A BOUNTY OF BENANTI By Peter Filichia
While listening to a terrific new album, I recalled the day in 1997 when I answered the telephone and heard a voice say “I know you’re going to think I’m crazy.”
I immediately recognized the caller as Walker Joyce, the artistic director of The Bickford Theatre in Morris Township, New Jersey. On that winter day he wanted me to know about his upcoming production of SHE LOVES ME.
“As Amalia,” he said, “I saw the perfect person for the role. I just had to cast her even though she’s only eighteen.”
I didn’t quite question Walker’s sanity, but I was surprised. Amalia Balash in SHE LOVES ME is a single woman who’s been unattached for quite some time. When Barbara Cook originated the role in 1963, she was almost twice eighteen. Thus Cook was age-appropriate for a woman who’s no longer content to wait for Mr. Right and who’ll take matters into her own letter-writing hands and answer a lonely-hearts ad.
That’s not usually what eighteen-year old kids did in 1930s Hungary.
“I know, I know,” said Walker, well aware of what I was thinking. “But if you heard her, you’d understand. And you will hear her and be knocked out by what is sure to be a major, major talent.
“Her name,” he said, “is Laura Benanti.”
Walker Joyce was right. Here we are, nearly a quarter of a century later, and that “terrific new album” I mentioned in the first paragraph is called LAURA BENANTI.
Alas, as excited as Walker was that day, he was just as morose on his next phone call.
“We lost Laura Benanti,” he said. “She got a small part in the Broadway revival of THE SOUND OF MUSIC.”
Indeed, it was small: The Postulant. Act One, Scene Thirteen of THE SOUND OF MUSIC starts with The Mother Abbess addressing two women.
“Sister Sophia,” she says. “Take our new postulant to the robing room. Bless you, my child.”
The Stage Directions say “The Postulant Kneels. The Mother Abbess blesses her.” And that’s all we see of The Postulant until the curtain call (in which she’s undoubtedly the first person to take one).
Still, as Dorothy Fields wrote, “It’s not where you start – it’s where you finish.” A mere thirteen months after Benanti had her fifteen seconds of fame in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, she was portraying no less than Maria Rainer von Trapp.
This was a role for which she – not yet twenty, mind you – was indeed age-appropriate.
What’s more, Benanti was playing opposite a bona fide star: Richard Chamberlain. Some ingénues might well have been intimidated when facing this three-time Golden Globe winner and four-time Emmy nominee whose star on Hollywood Walk of Fame was then being readied.
Not Benanti. She was magnificent, especially in the scene where she first gives the Captain (if you pardon such a word in a show with a religious bent) hell. The way she castigated him for not paying more attention to the children she’d already come to care about was riveting. The former Postulant who had dropped to her knees was now metaphorically bringing the Captain to his.
All this occurred to me while hearing her sing “Go Slow” on LAURA BENANTI. The song is so associated with Julie London, a sultry chanteuse of the fifties, that Michael Owen, her biographer, chose its title for the name of his book.
It certainly wouldn’t be the right title for a Benanti biography, given that her career has been on a fast-track since Day One.
Benanti’s rise to Maria occurred late in the run, so many Broadway fans didn’t discover her until SWING! which provided her with the first of her five Tony nominations. Hear her on the cast album become purposely arch with trilling that’s thrilling on the verse of “Two and Four.” Then she lets down her musical hair in the far less rarefied Duke Ellington tune with a Don George lyric that she justifies: “Hit Me with a Hot Note and Watch Me Bounce.”
Benanti’s second Tony nod came for her Cinderella in the 2002 revival of INTO THE WOODS. Thus no one will be surprised that she does a Sondheim song on LAURA BENANTI. But it’s not one that Cinderella or any other Sondheim character sings. No, Benanti has met the monumental challenge that Linda Lavin first faced in 1966 with THE MAD SHOW: “The Boy from …” with music by Mary Rodgers.
If you don’t know Astrud Gilberto’s recording of “The Boy from Ipanema,” head to YouTube and hear her breathy voice so you’ll fully get the joke. As for the lyrics, they suggest that Gilberto is in love with said Boy who “when he passes, I smile – but he doesn’t see.” Sondheim concocted a reason for the Boy’s inattention and managed to also sneak in a fifty-eight letter word that must be the longest one ever heard in a musical theater song (or virtually anywhere else).
But Benanti’s maneuvering through “The Boy from …” is nothing compared to the lickety-split, manic song that she conquered in WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN. “Model Behavior” had her call a friend, leave a message, and when it wasn’t returned, call TEN more times with increasingly frantic messages. For this, Benanti received her fourth Tony nomination.
Whoops, forgot Number Three. Each of the five actresses who had opened as Louise in a Broadway production GYPSY received a Tony nomination. But Benanti is the only one who wound up winning and spinning a Tony.
And Number Five? Yup, Benanti got to play Amalia in SHE LOVES ME, albeit thirty-two miles east – and eighteen years later – on Broadway when she was, in fact, Barbara Cook’s age in the original.
And yet, and yet … how I wish that she could have done it in New Jersey as a teen. Would I have said, “Oh, that kid’s going to amount to something?!” Better still, would I have said “You know, she really pulled it off.”
The teen might have, for what we’ve learned about Benanti is that she’s what’s called An Old Soul. (Is it a coincidence that six of her eleven Broadway appearances have been in revivals?) For her first studio album, she goes way back to a song that was introduced ninety-one years ago in a Cotton Club revue. So be apprised that when you see the title “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me,” you won’t hear Zara Larsson’s recent hit.
Two of Benanti’s choices come from the fifties. In addition to “Go Slow,” there’s “The Party’s Over” from BELLS ARE RINGING. It is when Benanti stops singing and concludes the album.
From the sixties, Benanti revives two film songs. “Wives and Lovers,” the theme from the 1963 film of the same name, was one of the first hits from the soon-to-be-legendary Burt Bacharach and Hal David. “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” was the Oscar-nominee written by Michel Legrand, Marilyn and Alan Bergman for the 1969 cult favorite THE HAPPY ENDING.
Moving to the seventies, Benanti informs us of the “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” the only solo that Paul (THE CAPEMAN) Simon ever saw reach the top of the charts. And yet, this Old Soul can be pretty up-to-date, too. The album’s opening song appeared at the start of the new millennium: Rufus Wainwright’s “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” about obsessive habits, to which we all can relate.
Benanti puts new spins on three of last year’s biggest hits: Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Loved,” a Grammy-nominated Song of the Year; “Sucker,” the Jonas Brothers’ comeback recording; and “Lose You to Love Me,” the first song that catapulted Selena Gomez to the top of the charts.
Those who don’t know Broadway from Brooklyn have come to know Benanti for her hilarious and on-target parodies of a certain well-known politician’s third wife. Won’t they be surprised to learn of her prodigious vocal talent once they get the chance to savor LAURA BENANTI?
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.