Let Her Entertain You: Laura Benanti Does It All

She's a Tony-winning Broadway star with a powerhouse belt, a gifted TV actress more than ready for her close up--and a lovable lunatic who wanders through Times Square dressed as Fosca from Stephen Sondheim's Passion, posing for photos and schmoozing with bewildered tourists.

Good luck finding a thread in the dizzying mix of Laura Benanti's career, which also includes cabaret performances, concerts, recordings and films: This Sunday she guest stars on CBS' The Good Wife. Earlier this month she drew raves as Rosabella in Frank Loesser's Most Happy Fella at City Center's Encores! (The New York Times called it her "richest work to date"). Last year she won praise for her star turn on NBC's live airing of The Sound of Music.

Next month Benanti debuts as a recurring character on Showtime's Nurse Jackie. And in her spare time, if there is such a thing, she tapes "Life with Laura," revealing a zany, online side that includes her must-see portrayal of Fosca in the Tkts Line.

On a rainy Saturday, several days before Most Happy Fella opened, she sat down to talk about her creative life -- and what it is that drives her to wear so many hats, in so many arenas, all at once.

JG: Are you comfortable with your career mix, or would you rather be focusing on one area?

LB: There are times when I ask -- am I not doing anything well because I'm doing everything? (She laughs) There are times when I'll be on a TV set and feel like, I'm not comfortable here, or then when I'm doing theater, I'm thinking, am I being upstaged because I'm used to a camera right in my face? There are times when I wonder if being a jack of all trades is a detriment. But then I feel, no, ultimately I'm happy with what I'm doing.

I love being on stage, I enjoy doing these little videos, and I really do enjoy TV. To be perfectly honest, TV provides me with the means to live a life where I can afford to do "Encores!" or work for Lincoln Center Theater or Roundabout. Because if you're not in a commercial production, you aren't really making the kind of money you can live off of. But I'd be lying if I don't feel a sense of -- what more do I have to do before you hit the next level of recognition?

JG: What does that mean?

LB: I look at some of my peers who are very successful with television shows (and it) elevates their visibility in a way that they have more opportunities. They create opportunities for themselves, but I do, too. Basically, I'm a scrapper. I recently sang in Florida at a benefit, with a half-hour set, and a man next to me turned and said: 'So what are your goals?" And I said, "What are yours?" I mean, isn't all this work enough? Isn't this enough?

JG: Did The Sound of Music open doors for you"?

LB: Yes. It's the difference between 1,100 people in a theater watching you and millions watching you on TV. Nowadays it seems every person I've met in Hollywood loves the idea of doing a musical on TV. Hopefully there will be this new golden age of people wanting to see live musicals on television. And of course I'd love to do another one.

JG: Turning to Broadway, what are the challenges of playing Rosabella in The Most Happy Fella?

LB: One of the biggest challenges is that women were written differently in the 1950s, and there's quite a bit of reacting on her part to what happens. She's shoved into a position and then has to make the best of it. It would be easy to come off like a victim, and I don't think that's very interesting. There's a basic feeling of -- how do I make her a human being?

JG: You've been nominated for four Tony awards, and won for your portrayal of Gypsy Rose Lee in the Sondheim-Styne musical. What was it like working with (the late director) Arthur Laurents?

LB: Arthur worked me a lot, and initially it wasn't great. We didn't get along so well in the beginning. He was a very tricky man, and I think he eventually learned that I don't need to be broken down and built back up. Once he figured out that his method of tearing me down was only doing that, and I was a puddle, then I think he realized, 'Oh, I've got to treat you differently.' And he did, and we loved each other after that. I don't have the heart to take his phone number and email out of my phone now. It's weird. I miss him. I grew to love him. But I'd joke with him and say, 'I'd hate to hear you speak about someone you don't like! Because you love me and you talk to me like you're a monster!' And he'd laugh."

JG: What's been your experience doing a cabaret act at 54 Below -- and your feelings about the genre?

LB: It calls for a completely different performing persona, and it's just about my favorite thing to do. I get to inhabit characters as I'm singing, but then I get to completely be myself in between songs. There's a huge improvisational component. I talk to the audience, it keeps me thinking and on my toes. When you're in a Broadway show, you're totally in character.

JG: If you had your druthers, what would be doing now in your career?

LB: If it were up to me, I'd be doing the modern equivalent of the Carol Burnett show, live on television. It would bring everything together for me. And I believe I am one successful television event away from being able to pursue that.

JG: Would this be on cable television?

LB: That's my goal, yes. I'm developing dramatic material now with a friend, and the story I want to tell is like Girls, but it would be more what happens to women when you're 34 years old, and you've grown up in this Sex and the City generation and you realize that none of that was real. Life doesn't happen that way. It's funny, and sad, too.

JG: What's in your heart, given the events of the past few years? (Benanti and her husband were recently divorced after nearly six years of marriage).

LB: Life is a mixed bag always, and I've learned a lot. Sometimes what breaks you open lets you grow. I've become more empathetic, which makes me a better actress, and a better human being. And I'm learning to be my own person, standing on my own two feet and not relying on anybody else. I feel very optimistic. Like I'm entering a new period, and discovering myself in a way I never have before.