummy sing at home. Loverly!
Laura, what does theatre mean to you?
Theatre is, for me, the ancient art form of communication. It’s something we’ve been doing around since we had fire and even since before that. It’s the way we communicate our stories from generation to generation, in particular in this age of 15-second attention spans and all of us being so obsessed with our screens. It’s an opportunity to put our phones down and all feel our hearts beating at the same place and at the same time as we enjoy these performers who are putting their heart and soul into this story for us. It almost feels like… I don’t want to say going back in a way that feels like theatre isn’t new anymore as it’s always changing, evolving and growing like we are as people, but I feel like it’s a way for us to communicate with each other at a time where it doesn’t really feel like we do that anymore.
Have you noticed that people are longing for that level of escapism more and more?
I think that it’s something we’ve always longed for. If it’s not iPhones, it’s something else. There’s always been a need for us to escape our daily lives, but I do think the feeling of connection is maybe harder for some people to get into now because we’re so used to text connection which is a very different thing. I think audiences have always wanted an escape and so I don’t know if it’s now more than ever necessarily, but I know for myself that I need it more than ever.
Thinking back through your career, you’ve had the chance to work with some of the biggest names and be involved in some of the greatest projects. Do you have one that stands out?
Gypsy, for sure! I mean… Patti LuPone is one of my favourite people on this earth. I love her with all of my heart and getting to perform and sing with her in that iconic role and in that iconic show was a ‘pinch me’ moment. And then getting to meet Gypsy Rose Lee’s son and have him hug me and saying how much I remind him of his mother was all just a really incredible time.
And that Tony Awards performance is literally iconic!
Oh my gosh, I will never forget that for as long as I live. To see every single person in Radio City Music Hall leap to their feet, I’d never seen that before – and I’ve done multiple Tony Awards. Every single person leapt to their feet, it was unlike anything I will ever experience again most likely.
Not that you ever would, but did being in that show with Patti also teach you to never use a mobile phone in a theatre?
Oh yeah. The thing about theatre that’s so incredible is that it’s not meant to live beyond the moment. And so, to take out your phone and film it is to turn it into something else. You can’t make a three dimensional thing into a two dimensional event and have it carry the same weight.
You’ve worked with Patti, so who is next on the wish list of people to work with?
Oh my goodness. I mean… I always want to work with Patti again, for sure. I’ve worked with Chita Rivera, Antonio Banderas. Who would I want to work with, that’s a great question? Look who is not going to say Meryl Streep? I would probably be arrested by the theatre police if I did not say Meryl Streep. Angela Lansbury?! I love Angela Lansbury, she’s amazing!
The roles that you play are always varied. Are you drawn to roles that are challenges and different to the last?
Yes, absolutely! I really have tried in my career to diversify myself because it’s very easy in any industry to be pigeonholed. I started as a young person playing Maria in The Sound of Music at 18 and then more serious roles like Cinderella from Into The Wood – more ingénue roles. I made an effort to do straight plays and take on more full of character in nature because I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself as just the ingénue. Not that there’s anything wrong with that but I wanted a career like Angela Lansbury or Patti LuPone where it extends beyond wide-eyed soprano world. And with those roles, I tried to view those characters with a wisdom or a sense of humour that hadn’t necessarily always been there before. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was a departure from what I’d done before.
How does the current political rhetoric in America impact your art?
I have put a lot of effort into maintaining my values, despite the values of the people in office not reflecting what I believe. I produced an album called Singing You Home - Children's Songs for Family Reunification. We have a wide array of really incredible artists and it’s a dual language album where all the proceeds go to reuniting the families separated at the border. I’m really trying to use art for good. Even with my Melania Trump impression on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, I hope to bring levity but also it is a skewering of sorts and I feel grateful that I have an opportunity to give voice to my beliefs in a way that’s humorous and therefore more palatable for people.
Does impersonating Melania Trump come with a backlash?
Yes, I’ve got death threats, people have threatened my child. It’s been all through Twitter which is terrifying, but I’ve had quite a bit of hate come my way. That’s always scary.
One thing you’re incredibly outspoken about is LGBTQ advococy. You’ve used your voice and platform to speak up. As an ally, do you feel the rising concern from queer people about their rights and their place with both America and the wider world?
I do. Yes. I don’t think it’s just here in the States but all over the world, we are seeing now a genocide of queer people in more than one place – and that to me is absolutely terrifying. My late uncle was gay and an incredible drag performer and he, when I was young, had a partner who was black. In the 70s and 80s in Washington D.C. to be a gay man with a black partner was taking your life in your own hands, basically. He lost many of his friends to HIV/AIDs in the 80s and he taught me from a very young age, and my parents, that love is love. It’s been a very important part of my life on a personal level sine I can remember. And now, I think certainly queer people being subject to hatred to violence is not new, but I do think in an era where we have Queer Eye, Will and Grace and this openness, it feels terrifying to me to know that some queer people are afraid for their lives.
It does seem almost impossible to understand that your country operates a military ban on transgender service people.
Urgh. We have a Commander in Chief that has never served… in any capacity! The fact that he is saying that people who are willing to risk their lives for their country and not allowed to do so because of how they identify, I literally cannot even wrap my brain around it. I. Do. Not. Understand. I cannot understand it and I never will.
I know that a big part of your time on Broadway is about the balance between being a mum and being a leading lady. Do you think the theatre community is becoming more welcoming to new parents?
Y’know, I don’t know the answer to that, really. I can tell you that My Fair Lady has embraced Elle wholeheartedly. Her best friend is Rosemary Harris who is 91-years-old and had dinner with in between shows. Ella does dance performances for the cast, and they have been incredible about having her there in between shows. I bring her to every single Stephen Colbert performance and they’re also incredible. For me, being an actress is all I’ve ever known and all I’ve ever wanted but so is being a mom to Ella.
And I love the interview you did where you said she’s not the biggest fan of your singing. Is she a fan yet?
Laura: Now she sort of does. Ella, do you like mommy’s singing?
Ella in the background on the phone: Yes.
Laura: Ella has a beautiful voice. Can you sing loverly? All I want is a… Ella has a beautiful voice. Mommy is now allowed to sing more than she was used to. Before it was not at all.
Let’s talk about My Fair Lady as it’s one of the best shows ever. Are you just having the best time?
I am. I legitimately am, even on the days where I’ve not had a day off and am so tired. I feel genuinely thrilled when I’m on a stage. There’s not a moment where I’m questioning why I’m doing this. It’s magical and this has been my dream part since I was four years old. If you look back at any interview I’ve ever done, I talk about how I want to do My Fair Lady. When it first came around, I’d just had Ella. I couldn’t believe that both my dreams were happening at once and I chose to be with Ella. When it came back around and offered me to replace, I was beyond excited. It’s seven shows per week instead of eight, which is amazing.
And finally, we are here for your concert at Cadogan Hall. As your audience are sat waiting for your arrival, how do you think you’ll be feeling?
Oh my gosh, I’m beyond excited! The last time I went to London, I was 15. I have not been in many years and the idea of playing this hall is thrilling. I’m very excited! I will have flown on the Friday night and fly back on Monday to do the show so it’s going to be a quick dip but I’m so excited.
And being here for a quick visit means it’s the perfect excuse for you to come back and maybe see you in the West End?
I mean… I would love that!
Ella in the background on the phone: Bye bye!