When she's not explaining Shakespeare, Laura Benanti is busy preparing for her return engagement at 54 Below. Benanti's May debut at the midtown supper club garnered a live album entitled In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention, which was just released by Broadway records.
"It will be great to do these concerts and then have something to sell," she remarked, comparing herself to the CD-hawking hip-hop artists in Times Square. "I'll be like, 'Do you like comedy? Do you like comedy?!?!?'"
Benanti has a wicked sense of humor to complement her gorgeous voice. Add to that a keen ability to interpret a lyric and you have the makings of an unforgettable night of cabaret. TheaterMania spoke with Benanti about her show and why actors are in constant search of the "right" kind of attention. Is it because organic cucumber farming is just too hard? Read and discover:
The live recording of your 54 Below show was just released. Had you always wanted to do a live album?
I had always wanted to do an album, but I never could figure out exactly what I wanted it to be. I didn't know if I wanted it to be songs I wrote or theater songs. Then Broadway Records approached me about making a live album and I thought, well that's a good way to start.
Are you in constant search of the right kind of attention?
I just feel like, aren't all actors? Isn't the undercurrent of what we do for a living, "Please like me"? There's an exhibitionism to what we do.
Where do you think that comes from?
I don't know...maybe we weren't loved enough. I was loved enough! I don't know why I— I don't have any other skills.
You come from a show business family. Is this what you always wanted to do?
Yeah. I can't remember a time when I wanted to be anything else, except for three months in high school when I wanted to be an organic farmer. My dad said, "OK, mow the lawn then." So I said, "No thanks."
That's very hipster of you. I feel like there are a lot of younger people moving from Brooklyn to the Hudson Valley and starting organic pickle farms.
Yeah! I'm excited about that. I feel like the pendulum has to swing back to a more organic way of living. Otherwise we're going to literally burn ourselves off the face of the earth.
Do you shop at a farmers market?
Yes. There's one that I go to on the Upper West Side on Sundays.
Part of your childhood was spent around the Fifty-fourth Street area. Was that a crazy place to grow up?
Yeah. That's where I spent the first few years of my life. I lived on Fifty-fourth Street and Seventh Avenue. I have a vivid memory of seeing two taxi cabs getting into an accident right in front of me on the sidewalk where I was standing with my mom.
And now you're bringing your act back to 54 Below. Has anything changed from the show in May?
Instead of "Spring Is Coming," which is a Todd Almond song I do on the album, I'm going to sing the song I sang in The Tempest in the Park. It's a celebration of the album, so it's basically going to be the same show, but a lot of the patter will be different because I've had so many crazy summer adventures.
So much of the art of cabaret is in the audience banter.
That's my favorite part! If I could just stand up and chat with everybody for an hour I would. Don't get me wrong, I love singing. For me, the banter is my favorite part. I don't know why.
You included a lot of that in the album too.
I wanted people to feel like they were there. I don't want them to think they missed out on anything.
Why do you like performing at 54 Below?
I think the venue is so beautiful. I love the owners. They gave me my first job when I was seventeen years old [The Sound of Music on Broadway]. They are like family to me. I love working with them. The staff is so lovely. It feels like a little family, like everybody is hanging out in a fancy living room — your rich aunt's living room.
A lot of younger cabaret artists prefer rock and pop songs rather than Broadway standards. Where do you stand on the pop-showtunes spectrum?
I'm not a pop artist and I don't want to be one. I sing one mash-up of two pop songs that Todd Almond arranged. I sing a Joni Mitchell song, which I don't consider pop, but folk. The two songs I wrote are more folky. And then I do standards. For me, it's Broadway, primarily, then some folk, and a little bit of pop thrown in there just so I don't feel like a ninety-five-year-old woman.
How long have you been working with your music director, Todd Almond?
Todd and I have known each other for a really long time, but this is the first time we've done a cabaret show together. I've done many workshops and readings of his. I think he's so phenomenally talented and a wonderful human being. I would follow him anywhere.
You're going to be in The Most Happy Fella at Encores! What drew you to that role?
I called Jack Viertel, who I've known forever. I said, "Look, I really want to do The Most Happy Fella. Is that a possibility?" And he told me they were going to do that this season. I'd never worked with the director, Casey Nicholaw, before. So I came in and sang for it, which I hadn't done in a while. It felt good to win something. It felt good to come in and sing and have them want me to play the part. So I feel confident that we're all on the same page.
You've been kindly explaining Shakespeare to our readers...
Yes! This is my favorite thing I've done in a really long time.
If you could play any of Shakespeare's ladies, whom would you want to play?
I've always wanted to play Viola or Olivia in Twelfth Night. I've also always wanted to play Imogen in Cymbeline, but I'm too old now. I feel like I'm saying that a lot lately...
What are you excited to see in the upcoming Broadway season?
I'm excited to see The Bridges of Madison County. I'm a big fan of Jason [Robert Brown]. I love Bart [Sher]. He's a dear friend of mine. I'm sure Kelli [O'Hara] is going to be wonderful. And I'm excited for Steve [Pasquale]. He's always wanted to be starring in a Broadway musical, so I'm happy for him that he's going to have that experience.
See a video of Laura Benanti performing "Mr. Tanner" at 54 Below:
Order Laura Benanti's new CD here: In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention: Live At 54 BELOW.