BY DAVID NOH | After some very high profile television work, Laura Benanti is returning to the musical stage as waitress Rosabella in the Encores! revival of “The Most Happy Fella” (New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St., through Apr. 6; nycitycenter.org). As exquisitely pretty and earthy real as ever, she took some time off from her whirlwind rehearsals to chat.
“My manager and I put together a list of shows I want to do,” she said, “because I want to come back to Broadway. This was second after my ‘My Fair Lady,’ and then it so happened they were doing it at Encores!, so it worked out perfectly. In this, I get to use my more soprano voice. I hate to use the word operatic because there’s a misconception that it’s an opera. It’s not — it’s just a sung-through musicals. I like using my fuller soprano because I spend so much time fake belting that it’s nice to do what my instrument naturally wants.
“It’s a complicated piece, very grown up, and it’s easy to play her as a victim because she’s constantly being put on the defensive. She works in this crappy place where this guy’s hitting on her and then she gets a love letter from Tony, someone who sends her a picture. So she thinks he’s one person, moves her life to Napa Valley, and realizes she’s been duped. But Tony is in a horrible accident and she feels like she can’t leave, so she marries him and makes the best of it. But then another set of circumstances kicks her, which is life. The trick of her is not letting her be a victim because in fact she’s very strong, like iron.
“The music is so beautiful! That’s why I look like a crazy maniac — I’ve been sobbing hysterically all morning. We only have a week to do a Broadway show — it’s crazy — but my favorite song to sing is ‘Warm All Over,’ and my favorite song to listen to is probably ‘My Heart is So Full of You.’ When the entire company sings it at the end, it makes you feel warm all over.”
The show’s casting director, Jay Binder, gave Benanti her first job when she auditioned for him at 17 for “The Sound of Music,” and, in full circle fashion, she recently did the TV movie, playing Baroness Elsa Schrader. I told Benanti that I have encouraged all my friends to call that version “The Baroness” in honor of her elegant, scene-stealing work, and she said, “You do?! My favorite hashtag that night was ‘Gays for Elsa — winner!,’ actually my favorite thing that’s ever happened to me! I feel such an affinity for the gay community. My Uncle Bob was my favorite uncle and he had a partner. I remember my grandma, who was born in the 1920s, said to my sister at age four, ‘Go upstairs and get Uncle Bob and his friend.’ My sister said, “They’re not friends, they wuv each other,’ and my grandmother said, ‘You’re right. They do love each other.’ That was so beautiful and honest. He was one of the founding members of the Washington, DC, gay men’s chorus, with whom I sing a lot [with an engagement coming up May 18; gmcw.org]. I played Maria and he played Mother Abbess the last time, and he died a few months later.
“So when we started the TV movie, I sort of knew who I was performing for and it made my character come together. I thought, ‘I’m not performing for Middle America, I’m playing this part for the gays.
“That was a triumph and really good for my career. I don’t mean to sound like a weird hippie but I feel like the universe has been bringing me back to my roots, with ‘Sound’ and now, after two other Encores! appearances, here I am again. I feel this year the universe has been saying to me it’s time to regroup and get back to where you started. Forty-four million people watched it, and what I’m proud about is people now recognize me for that, also my four lines from ‘Law and Order!’”
Her 2011 TV series, “The Playboy Club,” was unfortunately cancelled after only three episodes: “That was so good but the feminists got in the way, and Million Moms Marching, and whatever. Because of the title, they were disparaging it before they ever saw it and that’s a shame. I wish it had been called something else, like ‘The Club,’ and if, instead of Bunny outfits, we were in something else — it would still be going. Hilarious, so ‘Glee’ is allowed to have a girl basically raping a guy in a wheelchair and I can’t be dressed like a Bunny? ‘Dancing with the Stars’ has more risqué content than our show.”
I’m particularly interested to see what dramatic depth Benanti brings to “Fella,” in light of certain serious life experiences she’s had since we first met, at the time she was doing her Tony-winning turn in “Gypsy”: “Yeah, it’s not my favorite thing that I’ve been divorced twice before I’m 35. But it informs you, and Alan Cumming said something really interesting to me, because I said, ‘I feel like a failure.’ He said, ‘No. You keep trying. You’re brave that you keep handing your heart to another human being, like ‘“You can hang on to this for a while,” and it’s not up to you what they do with it.’ I thought that was very beautiful and generous and it helps me because there is an embarrassment to it and a sense of sadness and failure. Like if I just read on paper ‘divorced twice,’ I’d say, ‘Well, that girl’s a mess!’ But I know that I’m not. It’s really unfortunate circumstances, and I’ve learned a lot about myself and the person I want to be and what I need.
Benanti recently released her first CD: “It was my act, recorded live at 54 Below complete with patter, and I’m really proud of it. I changed the title from ‘Let Me Entertain You,’ to ‘In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention’ because this is an atypical cabaret show, not me draped across a piano singing sultry, but basically stand-up comedy and singing. I know that Broadway records are a niche market but if you love live music there’s nothing like hearing it, no auto tune like everybody on the radio sounding like robots. You can get it on iTunes and Amazon.
“I make jokes about Studio 54, like ‘Everything in the room is entirely made of cocaine, and in that corner Liza Minnelli gave birth to a baby entirely made of glitter.’”
On March 26, the 50th anniversary of the night “Funny Girl” opened on Broadway, Phil Bond presented a fantastic tribute concert to it with a special guest star, Mimi Hines, who very successfully took over the role after Barbra Streisand. At 80, Hines simply ruled over everyone, with her comic chops still very much in place on “Private Schwartz,” and her voice an uncanny, melting caress for “The Music That Makes Me Dance,” which she prefaced with a magical evocation of that particular moment in the show. This show biz survivor has had the most colorful, famous friend-knowing, Johnny Carson/ Ed Sullivan-appearing, Vegas heyday roller coaster of a life.
“This anniversary is actually 49 years and one week for me, which was when I took over from Barbra,” she recalled. “My favorite songs in the show are all the ones that aren’t in the movie, and I’m proud to keep the spirit of Jule Styne and Fanny Brice alive.
“Jule had told me and Phil [Ford, her comedian husband and stage partner] about the show two years before, when he came to see us in the Catskills, saying I’d be perfect for it. Then Barbra came along and she was absolutely perfect because visually she had a resemblance to Fanny, with a lovely success already in ‘I Can Get it for You Wholesale,’ a hit record, so it went right to her, of course. I never dreamed it would be such a success.
“I met Barbra years before when she worked with Liberace, but she doesn’t remember that. That’s okay. I used to see her pop in and get ready for the matinee, stand in the wings for a few seconds, and then she’d disappear. When I opened in the show, she left me a giant blue marble egg, quite lovely.”
Hines literally slayed her audience back then— one man laughed so hard during “Private Schwartz,” he had a heart attack and died. Having done the show in three different theaters — the Winter Garden, the Majestic, and the Broadway — she recalled, “I asked Ethel Merman, which of the three she preferred and she said, ‘They’re all toilets, honey! But if I gotta like one, it’s the Broadway!’
“My Nicky Arnstein was Johnny Desmond, a hotheaded Italian, who would yell at me through some of the love scenes and you’d think, ‘What the hell kind of delivery is that?’ Next time, he’d have a caressing version because it all depended on what went on with the phones in his dressing room. He was opening a club and I don’t think the powers that be, better known as the boys, were giving him any help, so you could hear him yelling, a lovely but very volatile man.
“In the seduction scene he was screaming and bit me on the ear. Blood was trickling onto my beautiful periwinkle chiffon Irene Sharaff dress and in the blackout I said, ‘I don’t ever want you to scream at me like that again on the stage.’ He picked me up and kind of tossed me away into the arms of my hairdresser, Jimmy Nova. Jimmy lifted me into the air and I’m screaming and kicking and punching the air like an out of control cat. We go past Phil, who was playing Eddie, and somebody said to him, ‘Why didn’t you do something about it?’ Phil said, ‘What am I supposed to do, walk up to Johnny and say, “Who are you to let my wife hit you?”’ Oh yeah, I forgot, I whacked Johnny during the blackout!”
Life on the boards back then certainly seems more rough and tumble than now, and Hines’ personal life was also full of bumps. When I told her she had the most disarming overbite since Gene Tierney, she said, “Oh, I loved Gene Tierney! I got my overbite fixed 10 years after Phil and I divorced when I married a Chilean playboy in 1984. He hit me — several hundred times — after having my teeth carefully wired in place after I knocked myself out onstage with a pratfall. The original tooth that got knocked out, got knocked out again, and then started growing sideways and I looked like Mortimer Snerd, so in 2004, I got permanent front implants.
“We tried unsuccessfully to recreate the overbite — Phil used to say I didn’t have protruding teeth, I had a receding jaw. They were a God-given piece of my talent, not awful buck-buck-buck, but very pleasant. Jack Paar used to call me the sexy chipmunk and everybody including me thought they were cute. Kaye Ballard now laughs when I call her up and say, ‘Kaye, I miss my teeth!’”
This year’s Jewish Home Lifecare gala at the Mandarin Oriental on March 6 was a super elegant, super worthy affair. Eight flourishing seniors were honored by the program “Eight over Eighty,” including marvelous lesbian trailblazer Edie Windsor. The organization showed a film depicting its plans for an impressive, new, green residence opening in 2018, and is making a strong outreach to the LGBT community, with its mission to provide a safe space where elders can live openly and proudly. That couldn’t be more timely: a 2011 National Senior Citizens Law Center survey revealed that fewer than 25 percent of seniors from our community felt they could be open about their identity with the staff of their long-term care facilities.
Another honoree, beloved actor Dominic Chianese, proved himself the hippest guy in the room with some tasty guitar selections.