When Laura Benanti won the Tony Award for her performance in Gypsy in 2008, she ended her speech with a special thank-you to her mother — a woman she fittingly dubbed the "anti-Mama Rose."
If you've heard Laura's high C at the end of "Vanilla Ice Cream," you're familiar with Linda Benanti's handiwork. As Laura's first voice teacher, her mother shared duets with her in church and planted Laura on what she now lovingly calls "Soprano Isle" — a land sparsely dotted with vocal relics who pray at the altar of Barbara Cook. Even now, she will battle with poor FaceTime reception to get in an occasional lesson with her mother, who teaches at a studio in Kinnelon, New Jersey. As Laura says, "She will always be the person who knows my instrument inside and out."
However, before she became a mother and teacher, Linda was a performer herself. She left the business to raise her family — a sacrifice that has grown in significance for Laura after giving birth to her own baby girl just a few months ago. In the years since, Linda and Laura have had plenty of time to hone their relationship as both mother-and-daughter and teacher-and-student, but for the first time ever, they're trying their hand at a professional collaboration, with two shows at Feinstein's/54 Below on May 5 and 6.
Not only will it be their first full concert together, it will be Linda's first professional gig since the 1980 Broadway revival of Brigadoon (in which she is credited as Linda Wonneberger). It's a full-circle moment for what is now three generations of Benantis, but also, as the title of their show suggests, it may be Laura's musical way of "secret"-ing her hope that The Story Goes On for the woman who gave her a voice.
What made you and your mom decide to put this show together?
It sounds so gross to say, but I was honored at 54 Below and my mom and I sang "Children Will Listen" together. It went so well that 54 Below asked us if we would be interested in doing our own show. It was sort of terrifying for my mom, because she was a professional performer, but she hasn't performed in this capacity in 35 years. So after a little convincing, I got her to say yes.
What songs are on the bill?
She's singing some songs that inspired her as a young person. She was inspired by Julie Andrews and Judy Garland and Joan Sutherland. I'm singing some standard stuff that I've sung in shows. I'm also singing a song by Tori Amos and another by Joni Mitchell. And then we're just telling stories and anecdotes from our lives as individuals and also through our connectivity as mother and daughter. And of course the fact that I now have a nine-week old baby is playing into my understanding of what being a mother is and what being a daughter is.
How has your daughter changed the way you see your relationship with your mother?
It's such a profound question that begs a much longer answer. But it has given me a great appreciation for the sacrifice my mom made in terms of deciding to no longer be an actress so that she could have a schedule that was easier for her in terms of being a mom to me. I've always had an appreciation for it, but even more so now I realize what a sacrifice she made. And then also the overwhelming cellular intensity of giving birth and all that comes after — trying to figure out what kind of mother you're going to be. It seems from the very beginning of life that it's a process of learning how to let your children go. I had a very rigid idea of how I was going to be a mom and what that would look like and already I'm having to realize, "No, that's not what works for my daughter." So already at nine weeks, I'm in the process of being like, "OK, I gotta let her go a little bit." Circling back to how that pertains to my relationship with my mom and this concert, it all feels very profound and meaningful to me right now. It's just a gig at 54 Below. I get it. It's not changing the world, but it's changing my world a little. It's a culmination of my entire life, my mom's entire life, and now weaving in the little life of my daughter.
What is it like for you to see your mom step back into the world of performing?
Even in these rehearsals, watching her just fills me with this tremendous sense of love and also a wish that she had been in a position where she could have nurtured the creative part of her while still being a mom. Unfortunately, it wasn't the hand she was dealt. She had a very particular set of circumstances in which she didn't feel like she could make that decision for herself. Regret is a wasted emotion but I do wish for her that she had that opportunity and I'm so grateful that she has it now. I would love to see this be the beginning of a new career for her — or a return to her soul really.
Is there a part of the show you're particularly looking forward to?
My mom and I have a medley of songs that we used to sing together when I was a little girl. There's choreography involved. We're pretty pumped.
Where have you been rehearsing that?
In my apartment — while I hold my daughter.
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