Best known for her starring role as Ruth Stein in Jerry Herman’s musical Milk and Honey, soprano Mimi Benzell began her career as an opera singer and had already hit several milestones by her early twenties. She came from a musical family, with a grandfather who sang Jewish folk songs in Russia before moving to America.
Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1924, Benzell attended high school in Brooklyn and received musical training at the David Mannes School in Manhattan. In 1945, she debuted at the Metropolitan Opera with the fireworks display of the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute. Reviewing the twenty-one-year-old’s debut, New York Times critic Olin Downes praised her technique and drama, and she soon went on to sing under such eminent conductors as Bruno Walter and Erich Leinsdorf. Among the operas in which she performed at the Met – often in smaller roles – were The Barber of Seville, La bohème, Boris Godunov, Carmen, Fidelio, Hänsel und Gretel, Lakmé, The Marriage of Figaro, Mignon, Rigoletto, Roméo et Juliette, Der Rosenkavalier, and Siegfried. At the Met she also took part in numerous benefit concerts for Jewish organizations in the 1940s.
She reached a nationwide audience in the late 1940s and early 1950s through numerous television performances on Cavalcade of Stars, Toast of the Town, and The Colgate Comedy Hour. Despite her solid career in opera, Benzell eventually turned to operetta and musical theater, starring as Nadina in a television production of Oscar Straus’s operetta The Chocolate Soldier (based on Shaw’s Arms and the Man) already in 1950. The following year she starred alongside Broadway legend Alfred Drake in a studio recording of Rudolf Friml’s operetta The Vagabond King, based loosely on the life of the great French fifteenth-century poet François Villon.
In her mid-twenties, Benzell also began performing in nightclubs and sometimes surprised her clientele, who knew her as an operatic soprano, by belting out the blues; she commented that she was “making a lot of people like opera that never could stand it before.”
In 1961 she made her Broadway debut, creating the role of Ruth in the original cast of Herman’s Milk and Honey (1961), which earned a number of Tony® nominations, including those for Best Musical and Best Composer. The action takes place in what was then modern-day Israel, with its daily struggles, and the central plot revolves around the growing love between the American tourist Ruth and the Israeli Phil, who is married, though long separated from his wife. Benzell sings on the original Broadway cast recording, with fellow Met veteran Robert Weede as Phil.
Although Milk and Honey marked Benzell’s sole appearance on the Great White Way, she continued to be a popular presence in the United States through her appearances as a panelist on the game show To Tell the Truth in the 1960s. Benzell succumbed to cancer at age forty-seven in 1970.