Laura Benanti, Boyd Gaines, and Patti LuPone
(© Joan Marcus)
Laura Benanti, Boyd Gaines,
and Patti LuPone
(© Joan Marcus)
Not every actress is content to shine her light under the bushel, but Laura Benanti isn't just any actress. Sure, she's played such glamorous creatures as Cinderella in Into the Woods and Claudia in Nine, but she'll be in far less posh duds through the first two-thirds of City Center's upcoming production of Gypsy, which begins a three-week run on July 9. She will play Louise, the awkward tomboy who grows up to be the famed ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee, in the classic Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents musical.

"I am going to be the bottom half of a cow for a lot of the first act, and I don't care if that's not my finest moment," says Benanti. "I have always wanted to do this part, even when I was a kid. I just love the transformation she goes through. It's a complicated role; it's hard to play someone who's overlooked without being boring. But then we get to see this character she's created: Gypsy."

And how does Benanti feel about taking it almost all off during the show's famous strip number? "I got this email one day from Marty Pakledinaz, our costume designer, and it said 'I can't wait to fit you into your sequined bikini,'" she says with a laugh. "I'm actually a little shy. But I'll try to focus on my sense of humor and not on my thighs. Plus, I went on the Zone diet immediately."

Benanti was chosen specifically for the part by Laurents, the show's legendary book writer and director of the City Center production. "I had never met him before I went in to audition, and I was shaking with fear," she recalls. "But then he gave me two notes during the audition -- I won't say what they were -- which completely changed how I thought about the part. The bottom line is that we both want to create a different version of Louise than we've seen before, someone more complex and with more shades of gray. It's important to me to do something different. It used to drive me crazy when I was doing The Wedding Singer and people said I wasn't Drew Barrymore. If you wanted to see Drew, rent the movie."

Working with Laurents has been a remarkable experience in many ways, she adds. "First of all, so often when you're in the room, you're wondering what the playwright meant. Here, I can just ask him. Plus, he's really an old school director. The first three days of rehearsal we just sat around the table reading the script; we didn't try to put it up on its feet. We need more people like him. He's a genius."

As much as she loves Laurents, she's even more enamored of her co-stars, Patti LuPone, who plays the indomitable Mama Rose, and Boyd Gaines, who plays her gentle suitor, Herbie. "Patti is literally the most amazing actress I've ever worked with. Her generosity of spirit, her energy and commitment are beyond words. I remember meeting her backstage at Nine and thinking she was so nice, and then we met again working at the Westport Country Playhouse benefit. She has really taken me under her wing," says Benanti. "Boyd is just fantastic. He's always so calm, cool and collected. Some days, I want to ask him, 'Do you ever get mad?'"

Benanti almost didn't get the chance to do the show, since there was a chance she would be needed in California to do re-shoots on the pilot episode of her new TV show, Eli Stone. Luckily, series co-creator Greg Berlanti decided he could wait until the day after Gypsy closes to work with Benanti. "It's this spiritual drama about a man who can see what other people cannot see, and I play the mother of an autistic boy. It's very fun to film and so different from theater," she says of the series. "Then again, there are a lot of theater people on the show, including Victor Garber and Lorettta Devine, so there's a good chance that some day we'll all just break into song."

Laura Benanti and Steven Pasquale
(© Michael Portantiere)
Laura Benanti and Steven Pasquale
(© Michael Portantiere)
The New Jersey native has some mixed feelings about moving to Los Angeles, but she won't be going alone; her fiancée, actor Steven Pasquale, will be joining her -- at least through December. "I am lucky that Steven's TV series, Rescue Me stops shooting in July and doesn't start again until January. We're renting a house so there's room for friends and family, and my mom will definitely come visit. I talk to her every day."

The couple first met when they were cast opposite each other in the World AIDS Day benefit concert of The Secret Garden at the end of 2005. "We actually tried to stay away from each other for a while. I knew he was a great guy, but I was going through this terrible divorce (from singer Chris Barron)," she says. "So we stayed peripheral friends, and we finally got together last summer." Have they set a wedding date? "No, we're not in a rush. When you meet the person you're meant to be with, you can wait. Steven is a normal person, which is hard to find in our business."

If Benanti has any regrets at this auspicious time in her life, it's simply that the run of Gypsy is only three weeks. "With most shows, you don't feel like you know what you're doing for at least a couple of months," she says with a chuckle. "In this case, I figure I'll be in my bathroom in Los Angeles when I think, 'I finally got it.'"